Girl talk

Have things changed for girls in the last 20 years? Q&A with girls’ media expert, Nancy Gruver, founder of New Moon Girl Media

Nancy Gruver, founder and CEO of New Moon Girl Media, helps girls honor their true selves. New Moon will celebrate 20 years of publishing in 2012. Gruver recently shared her experiences and perspectives with the Minnesota Women’s Press.

MWP: What has changed for girls in the last 20 years?
Gruver: There is more awareness in general about girls’ abilities, girls’ potential, just looking at the last year of discussion in mainstream news media about the importance of girls’ education around the world and how that benefits the entire community, not just the individual.

To have a New York Times columnist [Nicholas Kristof]-who is a man-write about [girls’ education] repeatedly over the past couple of years and write a book about it … I could not have imagined that in 1992. There have been huge improvements in girls’ educational attainment here and in other countries-the rates of college attendance, graduation rates, lower rates of teen pregnancy. Equity in athletic funding has changed over that time. [Girls’] participation rates in organized athletics has exploded.

What hasn’t changed for girls?
The main thing that has not changed is the media. And I think it is worse. It is a backlash. Girls are being portrayed at a younger age and in more sexualized ways. It is undermining to them in a way that is so basic and so foundational that I don’t think they are consciously aware of it and I’m not sure a lot of parents are consciously aware of it.

And the media is not aware of it. Many view it as cute. Or just the way our culture is or just the way girls are. I think that is a huge issue.

Research by the American Psychological Association shows the effect of this on girls’ rates of depression, eating disorders, lower self-esteem and lower achievement. Research is being done on “stereotyped threat”-seeing gender-based stereotypes actually lowers girls’ performance. It is now documented that these images and cultural ideas have a direct impact on mental health, physical health and achievement.

My common sense tells me that the earlier girls and boys are exposed to [gender-based stereotypes], the more it becomes a part of how they think about the world and what they think is real.

It is all ages. Think about the comments you hear when people have a baby girl. She might only be a few days old and people are saying, “Watch out. She’s gonna be a man killer.” That is sexualized treatment and stereotyped treatment of an infant. That is giving her a very constructed idea of what she will be as a person. That’s a dramatic example, but it gets to the heart of where our cultural conditioning is-that people think it is complimentary somehow to say that about a baby girl.

How did you handle mass media in your household?
We never banned popular teen media for our girls. We thought they needed to make their own choices. When our [twin] daughters were 16, they stopped asking us to buy teen magazines on the newsstand. One of them said, “I figured out that when I read those I feel crummy and I don’t need that.”

That was the same experience I had [as a girl]. Those magazines were a part of my learning how to be a woman-to feel crummy about myself.

How do you think girls have changed?
I don’t see that girls themselves have changed that much. Girls’ development emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially is still pretty similar. They have similar developmental milestones and challenges and changes. Girls need to know themselves and trust themselves, to feel they are respected both within their family and outside the family.

The biggest change we have seen is the lower age of menstruation and starting puberty. That is a huge change for girls and it is happening widely in the U.S.

What do you think it will be like for girls in 10 years?
I think we will see a continuation of current trends in girls’ opportunities and achievements. I think we will also continue to see a trend of increasing backlash and negativity in the portrayals of girls in the media because the stakes in our culture are getting higher and higher as we attain higher status, as we earn more, as we occupy more powerful positions. There is still a lot of discomfort with the possibility that girls and women will have a 50/50 share of power. And so I think the backlash will continue and I think we need to keep on countering that.