“Just say no!” Do you remember hearing this phrase in the late ’80s and early ’90s? This saying served as the basis for an anti-drug campaign during those years. It quickly became popular as a response to many things (drugs the least of them) and even a kind of cultural joke. But if only it were that simple. For girls, this word is often clouded by invisible pressures relating to what they ought to do or ought to be, eclipsing their own desires. Saying “no” can mean a girl is refusing societal expectations and voicing what she wants, and it can be very hard, but girls need to learn early on this is something they can do.
When girls believe they must attend to everyone else’s needs before their own, their self-esteem suffers. Stephen Hinshaw writes in his book The Triple Bind that girls now feel compelled to be all things to everyone – attractive, sexy, smart, athletic — and hearing that there are “no more barriers” for girls only exacerbates the pressures they feel, mostly because this isn’t true. Yet, if parents and girls believe not just that they can do anything, but they should do everything, a girl’s individual needs gets buried at the bottom of a long pile of expectations. Girls live in “response mode,” not listening to their own voices and not prioritizing what they really want versus what others want for them or what they think they must do to be appreciated and noticed.
Saying “no” means exercising one’s voice – literally, by speaking the word, but also figuratively by being in touch with one’s own will and speaking out against what someone else imposes. For a girl, saying “no” can mean standing up to her parents and risking punishment. Saying “no” can mean confronting peer pressure
and feeling shunned. Saying “no” can mean refusing a boyfriend’s requests and risking a relationship. But it can mean a giant step forward in prioritizing her needs and it also means practice with building leadership skills. It can help set the stage to becoming a woman who is assertive, confident, and knows how to hone in on what she most desires from the pile of expectations heaped upon her.
Girls need to start to understand that “no” is not a dirty word when they are young. By assuring them that voicing their wishes respectfully won’t have repercussions girls gain in self-esteem and a stronger sense of individuality. Give girls examples of how saying “no” is actually a productive move.
Parents can encourage girls to understand what their limits are and how to compassionately refuse obligations that are about pleasing others and not themselves.
The woman who complains about needing to be “Superwoman
” and having to “do it all” is a cliché
– based on many grains of truth. Girls who can’t say “no” but feel crushing pressure to deny their voices in service of meeting others’ expectations suffer more since they don’t yet know there is another way. Help girls “just say ‘no'” literally — by allowing them to hear you say it, and articulating why, and by telling them the word “no” actually is a very positive one.