Whether it’s the wage gap or catcalling, just about every woman on the planet has experienced some form of gender discrimination. But we’re working on ending it, right?
We Instagram Monday mantras, we buy products from brands with untouched ads, we even put Harriet Tubman on the 10-dollar bill. We earn more advanced degrees than ever before, we sell out arenas for women’s sporting events, we run for president.
Who run the world? Girls. We, the women of the 21st century, have created a celebratory and empowering version of feminism, to which we hold tightly. Feminism fuels us; we fuel it.
And yet, feminism often does not arrive in the lives of young women until they are just beginning to embrace the adult world. They are entering high school, college and the real world before understanding that they, too, are underpaid and objectified, overlooked and undervalued in our society.
Young women should not have to wait to realize they deserve respect after the first time they get catcalled on the sidewalk. Feminism should not be a part of self-actualization; it should be inherent.
Let’s look at some numbers.
In 2015, Common Sense Media found that over 50 percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 8 think that their ideal weight is less than their current size. Girls between the ages of 6 and 8. Let that sink in.
The same report explains that negative body image stems from repeated exposure to traditional and social media that are “gendered, stereotypical, and unrealistic.” If girls are spending elementary school years worrying about their waistline, what is happening to their mental health? Nothing good.
Children are impressionable; we’ve always known that. Long-term negative body image turns into anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD and depression, all of which occur roughly twice as often in women than in men, if not more. In fact, women are “up to 40 percent more likely than men to develop mental health conditions,” according to a study by a clinical psychologist at Oxford University.
This is not a coincidence. It is a call for action.
Roughly 70 percent of children with mental health illnesses do not have appropriate interventions at a sufficient age. This is alarming, but not surprising when considering that about half of all long-term mental health disorders develop by the time a child is a teenager.
So how do we fix this? By encouraging young girls to grow and learn, to love themselves and each other, to pursue their own interests, and to empower their peers. By paying attention to behavior linked to mental health issues at home. By having teachers and primary care providers like family nurse practitioners do the same at school.
A study by the Center on Education Policy found that students who experience consistent, positive encouragement and support are more likely succeed in school and report better mental health than those who do not.
This seems like common sense. Adults are smart enough to know that children benefit from positive reinforcement, but what happens when the same types of empowerment come from children’s peers? What if children knew to be tolerant of others, to support their peers, to value themselves?
Feminism isn’t just important for girls, it’s necessary for children of any gender. If we can teach children to empower each other equally, we can get rid of the stigma attached to three words that are detrimental to everyone: like a girl.
As soon as “girl” is no longer treated as a four-letter word, we open up a door to confidence, optimism and acceptance, which sustain positive, long-term mental health habits. Children don’t just need feminism, they deserve it.
Children deserve to lead healthy lives in adolescence so they can do the same in adulthood, contribute to society, and raise future generations as inherently feminist.
The point is not that we can do better for the next generation — we must.