I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of modern girlhood lately. My husband and I have 10 much-younger girl cousins between us, mostly in middle and high school, and I’m getting ready to buy Christmas gifts for many of them. I don’t have kids; instead of trying to guess what these girls might want, I just give them what I think every girl needs. This always brings out my inner bluestocking, a mash-up of Gertrude Stein, Jane Austen, George Sand, and Virginia Woolf, with just a bit of Jane Pratt on the side. This posse and I go to the bookstore to buy novels with smart, brave heroines that every girl should read.
I think every girl also needs Lesley’s advice. I think it’s so spot-on, I’m going to shamelessly add my own page to her open letter.
- Learn how to make and stick to a budget, and get in the habit of saving money now. This will help keep you out of unmanageable credit card debt. Credit will probably be a lot harder to get when you’re ready to buy a house than it was for your parents. Social Security is due to run out (to grossly oversimplify the problem) in 2037—which is about 20 years before you are due to retire. If Congress manages to fix it before then, great. Buy a vacation home or go to Europe or something.
- If you’re overwhelmed about college, remember that it’s just college. It’s important to go, if you can, but where you go is less important than it seems right now. Also, keep in mind that the amount of debt you graduate with will affect your life as much as—and likely more than—the name of the school on your diploma, so even if you have the good fortune to be able to weigh price against intangibles like prestige and “fit,” think twice about turning down an offer that will leave you with less debt.
- Learn a second language. Any language is good, but if you’re American and don’t have plans to move abroad, learn Spanish. Bilinguality is going to be the new typing—eventually, it will become a routine expectation.
- Fail miserably at something that matters, though not on purpose, and learn how to recover. Mistakes can be the best teachers, and learning how to survive embarrassment is actually a good confidence-builder.
- Take charge of your body. Make sleep a priority. If you drink, be a smart drinker. If you have sex, practice safe sex every single time. Make peace with your size and keep it healthy. Take care of your teeth. Eat your veggies. Don’t use a tanning booth. Do not start smoking. And vote. The government makes all kinds of decisions that influence your well-being. It’s not just abortion and birth control, although those are the show ponies that get trotted out when it’s time to argue about such things. It’s sex education, and Medicare funding (see item no. 1), and agricultural subsidies, and bike lanes, and occupational safety regulations, and food labeling, and drug trials, and school nurses, and pollution laws—need I go on? Even if you don’t believe the government should have a hand in any of these things, ignoring it won’t make it go away. So pay attention and participate.
- Being alone is not the worst thing in the world. It’s OK not to have sex, or make out, or even kiss—whether you set those boundaries for yourself or it just works out that way, it doesn’t make you any less worthy of respect. And it doesn’t matter if you’re weird or shy or fat or queer or disabled or a minority, or anything else that makes you feel vulnerable. This goes for friends, too: If your girlfriends are all competitive about how thin they are or how much sex they’ve had or what jeans they buy, and this make you feel crappy about yourself, it’s OK to dump them.
- If nobody’s told you this yet, I will: It’s OK to be gay.
- Get into the habit of working on something creative that doesn’t necessarily have objective milestones. A lot of girls get sucked into this mindset of defining success by the hoops we’ve jumped through. A friend’s music teacher once said, “In guitar, there is no best, only better.” It’s good to have something important in your life that you can’t sum up on a resume.
- Turn off your phone for a while and let yourself zone out, daydream, be bored. We spend most of our days processing and responding to the input we receive from the rest of the world. It’s really reactionary and exhausting way to live, but I think girls are especially susceptible to it. It’s hard to unplug at first, but stick with it. Some of your best ideas will come out of these time-outs.
- It’s OK not to know who you are, what you are, or what you want to do with your life yet. Teenage girls put a lot of pressure on themselves to define and categorize themselves—again with the hoop-jumping—but certainty is not a cure for insecurity. You know all those little boxes you check off on that internal census form you have in your head? In five years, they’re all going to be different, and they’ll keep changing for as long as you live. You may never have a marriage, kids, or the career you planned for, or take a year off to travel around the world. Maybe it won’t work out, or maybe you’ll find that you don’t want those things anymore. Learn to accept that you are not yet the woman you will grow up to be, that you don’t even know what she’s going to be like.
Readers, what would you add?