“I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” -The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
As a student ambassador at university, I was occasionally asked to run workshops for high school students in the surrounding areas. One school event, designed to encourage an interest in the sciences, really opened my eyes to one particular barrier to higher education that young girls seem to face.
I walked into the classroom, already brimming with swarms of students. My task was to run through workshops with different classes on how to build a remote-control Lego robot. Fun stuff. Seriously. Having previously built my own robot, I briefly demonstrated its sole function; gliding across the room without crashing into any of the previously assembled Lego obstacles.
Fired-up, the boys were keen on testing their robot-making skills (or was it the Lego?). Fighting over the pieces and fiddling with the remote controls, one of the groups’ robots was assembled at an impressive speed. “Science is fun” was the message I was selling and these boys were certainly buying.
Some of the girls in the room, however, looked slightly less than keen on the pile of Lego before them. They were polite but would have clearly rather been elsewhere. No older than 15, these girls looked at least 20 to me. Dolled up and hair teased, their make-up was caked to perfection, school skirts rolled up daringly high (a trick that all British schoolgirls know). Whatever I was trying to sell to these girls, external packaging was clearly a priority and these robots, with their lengthy assembling instruction manuals, colourful wires and nifty remote controls, just were not making the cut.
Pushing the Lego aside, two girls began to play with their hair instead, soon moving on to a full-blown make-up session (more make-up? Really??) right in the middle of my workshop. “I like your shoes, Miss” was the only thing one of the two had said to me the entire lesson. I wanted to scream at these girls. The truth is, they reminded me of the “pretty” and “popular” girls at my high school that ended up pregnant at 16 and living on benefits soon after. It wasn’t my job to discipline these students and there wasn’t a teacher in sight. It was my job, however, to sell them the fruits and merits of higher education and I was failing miserably.
You don’t need to probe too deep into the media to find hordes of women whose fame and success have come from arguably little besides their physical assets. The media’s fixation on a woman’s looks rather than her skills or talent is robbing these young girls of their future. Who cares if you can build an impressive Lego robot in 15 minutes if you can make a sex-tape, build a reality television “empire”, date a rockstar, and earn a million dollars instead? (Yes, we’re talking to you Miss Kimmie K.) Why give up the “dream” of starring in a reality-TV show about beautiful people that live beautiful lives and have beautiful friends, for the less glamorous mounting levels of student debt and sleepless nights in the library? As Janet Street-Porter puts it: “Education and achieving qualifications, or practical skills if you’re not academic, might seem redundant when you consider how much money these high-profile women make from the way they look”. While these attitudes may seem far-fetched or horribly exaggerated to some, I have experienced them first-hand having been to a school where not enough girls, in my opinion, aspired to aim higher than the basic standard of education.
Just last month, a school in Leeds caused controversy by giving make-up lessons to girls as young as 14. Furthermore, a recent BBC study showed that despite more women than ever pursuing careers in a variety of fields, one in ten girls in the UK wants to be a hairdresser (coincidence?) and one in six girls dismissed work in the sciences, engineering and technology as “jobs for the boys”. Don’t get me wrong, we need our hairdressers as much as we need engineers, but my concern is that these figures reflect the fixation of young girls on what Girlguiding UK’s Tracey Murray has described as the “glitzy champagne lifestyle” that we see so much of in the media.
On top of this, as last year’s Miss Representation documentary showed, when it comes to reporting the news on women in the public eye who haven’t gone the sex-tape/ bare-it-all route, it comes with little surprise that the biggest headlines focus on how trendy (or not so trendy) they are or whether they’re wearing hair extensions this month or their colourful H&M sweater that you, little-miss-average-Joe, can afford too. For example, can we please learn to admire the immaterial aspects of Michelle Obama’s role-model status before chronicling endless analysis on her hair or choice of clothing?
You’re wrong if you think this is simply an attack on the girls’ make-up or short skirts (having grown up in a culture that shuns some of my own clothing, believe me, I’m all for wearing what you please). On the contrary, this is about young girls understanding that they have options and can aspire to be more than the hottest girl in school. We need to ensure that young girls realize that their full potential lies beyond achieving those all-important shiny locks of hair or finding that perfect shade of lipstick. Women of all ages need to work together to broaden the horizons of young female students and awaken the ambitions they might not realize that they could have.
Vinjeru Mkandawire is an aspiring journalist who writes for several publications on women’s issues, African affairs, and student politics. She founded the blog That African Kid in 2010 and is a moderator of the long-running forum Malawi Talk. Born in Malawi, she has lived in Zambia, Swaziland, and now the UK. You can find her on twitter at @Vin_Mkandawire.