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4 Ways to be an Ally to Young Girls

by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

 Sonia and her mentee Jessica, enjoying an outdoor play last summer.

Sonia and her mentee Jessica, enjoying an outdoor play last summer.

An ally is someone that stands up for the rights of someone else even if they are not a part of that group. We can be allies to young girls when we call out sexist content on social media and we can be allies when we mentor and create meaningful relationships with young girls. As allies to young girls our responsibility is not to speak for them.

As an ally, it is not our responsibility to define womanhood, femininity, or empowerment for young girls. An ally must first be aware of their own privileges, biases, and misconceptions. In my experiences as an educator, mentor, and a sister I have been privy to the varying oppression that young girls experience on a daily basis. I often hear adults critiquing young girls’ behavior, attitude, clothes, and choices. I also hear young girls talk poorly about themselves and other young girls. There are certainly many ways to challenge the negative messages and images that young girls are bombarded with.

If the spirit of Women’s History Month, or Beyonce’s “Formation,” or Kim Kardashian’s naked selfie has inspired you to be an ally to young girls here are some important things to keep in mind:

1. Learn More About Intersectionality
It is a dangerous to assume that we have an innate connection with young girls because we were once young girls ourselves, because we have sisters or daughters, or because we love our mothers.  Being an ally to young girls includes more than shared gender and/or sex. It is important to recognize that intersectionality plays an important role in the lives of young girls and the ways they develop their identity. In other words, the challenges of being a young girl in today’s society are not only about their gender and/or sex but can also be tied to their race, class, sexuality, legal status, and/or ability. As allies to young girls we need to recognize that they often times face oppression on multiple fronts.

2. Break Away from Gender Expectations
Social and cultural expectations on what it means to be a woman can be harmful to a young girl’s well-being. Young girls are too often told to stop being bossy, demanding, or angry and to instead act more like señoritas—well behaved young ladies. These gender standards lead to other forms of oppression wherein women are silenced, marginalized, or asked to put up with patriarchal violence (i.e. dating violence, domestic violence, rape culture, etc.) As allies to young girls we must understand the need to break away from gender expectations as a safety issue. Young girls’ lives are threatened in various ways because of the gender expectations placed on their bodies.

3. Challenge Respectability Politics
Young girls get contradictory messages about what they can and cannot do with their bodies on a daily basis. As a society, we are too concerned with preserving the purity and sanctity of the female body. Such concern leads us to police bodies that are not our own and in turn teaches young girls that their bodies don’t belong to them either. Challenging respectability politics includes being sex positive, ending the shame associated with teen pregnancy, and having open and honest discussions about rape culture. As allies we can encourage young girls to own and love their bodies by providing information, resources, or support that will lead to empowered choices.

4. Give Young Girls Space to Just Be
Young girls have to deal with constant messages of who to be, what to wear, what to eat, what to say, who to hang out with, etc. It’s overwhelming. Young girls deserve a space where they can just be themselves without the constant bombardment of someone else’s expectations being projected onto them. This means that as an ally we need to keep our “savior complex” in check.  If a young girl has trusted you enough to let you into her world it’s not so you can “save” her. While that type of attitude might be well intentioned, it can also be very harmful. Instead, find or create spaces where young girls can feel safe to learn and to express themselves.

Being an ally works better when we engage as a community. In this way, we can create a network and a larger support system for the young girls in our families and communities. Be sure to reach out to ElevArte or other organizations that might help you become a strong ally.

Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez is an educator and a writer. She’s obsessed with buying and giving away books and journals because she believes that words can empower and transform us. Sonia is an immigrant from Juarez, Mexico. She was raised in Cicero, IL and has a PhD in English.