Image: Sadie,

By Leola Dublin

Growing up, I used to love those Virginia Slims magazine ads that featured pictures of women from the 19th and early 20th centuries juxtaposed with saucy looking modern women smoking cigarettes. I grew up in a smoke-free home, and somehow the ads never convinced me that I should be a smoker when I grew up.

What I liked about them was the window into the past that they offered. I wondered what those women’s girlhood was like. Did they like school? Was it in a one-room schoolhouse? Did they have to do homework by candlelight? Did they secretly wish they could wear pants while riding those funny looking bicycles with the really big wheels? Looking back, I can see that part of the magic of those ads was that they made me think about how girls’ understanding of what is possible is completely context-dependent. This notion is at the heart of my research.

As a doctoral student, among other things, I examine the impact of marketing and media on adolescent girls’ identity development. What has been most surprising to me on this journey to my PhD is the resistance that I encounter from unlikely sources.

My favorite example involves a program I designed during my first year as a graduate student. The inspiration for the program was a halftime show at a home football game. All during the first half, I kept seeing really young looking girls flitting about in (to my old-lady eyes) the daringly short skirts and tight sweaters associated with cheerleading. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and assumed that there was some promotion where middle and high school cheerleaders got reduced admission to the game if they came in uniform. The stands were filled with young men who had clearly gotten an early start on their drinking. You could tell because they weren’t using their inside voices as they checked out the cheerleaders.

For their part, the girls seemed filled with the heady sense of their burgeoning sexuality: they danced suggestively to the music, squealed when they saw each other, fixed hair and makeup, and in general performed gender as only young girls can. The mystery of their presence went unsolved until halftime.

The announcer invited the stand to give a big welcome to a delegation of cheerleaders from across the state. As several hundred young girls took over the field and performed their routine, I was overwhelmed by sadness. It seemed clear to me that for many of those cheerleaders, this moment might be the pinnacle of their youth. I looked on the field and saw a bleak future of young women battling disordered eating, struggling to form an identity that wasn’t centered on their sexuality, growing up in an environment that encouraged them to be pleasers – of others – rather than themselves. I couldn’t stop crying.

I wondered why we weren’t celebrating all the girls who had made it to the state science fair, or who had gotten an A in math class, or were on the honor roll. The analytical part of my brain took over, and after a week, I had sketched out my program.

WINGS (Women in Graduate Studies) would be a one-week residential program that allowed girls between the ages of 9 and 15 to be paired with a woman in a graduate program. Participants could attend some classes, tour the campus, and get a sense of life both in and beyond graduate school. Girls could be matched up based on academic interests, hobbies, hometown, or other similarities. The point would be to reach out to girls who would otherwise never think about going to graduate school and broaden their realm of possibilities. WINGS could be like those Virginia Slims ads from my childhood, by sparking imagination.

I took the idea to the chair of my department (Women’s Studies) and asked what she thought of the program. Expecting her response to be similar to the one I got back from the Dove Corporation (this sounds great, please keep us posted), I was stunned to hear her shoot it down. What bothered her the most was that my project seemed “a little elitist.” My shock was visible, and she explained that the project seemed to be founded on the underlying assumption that every girl should go to graduate school. In her opinion, my project didn’t account for the fact that some girls simply might not be interested in going to graduate school. Despite my assurance that I just wanted girls to know that there were options beyond cheerleader, many of them with benefits that could significantly impact their lives, my chair was unconvinced.

It was at that point that I wondered how far we really have come in terms of advances for women and girls. The point of my project was never to tell girls what to do. It was simply to provide a window into a world that many girls will never know.

We know that educational attainment is directly related to earning potential. At a time when women still make 77 cents to every dollar men make, why wouldn’t we offer girls an opportunity to increase the amount of money they can make? Greater educational attainment has also been demonstrated to result in increased life expectancy and improved health (both physical and mental).

Why is it elitist to want more girls to live longer, healthier, better-paid lives? What does it mean when a woman who has dedicated her career to fighting sexism and patriarchy thinks that exposing young girls to something they might like constitutes some social coercion?

I’d like to hear from other folks, particularly mothers of young girls. If a local college or university offered a program (like mine, or differently structured) where your daughter could have age-appropriate exposure to the world of graduate education, and be partnered with a woman who is committed to being a positive role model and a force for change, would you consider letting her attend? Or would you dismiss it for being too elitist?

Leola Dublin is a third year doctoral student in the Program in American Studies at Washington State University. Leola’s interdisciplinary research examines the effects of mass media on identity development in adolescent girls, investigating the ways that gender, sexuality, race, and beauty are constructed and marketed. She is especially interested in the representations of African-American women’s bodies and the ways that young African-American girls negotiate these images as they attempt to define themselves. A native of North Carolina, Leola grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. She is currently preparing to take her preliminary exams this spring, and hopes to successfully defend her dissertation by May 2010.

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