Education Stereotypes Are Dangerous for Girls' Self Esteem and Academic Achievement
By Carmen Staicer
“I’m with Stupid.”
“Math is Hard.”
“Future Trophy Wife.”
For years, parents have been up in arms over smarmy and suggestive slogans on their daughters’ t-shirts. Many of the most polarizing slogans emphasis beauty over brains and youth over wisdom, and J.C. Penney premiered a doozy last week, just in time for back to school shopping.
The long sleeve shirt reads “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.” Paired with the description of the shirt on the J.C. Penney website—”Who has time for homework when there’s a new Justin Bieber album out? She’ll love this tee that’s just as cute and sassy as she is.” Well, many parents and teachers alike are outraged.
Heather Krys, M.Ed, a middle school teacher in Virginia, is one such person. “My parents taught me, that above everything else, I should make the time to educate myself. I have a great husband who is supportive – financially and (usually) emotionally and was all for me getting that Master’s degree. I was driven primarily by the desire to be a good role model for my 2nd grader (also a girl) who happens to be smart AND cute. But she could have some unfortunate happening and lose the cute- then she’s left with the brain- and she knows how to use it.”
Brooke Randolph, Licensed Mental Health Counselor concurs. “The message could be interpreted that girls are less intelligent than boys. In today’s culture when women are capable of achieving so many things, this can seriously undercut an individual girl’s personal capabilities if she falls prey to this message.”
Not everyone is taking it so seriously, however, and some think it’s a clever slogan. Frank Smith of Queens, said “I see that the t-shirt actually says that the girl is smarter, because she’s figured out a way to get her brother to do her work. I’ve always thought that girls are smarter than boys.”
But if you don’t want it, just don’t buy it, right? Melisa Wells, Illinois mom of two teenage boys, feels that the uproar is media driven. “I think that if people stop buying (and giving attention to) items like these, companies will stop producing them. I never would have known about this shirt if the media had not alerted me to it.”
As a mom of both boys and girls, my feeling is that this shirt might have been meant as humor, but it missed the mark by a mile. Young girls are still trying to figure out who they are and where they belong in society. Being smart is not often seen as a good thing – the girls who are pretty or cute are often the more popular players in a school setting. As much as I hate to admit it, until a person is firmly into their adulthood, this message of beauty over brains persists. Those who are cute have more social cred than those who have good report cards. The featured message merely reinforces that stereotype at a very critical time for young girls, and by the time they figure out that it was all an adult joke and that you can be both smart and cute, it may very well be too late.
Even at my heaviest, and as I worked to lose weight and improve my own health, I was careful that my self-image and esteem didn’t take the beating so common to heavy women. I was equally careful to make sure that my daughters weren’t exposed to negative statements about appearance.
Dr. Jacqueline McCarty, PhD. has long been a fierce promoter of female success in math. An accomplished and inspiring teacher, she works passionately to ensure success in girls and overcome the all too common gender based stereotype that math is not for girls. “Once promoted, gender stereotypes, especially those regarding women and math ability can impact academic achievement and future career decisions. Society embraces the myth that male students outperform their female counterparts in math achievement. Consequently, females may internalize this belief and allow it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Over the past decade, I have taught myriad high school math classes and watched my female students dispel the myth that they lack mathematical ability compared to male students,” continued McCarty. “My female students consistently have demonstrated superior motivation, work ethic, confidence, and achievement over the males in the math classroom. It is time for society to recognize and applaud their efforts.”
In response to the enormous uproar, J.C. Penney has pulled the shirt from its website, saying, “J.C. Penney is committed to being America’s destination for great style and great value for the whole family. We agree that the ‘Too pretty’ t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale. We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.”
Do you think that the message on this shirt is one of gender inequality, or is it just a tempest in a teacup? Would you buy this shirt for your daughter?
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