Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Middle School Girl Says: There’s More to Us Than Meets the Eye

As Pigtail Pals says, "Pretty's got nothing to do with it."

I recently shared the story about the “Too pretty to do homework” shirt with my daughters. That evening, my 12-year-old got online and read the article in Shine and on the Pigtail Pals blog as well as the comments that readers made. She was shocked at what she saw as the callous responses of some readers. When she started sharing her strong objections to the “too pretty” shirt as well as her feelings about those who said it was no big deal, I encouraged her to write a guest post for me. I think it’s vital for adults to hear what young girls are thinking and feeling about these kinds of products. Think it’s no big deal? Read on to see what a middle school girl has to say, then think again.

“Last night I got on a website called Shine to read a post about the most recent t-shirt scandal, “To pretty to do homework.” It was all fine and dandy until I read the comments that other readers had written about the article. People were saying things like, “It’s just a joke, get a sense of humor!”, “There are people starving and living in poverty out there and we have a post about a t-shirt?”, “These people are just trying to get rid of freedom of speech in the US!” and my personal favorite, “I don’t see how this is offensive.”

Let me explain something to you, all you people who agree with any of these comments above. To those who think this is a harmless joke, this 12-year-old girl is not laughing. Remember, I’m the one who this shirt is targeted to. Even if this was made as a joke, it’s not funny. The thing is, girls my age are really sensitive to messages like this. So, if we hear this sort of thing enough, we will start believing that it’s not important to do well in school if you’re pretty, or that if you’re smart you can’t also be pretty. If you still think that’s funny, a bunch of insecure girls failing classes because they won’t do their work, then you need some help. There is absolutely nothing funny about that.

Then there’s the argument that people shouldn’t be worked up about a t-shirt when there is poverty in the world. I agree that it’s important to fight poverty and world hunger. But, really, we have tabloids, fashion magazines, sites like Perez Hilton that provide shallow commentary on the lives of celebrities, and you’re complaining about this issue getting some attention? The way I see it, this is much more important than the latest celebrity hook-up.

And to those who say that Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals and others who complained about the shirt are trying to restrict you and get rid of freedom of speech, you’ve got it wrong. In fact, we are exercising our own freedom of speech by voicing our opinions about this shirt. Sure, JC Penney’s had a right to sell it, but we also have a right to say, “This product stinks.”

If you don’t understand how offensive this shirt is, then here’s the thing: This shirt is saying a girl’s value comes from being pretty, and we shouldn’t invest our time in petty things such as school and intelligence. I’m not saying I’m against looking pretty, as Melissa says, pretty has nothing to do with it. I just don’t think it’s the most important thing. And, I don’t think it’s only a guy’s job to be smart. Get it now?

I want girls to have a chance to do more than look pretty, and if that means that I have to break down this stereotype one t-shirt at a time, then so be it. Soon, the world’s going to know that there is much more to girls than meets the eye.”

26 comments on “Middle School Girl Says: There’s More to Us Than Meets the Eye

  1. lindat
    October 19, 2011

    rylan. this is a really excellent post and you know what – i was more moved by reading that than i have been in reading academics write on the subject. i am working with a group of young people (in Scotland)at the moment who feel like they are the only ones who are totally sick of what they see happening to their world, to their peers and to themselves. i would really like to share your post with them, if thats ok with you.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 19, 2011

      That would be great! Rylan and I both want to help other kids learn to be more critical media consumers. Thank you for your kind words.

  2. Q-Rai
    September 20, 2011

    Wow, what an impressive essay for a 12 year-old! I don’t think I could have phrased it any better, and I totally agree with her.

    Being smart makes you (even more) attractive.

  3. Rylan Shewmaker
    September 7, 2011

    Hi everyone:) Thanks for all of your support and encouragement. It really means a lot! Because of the overwhelmingly positive response to this, I plan to start writing posts more frequently, maybe even biweekly! Thanks again! Rylan

    • Sabrina
      September 10, 2011

      Omg Rylan I Think it was totally awesome for you to do that thisnis amazing miss ya (havent seen ya since 5th grade) But Anyways You and your mom did an excellent job



  4. JJ Thayer
    September 7, 2011

    At the school where I teach, I also run a media literacy club. I cannot wait to share your post with my girls and encourage them to do their own writing. Great job!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      I love that you run a media literacy club! I want to try to start one here at Rylan’s middle school or maybe through a summer camp option at the university where I teach. Let me know what curriculum you like. Rylan will love hearing that your using her post to inspire other kids to make their voices heard. Thanks!

  5. Laurie Miles
    September 7, 2011

    I really enjoyed this article and applaude the author for speaking out. I’m from the generation of women who were called “girls” and “honey”, the generation who got coffee for the boss with a smile on our faces (even when we wanted to drop it on his lap). I say “his lap” because the bosses were all men in my early working career. I always wanted to be pretty, because that was what was valued back in my day. My mom would tell me that brains last longer than beauty and eventually beauty comes from the inside anyway. My mom was right.

    During the seventies I worked hard at changing the language we used for people and refused to respond when called “honey”, spoke up with someone would say “the girls” and reminded them we were women, changed names and genders in the stories I read to my young daughters, making the female character be the one with the power and the boy be helpless. Cinderella was whole different story at our house and there was never a Prince Charming.

    My point in all of this is that in the last ten years I’ve seen the empowerment of women that many of us worked so hard to achieve, slowly erode in to something that is sadly reminiscent of how things used to be. It gives me hope to know that there are young women out there fighting back for girls and boys to have equal opportunities and equal exposure and equal choices to be who they want to be. It gives me hope to know that you, a 12-year old with amazing writing and thinking skills, are willing to speak up and say what you want to say. It gives me hope to know that things will still move forward for all of us and the work we young people did in the 70s and 80s will continue long after we are unable to do the physical work. We will be here to support you in any way we can!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Laurie, that was beautiful. I agree, we have made great strides, but we regress with this type of objectifying message. Susan Douglas calls it Enlightened Sexism. We all need to stand together and say “no thanks” to that.

