Even if ‘bossy’ could be banned, there are better ways to boost girls’ self-esteem

That growing numbers of girls suffer from issues of self-esteem during adolescence – ones that can be carried over into adulthood – is not up for debate. What is debatable is what should be done about this. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the bestselling feminist-ish book Lean In, has come up with her own typically high-powered and certainly well-intentioned solution: to ban the word “bossy”. “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’,” she writes.

It will come as a massive surprise to no one to learn that I was called bossy quite a lot as a kid, and still am (although I wouldn’t have to be bossy if people would just bloody well do as I say). Yet it’s never bothered me, mainly because I grew up idolising Miss Piggy and Lucy van Pelt from Peanuts, and never saw bossiness as anything other than a wholly commendable quality. But for those unacquainted with the mighty pig, Sandberg has made a video featuring herself, Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé and others, arguing that the word “bossy” should be “banned” (in the self-censoring sense, one suspects, as opposed to the, you know, legal one) because it’s a way of telling confident girls to shut up.

Insults are often gendered – in adulthood at least as much as in childhood. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes about this most pleasingly in her memoir, pointing out that: “If women leaders had acted the way Arafat and Barak did during Camp David, they would have been dismissed as menopausal.” Hillary Clinton was accused of being bossy by none other than Germaine Greer. Most high-profile women have to cope with being called a five-letter word on a regular basis that begins with B, but sure ain’t “bossy”. This is unacceptable, and stupid, and it’s great to have these kinds of gender-specific hypocrisies exposed – but that is different from a ban-worthy hate speech.

But let’s stick with the kids, seeing as they’re the subject of this campaign and probably more in need of defence than Hillary Clinton. Even if “bossy” could be banned, I’m not certain it would make the kind of difference Sandberg is aiming for here. I was a fan of Lean In when it was published because it is a smart manifesto for a very small demographic, which is more beneficial than a not-very-useful book aimed at everybody. In Lean In, Sandberg aimed to help women like her – educated, wealthy, desirous of being a CEO – achieve their dream. And again, with this campaign, she’s aiming to help little girls who were like her: confident but hurt by the label “bossy”. Yet, in dealing with children and teenagers, she could shoot a little higher here.

I have been giving talks at girls’ secondary schools on a regular basis and have made the obvious if too often overlooked discovery that if you really want to know what adolescent girls need, you should go talk to some adolescent girls rather than rely on memories of yourself at their age. Not once have any of the kids complained to me about being called “bossy”, but they have plenty of other issues. So after talking at several dozen schools, this is what I reckon could be done to improve adolescent girls’ self-esteem:

1. Make feminism part of the national curriculum

You want girls to stop feeling bad about being bossy/commanding? Give them a couple of books to read about or by fabulously bossy women and watch them run. Give the little girls Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Kay Thompson’s Eloise. Start the the teenagers off with Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed, so they can get excited about all the cool women in the 20th century who made the world what it is today. Then move on to seminal, smart and angry texts such as Backlash by Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. They’ll soon learn that not only is feminism more than just hairy armpits and radicalism, but that hairy armpits and radicalism are awesome. Undo the thinking behind “bossy” rather than the word itself.

2. Get impressive kickass women to talk to them

When I went to a talk by Kate Adie when I was 13, she showed me that there were more jobs for women in journalism than being the pretty lady who reads the weather. Girls need to see they have more options than they know about.

3. Nutrition should be part of the national curriculum

Feeding oneself well is a sign of self-respect, so it’s no surprise so many girls don’t. No wonder, really, considering how many stupid messages about dieting they are pummelled with daily from celebrity interviews and the media. Disordered eating is a sign of unhappiness, and then more unhappiness comes from disordered eating. Break the cycle.

4. Ban all newspapers and magazines from the school that talk about diets, celebrity body shapes and sex lives, and Kate Middleton

How can we expect girls to grow up wanting to be great if they’re surrounded by a media that celebrate princesses and skinniness? Girls need to know they are more than their body shape and their sex lives.

5. Feed them a healthy diet of feminist films and books

Teach them that there is more to life than the boy, the man and the wedding dress, and that none of those things guarantees happiness anyway. Good modern options include Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Heat, and (going back some) Thelma and Louise. Keep Miss Piggy on loop. – By Hadley Freeman © Guardian News and Media 2014

Image – Nanyang Girls’ High School in Singapore. (AFP)