Last Friday evening, a casual outdoor party in my neighborhood culminated with a half-dozen girls sprawled across my living room. As they compared splits and talked about the upcoming school year, I held skinny feet in the air as each attempted the perfect handstand. I remarked to the gaggle that I thought I could still break out a split if not for the dress I was wearing. A lanky blond with hair as long and straight as her nine-year-old legs leaned into me, whispering conspiratorially: "Oh go ahead, it's just us girls."
Just us girls. The living room could hardly contain the beauty, joy, and potential of those women in the making. I marveled at being invited to witness such life.
I love being part of a generation that esteems women like never before and passes that on to these girls. Women have reached new heights of success in every arena. The world is a better place because of our achievement and innovation. Yet often our complex nature and this broken world crash together like the girls falling out of their handstands. We are all head bumps and soul bruises.
I wonder what will become of those free-spirited females as their lives expand beyond the cul-de-sac and elementary school, when the world's messages threaten their joy. My night with the girls gave me reason to pause and think about what voices they'll hear as they become women:
• Work a job that fulfills, raise kids that behave, and save time to perfect your tennis stroke and keep your hair highlights bright.
• Talk intelligently about politics, literature, social causes–and the cover headlines of US magazine.
• Embrace your maturity with grace while slathering on anti-aging cream and spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars achieving the natural look.
• Be a great lover to your husband and devoted to your family, but stay "hot" and maintain your own bank account, just in case.
• And if you are under 21? Well, then, you should know how to create a nonprofit, letter in three sports, and toss around sex as casually as the next fashion.
• Under 18? Know the square root of 121, the calories in the yogurt you ate for breakfast, and remember "self first" so that you don't get hurt by anyone else.
• And no matter your age, maintain hundreds of casual relationships and deny the truth that you feel lonelier and less known then ever before.
On one level, we don't believe the voices. We recognize that they are superficial, unrealistic. But our exposure to our ambivalent culture affects us deeply, creating in us confusion about how we are to live.