  6. julie gardner
    September 7, 2011

    Wise words here ~ from the mouths of pre-teens (not babes!)

    Clearly your girl knows where true beauty lies:
    In compassion, intelligence, thoughtfulness.

    From the mother of one 12-year-old girl to another –
    Thank you.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Julie. It’s so important for these girls to be heard!

  7. Marisa
    September 7, 2011

    A very well-written and well-thought-out article! I’m especially glad to see the way this young woman handled the “censorship” accusation. I get so tired of having to point out that criticizing something does not equal censorship! If the government goes down to J.C. Penney’s and forbids them to sell the shirt, that is censorship. If citizens say they don’t like the shirt and they think J.C. Penney should pull it, that is free speech. If this 12 year-old can tell the difference, why is it so hard for so many adults?

    I don’t know why so many people get upset when cultural critics speak out about what they see going on around them. It’s strange to me how defensive people get over a t-shirt that I assume they didn’t design. Why is it so threatening when a stranger criticizes something that has nothing to do with them in the first place? The angry comments show that many people have bought into these belief systems so completely that they have to lash out at the person who points out the clay feet of their idol.

    Incidentally, I can’t help wondering how much time people who think it isn’t worthwhile to analyze the messages our society sends to girls actually spend working on those other important issues.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Thanks Marisa. I love your last paragraph, that was exactly what my daughter thought! She wondered how people can spend hours searching the net for info on celebrities or fashion and then think it’s not important to spend time on an issue like objectifying products marketed to girls.

  8. Relishing Every Last Bite
    September 7, 2011

    Way to go! Beautifully expressed and well thought out. I am impressed by your ability to voice your opinions on such a hotly debated issue and do it with such clarity of conviction. Keep writing.

  9. Debbie
    September 7, 2011

    As a mom to a 9 year old and 6 year old twins—all girls–this issue is of personal not just social importance to me. Thanks for sharing your voice. Nice job!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Thanks, Debbie. I’m the mom of three girls as well. This issue becomes very personal when you see your own children being impacted by it.

  10. Jennifer McCann
    September 7, 2011

    Great job, young lady. Never be afraid to express your opinion, even in the face of opposition! This essay shows ’em… pretty has nothing to do with it!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Thanks, Jennifer. Rylan was so touched by your comment. It means a lot to her to have support not necessarily for what she says, but for raising her voice in the first place.

  11. Alexa
    September 7, 2011

    I can only hope that my daughter, barely 8 and starting 3rd grade today, can be as smart and articulate as you when she’s 12. She’s always thinking of what will make her famous. Pretty won’t do it, but smart, articulate and daring will, and in a much more lasting and positive way.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Thanks, Alexa. Believe me, I’ve got one of those girls too. I talk with my middle daughter a lot about the fame game and how it’s not everything. Like you, I tell her that if she does want to be well-known for something, it needs to be for something she loves and makes the world a better place.

  12. Melissa Wardy
    September 7, 2011

    Hey Miss R –
    What an awesome post! Your mom told me that you were a little nervous to write it because you didn’t want people to say mean things about you like they did about me. The only thing I hear being said about you is how smart and wonderful you are. Job well done, my young friend!

    Sometimes, when you ask peope to change the way they think or stand up for a group of people (girls) who are constantly marginalized, you’ll get push back and insecure people will say rude things. That means you need to stand that much taller.

    As Jodi said above with her daughter, girls are not getting a fair shake when it comes to the media. That’s why Pigtail Pals will keep fighting to Redefine Girly, and let you amazing creatures define for yourself who you will be in this world.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Thanks for your support, Melissa. I think Rylan got the courage to speak up about this when she saw that you didn’t back down when your opinions were attacked. It also made her realize that so many people just don’t see the big picture about the messages girls get, and she wanted to speak for herself and her own experiences. It’s so important for us to give girls the chance to find their own voice.

  13. Cherry Woodburn
    September 7, 2011

    Fabulous post. She expressed herself really well about an important message. Sometimes I think people should lighten up because there seems to be so much anger about so many things but your daughter reminded me that, even if I’m tired, it’s not good to stop fighting against T-shirts like this. —>”The way I see it, this is much more important than the latest celebrity hook-up.”

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Thanks, Cherry. I think you’re right, that we need to be listening to children and adolescents themselves and see what they think. If this is a big deal to my daughter and the New Moon Girls, all who are in the same age range, then we need to take it seriously.

  14. jodi norgaard
    September 6, 2011

    Hi Jennifer,
    Your daughter did such a good job in expressing her feelings. Maybe down the road I will have a Go! Go! Writer Girl! I thought it was interesting that you asked your 12 year old daughter to comment. I did the same in January with an interview. I thought it was best that my 14 yr old daughter answered the question. I was asked: “What is your opinion on the way tween-teen girls are portrayed in the media?” My daughter’s answer: “The media portrays us a lot differently than we really are. We are not crazy, wild, and hard to control. They portray us as sexy and we are just girls, just people. The media like to tell us who we are. They don’t define us! It’s unfair.” I think both our daughter’s comments are very interesting.

    Best, Jodi

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 7, 2011

      Jodi, I would love a Writer Girl! You’re right, it’s important for girls this age to get their voice heard on these topics. That was the thing that my daughter felt most strongly about. She said, “These people who say that this kind of thing is no big deal don’t have to live with the messages being sent to them everyday. It is a big deal, and it gets really old.”

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