Language is powerful – What do you convey in the words you use with girls?

Explore whether your conversations with girls are perpetuating or challenging gender biases.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations like The Representation Project and SPARK – along with books like Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, From Birth To Teen – more focus is being placed on understanding media and cultural messages about gender and the effects of these messages on the lives of girls and boys. For girls and women, these messages are often rooted in standards of behavior and appearance that are narrowly defined, unrealistic and unattainable. Many messages are highly sexualized, which can make it hard for girls and boys to understand differences between healthy sexuality and sexualization.

In addition to helping young people (and adults) learn to build their capacity to read and challenge these kinds of limiting media and cultural messages, many experts stress the need for adults to examine the language they use in their interactions with children and adolescents. Hearing adults use language that is “gendered” – that is, language that incorporates gender differences, stereotypes and biases – can deeply affect how young people think about and act toward themselves and others.

Whether you’re a woman, man, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, neighbor, youth leader or other kind of adult in the lives of kids, you can strengthen your ability to use language that contributes to the health and wholeness of girls and boys. Following are some suggestions for your interactions with girls:

  • Notice whether a girl’s appearance is the first thing you focus on. “You’re so cute!” “Don’t you look pretty today?” “That outfit looks so great on you – did you lose weight?” Throughout their lives, girls hear over and over again that their appearance is valued above all else. An overabundance of these kinds of messages from the significant adults in their lives can contribute to girls believing that their primary value lies within what they look like rather than who they are. Find opportunities to focus on girls’ intellect, abilities, skills, desires and other aspects of their physicality. Share with that newborn girl in your family how alert she is and how strongly she grips your finger (even if you think she has no idea what you’re saying, don’t underestimate the value of practicing these kinds of conversations). The next time you see your 2-year-old granddaughter, comment on her awesome ability to balance herself as she scoots across the room. Rather than asking the rambunctious group of 6-year-old girls who just arrived at your afterschool program to be more “lady like,” compliment them on their energy and ask them how they could put it to good use outdoors. If your teen daughter likes a popular female celebrity, ask what she admires about her. While she might mention that she admires the woman’s hair, style or body, she might also comment that she appreciates her talents, business skills, generosity or struggles she’s overcome – all of which can lead to deeper conversations about what it means to be female in our culture.
  • Provide a thoughtful response when a girl shares concerns about her appearance. Girls aren’t born hating their bodies – it’s something they learn. From an early age, many girls voice concerns about not “measuring up” to the standards of beauty they see reflected in their culture. When girls question their appearance (“Am I pretty?”) or share feelings of inadequacy (“I hate my body!”), we often provide automatic responses like, “You are beautiful.” Although these responses come from a place of care and love, this kind of feedback can unintentionally contribute to emphasizing the importance of physical beauty above all else. Practice responses that convey that you find this young person beautiful because of all the qualities that make up who she is.
  • Examine your self-talk about your own appearance. Although both men and women make disparaging comments about their own bodies, doing so is particularly prevalent among women. Watch what you model in your own self-talk and keep in mind that girls are constantly taking in your messages and thinking about how to apply them to their own lives. Rather than describing yourself as needing to “go on that new diet to lose weight,” talk about the need to take care of your body with healthy nutrition and fitness – and try to put these into action. Modeling healthy self-care, self-love and self-acceptance can be incredibly powerful for the young people in your life. During these conversations, also help girls think about the profit motive behind the pressure they feel to be perfect – billions of dollars are spent annually in the United States on cosmetics alone!
  • Take time to critique how gender is reflected in the words you use. We may not realize that using words like fireman, policeman, mailman, chairman or salesman can send subtle messages to kids that the people behind these titles are primarily men. Instead, use words like fire fighter, police officer, mail carrier, chair and sales clerk – words that are more inclusive and that help girls see possibilities in terms of their own future roles. Also challenge yourself about using the word “girls” when referring to women. Describing adult women as “girls” can send a message that undervalues and undermines the maturity and life experiences of women. Although referring to women as “girls” or “gals” may seem relatively harmless, there’s definitely a distinction between the ways that men and women are described within our culture – consider how rarely adult males are referred to as “boys.”

Becoming adept at these kinds of conversations takes practice, and it’s important for adults to “do their own work” by reflecting on their personal thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors related to gender and gender expression. It’s also helpful for us to do our own work around biases we may hold related to other areas of human difference, such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation (real or perceived) and disabilities. Find ways to hold yourself accountable – and to hold yourself gently – as you help young people along this important journey.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that cultural and media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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