On April 14, 276 girls were abducted from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, two weeks before the world noticed. Some escaped, but most disappeared with the terrorists who took them.
It’s finally making the news. #bringbackourgirls is appearing all over the internet. And it should. We should wallpaper the world with their faces, with our horror and our outrage. We may not know where these particular Boko Haram kidnappers are, but it’s time we stopped pretending that we don’t know where to find the terrorists.
Because we do know. They are everywhere.
This afternoon I sat in my car, listening to an update on the crisis. And I stayed in the car, listening to a story that followed. It was about Monica Lewinsky of Clinton sex-scandal fame, about how she’s trying to reclaim her narrative and carry on with her life after the events of 1998. Sixteen years later.
Lewinsky is forty now, and for the past sixteen years, she’s been the butt of countless crude jokes, an object of scorn and ridicule, while the much older and more powerful man with whom she was involved has recovered to continue an influential political career. Lewinsky is guilty, but she isn’t the only one. It takes two to have an affair, yet she’s the one we’ve pilloried, even though she wasn’t the one who cheated on her spouse and traumatized her child and lied to the people she led. She’s the one who has struggled to find employment, who has become a punchline, who at the age of forty is still paying for a bad decision that’s sixteen years old.
In the nation’s lurid fascination with the details of her affair with Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky disappeared as a human being. She was an adult, and culpable, but innocent girls also disappear every day. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, “the mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.” Girls are disappearing–literally–as a result of eating disorders, their bodies wasting away in pursuit of an impossible ideal of femininity.
Disappearing girls are everywhere. I see them every day, in one stage or another of fading into nothingness. It happens in ways large and small, but usually in quiet, unremarkable moments–a look, a whisper, an image, a handful of words that work their poison slowly but irrevocably. I see girls’ outlines blur when a man says to a boy, “Don’t be such a girl.” I see girls’ confidence flicker when their eyes land on pictures of underfed models flaunting their airbrushed bodies for lenses that take all the rich diversity of feminine beauty and stretch it thin until it’s barely recognizable, until ribs protrude, incongruous beneath swollen breasts. I see them edge into shadow when guys joke about rape, as if anything about it could ever possibly be funny. I see their breathtaking talent and fierce intellect battered by a rising tide of media as Hollywood colludes with the music industry and advertising and even the news to convince them that what they are is never enough, but that they’re welcome to try to buy their way to happiness with the right clothes, the right makeup, the right diet plan, the right workout equipment, the right surgeries, the right drugs. I watch this ocean eroding them, eating away at their shores until they have nowhere left to stand.
We should care about the school girls in Nigeria, and we should care about girls everywhere because all over the world, they are in danger of disappearing.
I’ve felt the flame of my own worth flicker more times than I can count. It happens so early that I doubt whether any of us really remembers the first time. And it happens over and over and over again. In elementary school, a boy chases me around the playground every single day. I’m not having fun. I just want to play with my friends, but “boys will be boys,” and making me uncomfortable and afraid is just “how he shows he likes me,” so the teacher doesn’t seem to care. In middle school, I’m convinced I’m fat, though I’m actually kind of gangly. In high school, some of my male friends rank my appearance and that of my girlfriends using a scale they’ve devised. Fresh out of grad school, I get a job teaching at my alma mater. A professor who thinks he’s highly amusing tells me about how we have a mutual student, a young man who says I’m his favorite prof. My colleague tells the student, “I bet she is, because of how she looks.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. I am so astounded that this has just come out of the mouth of a PhD that all my snappy comebacks are shocked beyond my reach. I can’t tell if he thinks he’s complimenting me by reducing my effectiveness as a teacher to my physical appearance, or if he’s just straight-up telling me that no matter how good a teacher I am it’ll never matter because I’m a woman. In a rather ironic twist, the student in question is legally blind.
This is all infinitesimally small in comparison to the suffering of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. And yet all these erasures, all these disappearances, are a part of the same problem. Here in the West, we like to think that we’re “better,” that we’re more educated and progressive and humane. After all, it’s only terrorists and extremists who treat girls as “less than.” Yet an American girl looking forward to her future career can still expect to earn less than her male colleagues; a girl planning to raise a family while working full time outside the home to support her kids can still expect nearly nonexistent maternity leave; and a girl who’s raped at a party can expect to be told that if the boy who raped her was drinking then he wasn’t responsible for his actions, but that if she was drinking, then the responsibility is hers. A girl can expect to be bombarded all her life with images of women whose physiques are so airbrushed that they’re physically impossible, and if she somehow manages not to buy into that lie and loves her body anyway, then she can expect to be harassed and told that she’s “asking for it” because the clothes in which she feels confident are the fashion equivalent of alcohol, magically rendering all males incapable of good decision-making. A girl can expect to hear adult men belittling boys by telling them that they’re like girls, as if being female was somehow a demotion. And she can expect to react to all of this in one of three ways: by ignoring it, by internalizing it, or by fighting it. She cannot expect any of these options to be a barrel of laughs.
The hashtag #bringbackourgirls is appropriate in so, so many ways. These girls are our girls. They are everyone’s girls, because we are all in this together. Their particular situation is extreme, and yet it’s not unfamiliar. All over the world, girls are disappearing, whether it’s into the forests of Nigeria or the oblivion of an eating disorder or the silence of the victim who’s held accountable for another’s crime. They are disappearing into inequality and resignation and self-loathing.
There’s too much to say about this. It’s not just the girls who are disappearing. We should be talking about the twenty-nine boys who were killed by Boko Haram earlier this year. We should be talking about child soldiers and child beauty pageant contestants and we should be very, very angry. We should be far, far past the simplistic and fallacious argument that feminism is somehow “anti-male” because it’s pro-female. As a woman, I have been a girl and am now the mother of two boys, and I want my boys to grow up in a world where boys and girls are held to equal standards. I want this because I love my boys and I want them to live in a world of exciting, interesting, confident and self-aware human beings. I want this because I love my boys and I believe that a society is only as good as it treats its least-advantaged members. I want this because I love my boys and I want them to understand what true beauty is, because if they spend their lives chasing an unattainable and unhealthy ideal, they’ll end up miserable and unfulfilled. A world in which girls are disappearing is also a world in which boys are disappearing, because we are all human beings. We are all in this together, and what erodes one of us erodes us all.
In my current daydream, I climb into my Iron Man suit and descend upon Boko Haram in a blaze of mighty justice, and I bring every single one of those girls safely home. That I can’t do this makes me feel angry and powerless and afraid. I’m sure I’m not the only one harboring this fantasy at the moment. There’s nothing I can do but pour out words, and that’s only useful as a way of coping with my grief and rage. But I can do something about the girls disappearing around me. I can be mindful of what messages I’m putting out there about what it means to be a girl, to be a woman, to be a human being.
We need to bring back our Nigerian school girls. And when they’re home, we need to remember them always, because they will be fighting their demons for the rest of their lives. We need to remember them and not let the next crisis or celebrity scandal or first world problem push them from our minds.
And then, we need to start bringing back all the girls, because the real terror isn’t in men with guns, but in ideas we don’t challenge and systems we don’t question. It’s in injustices, big and small, that we live with every day.