A Letter to High School Girls

UPDATE: Since we wrote this blog in 2011 our organization has evolved greatly, and reading it again now, we realize it’s not our most thoughtful communication. Read an updated response here.

Dear High School Girls,

A few weeks ago we were at the Convent school in San Francisco, CA to talk about Miss Representation and take questions from an audience of educators, parents and high school students.

As often happens when we do a screening like this, the issues of the film seemed to speak to the current moment at the school. The students and faculty were in the midst of a debate over what sorts of dances would or would not be allowed at an upcoming school social.

One teacher asked us to weigh-in on the topic: did we think it was appropriate for girls and boys to dance “sexy” at this event?

It was a tough question and one that still has us thinking weeks later.

We don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with dancing “sexy.” We all know that moving to music is fun and can even be inspiring. It’s a beautiful way of conveying emotions and often gives us a chance to express things we have no other way of expressing.

What’s at question here is maybe something deeper: how might this specific kind of dancing impact how other people in high school see you as a girl? And are you comfortable with that?

The unfortunate reality of our society is that girls are judged far more harshly than boys when it comes to this stuff. And a lot of the time that judgment is coming from other girls. (You’ve seen Mean Girls and Easy A right?). So if you’re going to re-create scenes from a Rihanna video in front of the entire school, just be prepared to deal with gossip, name-calling and potentially hurtful rumors that might follow. It’s the media itself – reality TV, movies and music videos – which teach us to label girls as “sluts” and “whores” just because of the way they dance.

It’s not fair, and the media has a responsibility to better represent us, but in the meantime we have to be aware that this climate of judgment exists.

And while girls can often be the harshest vocal critics of one another, the boys are watching and judging too – even if they don’t express it in the same way. So this means that when they see you “grinding” or shaking it like Shakira, they are most likely not seeing the real you, but instead a reflection of the women they see in music videos. And if those fantasy girls on TV are only valued for their youth, beauty and sexuality, well odds are those are the only things the boys will be noticing about you when you perform those ‘sexy’ dance moves.

In the imbalanced world that we live in, you girls are getting the shorter end of the stick. Boys can dance and dress however they like and no one calls them a “slut.” Meanwhile they are able to objectify you without feeling the same pressure to represent themselves sexually.

But we believe in boys as much as we believe in girls. It’s really tough for boys to be fair to girls in a climate that makes the objectification of women a signifier of “manhood.” In so many movies and shows, guys are shown to really only value the physical attributes of women – and this can become the standard by which real guys measure themselves or how they express their masculinity. But we know that there are plenty of great guys in high school who won’t objectify you. Whether it’s because of the way they were raised, how little media they consume or maybe just because they value all women as much as their mothers and sisters – some boys are able to rise above the influence.

It takes somebody, a girl or a boy, to stand-up to gender stereotypes in order for things to change. And high school is really the perfect place to have this dialogue. We’ve heard stories from students all across America who have started Miss Rep-inspired clubs at their schools. Whether it’s a one-time forum or an ongoing group, providing a space for you and your classmates to talk openly about this stuff is essential in changing the culture in your hallways and classrooms. (If you’d like ideas on how you can get started, e-mail us: imran@missrepresentation.org)

Just to reiterate: ‘sexy’ dancing is not innately harmful. If you are in a room full of friends or trusted peers who truly know you and are not going to make any snap-judgments or criticize you for channeling your inner Gaga with somebody you just met, then by all means, go for it. And if you are choosing to dance a certain way because it makes you personally feel good about yourself, and it’s not about pleasing others, then again, go for it.

But let’s be honest, high school is not your living room. It’s public and it can be a terribly harsh place at times. So be careful.


Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Imran Siddiquee