Lola is a tween, a magical unicorn creature rarely glimpsed in this life, a time of her girlhood that is excruciatingly valuable, so that mindful parents keep an eye out for the scalpers, the ones who would pin her down, cut off the horn and Instagram their grinning faces with her white curled horn clutched in their hands.
A tween girl is a mighty vortex, an eye of the storm where little girl meets teen so that there is a closet full of American Girl dolls, each carefully dressed and tucked into bed, while the young girl who put them there now has armpit hair and a shapeless cotton bra. Some tweens have already been face planted into mimicking teenage behavior, either older siblings or coarse, neglectful parents or some damage has been done to create a driving need for the dress up of maturity: a focus on sexuality and boys, fierce verbal attacks on other girls, makeup and shaving and a committed ironic stance that coming from the baby face of a tween can break your old, embittered heart in two.
In our culture there are protective barriers in the physical world of tweens, in parents, teachers, even older protective siblings, but few protective barriers against the growing awareness- usually, most damagingly, without guidance- of our cultural mirrors for young girls. One minute the mirror tells them 'innocent' 'sweet' 'protected' 'funny' 'smart' 'charming', and then the mirror begins to say 'flirt' 'pretty' 'feminine' 'sexy' and confusingly, 'vulnerable'. Girls begin to sense certain older boys or even an occasional grown men looking at them with open interest, and a panicky, throat fluttering feeling has in its tiny wind stirred center a tiny thrill. Open Vogue or Mademoiselle or Elle and the ads with gap mouthed, mime panting, bent over, oil soaked, wet haired, lingerie clad girls often look, in face and form, as if they were 12 years old. They are long and lean and without curves except for the barest hint of breast buds, and their faces have just- you could see it go!- lost the fat pads of adolescence. On television you hear and see women fussing over these young girls as if they were purebred dogs to dress and parade. Mothers begin to project: she's not going to be fat, is she? Oh God, she has my nose… it was so hard to have that nose… Why does she always have wear her hair in that ridiculous clump? Fathers begin to withdraw: can you still sit on my lap? Are you still my little girl? Can I still tease you? And girls begin in these ways to be aware of their sexuality, a thing not yet freed from the frost, but that underneath the thin film of ice, feels the sun all the same.
Some of Lola's friends have become aware of their bodies in a critical, appraising way that so far, we have avoided. She does not, as a friend recently did, scorn the spread of her thigh as she crosses her leg, and she does not, as another friend has, wonder often what boys think she is pretty. She is still unconsciously accepting of herself. When she turned 11 and pre-puberty began, we had a handful of talks, long meandering talks, where anything that needed to come up and be looked at could. So we talked about it all and I did my best to be unselfconscious, open and accepting because this is what I want for my daughters. I did my best to be cheerful about it all, because this is also what I want for my daughters. Shame attaches itself like a barnacle to the consciousness of young people, and for a young girl, shame attached to your body or womanhood will never quite be shaken off or grown out of, but remains like a shadow twin, something we can acknowledge and write about and expose but that ultimately affects our experience of being female in a negative way. Something that I do not want for my daughters. Taking note of all I need to explain to her is exhausting at times, but her expressions of gratitude and relief later always let me know that it is is important. If I do not translate the way that culture transmogrifies and distorts female sexuality, no one will. If I do not explain why some mothers shame their daughters for their pimples or weight, no one will. If I do not point out how girls at this age can lose themselves- their brilliant, shining, energetic and awesome selves- to the ultimately backfiring, boring and reductive hunting of male attention, no one will. If I do not express how almost any way that a new healthy sexuality presents itself is normal, no one will. Young boys are often made to understand that masturbating is normal, for example, but these subjects are still often taboo for young girls, creating at a crucial moment a severe divide between men and women's equality.
The place where childhood girlhood innocence meets the first expression of teenage womanhood is brief and can be terribly tender and beautiful. Slumber parties of shrieking, laughing and scavenger hunts still end in the girls tangled together in sleeping bags, snoring, but they also can contain deep in the night whispered conversations about french kissing and getting your period. Tween time is when, in a healthy, open environment of support, a young girl can safety explore these new realities. Keeping our daughters safe from the unicorn poachers cannot mean cutting them off from magazines, the internet, T.V.- of course, those boundaries have to be decided on, and in my family we have them in place. But most of all it is the parent guide who can help the girl interpret the reflection of herself she is newly seeing that keeps her 'safe', meaning, keeps her from passively accepting those views. Ultimately the true beauty of tweenage years is in the choice to begin to define yourself.