Wanting to get home before the worst of Sandy hit Western Massachusetts, not knowing at the time how lucky we would be that the worst of Sandy would never hit Western Massachusetts, I zipped out of the school on Monday the moment my last class finished. Having passed up a potential trip to the YMCA, and with going outside on a run clearly out of the question, I decided to watch a movie while doing some Penn exercises. “Mean Girls” popped up as a suggestion on Netflix and, with the Humanities 7 media unit very much on my mind, I decided to watch it.
In the movie, as she prepares her costume for a Halloween party, Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady Heron comments, “In the regular world, Halloween is when children dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” (script-o-rama.com) The movie was made in 2004, and of course teenage trends come and go, but in some ways things haven’t changed all that much.
In Humanities 7 yesterday, as we were discussing images and themes in the media and how they affect girls, one student lowered her voice as she described a shopping trip with her mom to find a Halloween costume. Rejecting the adult costumes they were initially being shown as too inappropriate, they turned to costumes for young teen girls only to discover one of the first costumes they looked at was exactly the same as an adult costume. Another student commented on how she was worried that some of her friends had been considering costumes she felt were inappropriate, and a third student jumped in to say, “Have some self-respect. If you’re going to wear one of those things, wear something underneath it.”
The conversation had started by looking the covers of four magazines: “Fitness,” “Girls Life,” “Ms.,” and “Seventeen.” The students felt three of the magazines were oriented toward insecure people who wanted to look better, and the fourth toward women who believe in women’s rights. Three of the magazines were dominated by words and phrases like “amazing clothes,” “beauty,” “slim down,” and “compliments,” while the fourth (okay, it was “Ms.”; I can’t keep the secret any longer!) stressed themes like standing up for yourself and being successful. The photograph on the cover of “Ms.,” a woman in a black blazer calmly and confidently looking right at the camera, was described as “atypical.” We went on to discuss how the magazines (three of them, anyway) ended up creating three separate perspectives – who you are, how others are looking at you, how you can get pulled out of yourself to look at yourself – and in the process creating a situation where judgment was all but inevitable.
Not satisfied merely to describe the situation, nor even to passively resist the media pressure by refusing to give in, the students wanted to do something about it. Ideas began to accumulate faster than I could write them down. Running a special day (one suggestion was “Come As You Are Day”) where we could deliberately dress as we really were and not as we thought other people wanted to see us. Using the day as a fundraiser to make a donation to a body-positive organization. Creating a skit for Housemeeting in support of the day, to raise awareness, build body-positive feelings, and help the girls of SBS learn how to stay within and express their true selves. We will begin narrowing in on and developing these ideas today, on regular world Halloween (SBS Halloween will be on Friday, November 2).
I regret that I will not be able to be around this Friday (though I will be around on the 31st, bringing in vegan pumpkin cookies for Morning Meeting). Something tells me my students will not all be showing up in ridiculously short skirts, tank tops, and animal ears. Something tells me they are going to go as something creative, something fun, something they can feel good about. We all know by now that the research on girls’ schools shows that their alumnae are more inclined to draw their self-esteem from within and to work toward social justice than the average woman. These girls are showing the way – not so much by acquiring that urge, but more by preserving and developing it. Perhaps, unlike far too many women, their adult lives will not be one long costume party. Yet again – as they do pretty much on a daily basis – they make me proud.