Rules for girls.

pink cowgirl

In the last 10 days the leader of the free world called for military action against Syria and a public debate about it. And in this time of international attention on Mideast unrest, chemical weapons, unenforceable treaties, and the deaths of scores of women and children, the folks at WordPress are asking bloggers worldwide to devote this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge posts (a Mind the Gap challenge, no less) to….

Miley Cyrus.

Seriously, did anyone actually expect this generation’s Drew Barrymore to be an Ordinary Girl once she broke out on her own? And why is her performance continuing to spark discussion when there are issues of real importance to mull over?

Maybe sometimes we need something unimportant to look at when the important is just too overwhelming. So here goes.

It’s fascinating to me how many rule-breaking rebels are outraged by little Miley, horrified by all the lines she crossed. Would everyone be just as upset if it had been Zac Efron up there twerking in his underwear? Doubtful. Rules for girls, even in 2013, are different.

For the record, I think the child is misguided, and the performance was both vulgar and unworthy of further discussion. What is worthy of a bit of thought, at least to me, is the war of girl rule books.

From Allie Finkle to Sheryl Sandberg, Glamour “Don’ts” to Cosmo secrets, girls are bombarded at every turn with lists of rules. We’re taught to conform and yet be non-conformist, to be assertive but not aggressive, to be cooperative but not too concessionary. The rules business is big and thriving, but all that conflicting rhetoric somehow just makes a no-win even less win-able.

Maybe it would be more helpful to separate the admonishments (no white shoes after Labor Day) from guidelines to support decision-making (if you wear lingerie in public, someone will likely mistake you for a hooker), and then to acknowledge that each of us must live with the decisions we make. The point of having rules, after all, should be to support a healthy independent sense of self and to foster good life relationships. Do This Not That isn’t particularly helpful unless THIS and THAT are super crystal clear. Which they usually are not.

My mother was masterful when it came to the guideline method of rule-setting. She somehow framed almost everything, from pantyhose to prom dates, as a set of options with outcomes, choices with consequences. She did not teach us hard and fast rules (ok, she did say no white shoes after Labor Day); she gave us rules of thumb and taught us how to make decisions.

I can’t count the number of times I have chosen unwisely and wished, in retrospect, that I’d had a clearer rule. For the most part, though, Betty’s rules of thumb have served me well. Her top three are ones I’m now passing on to my daughter:

  1. Like what you see in the mirror. To life’s important questions: Should I invite so-and-so to my party? Think I can pass the test by reading the Cliff Notes? Can I stay out past 11 on Saturday? My mother would say: “You have to live with the things you do, so make sure you will like what you see in the mirror.”
  2. People who say ugly things to you about others will say ugly things to others about you. Why this one’s hard to master, I just don’t know. But it is. Still. And it is so, so very true.
  3. Choose the job based on the boss. No matter how interesting the work is, pull will always be stronger than push. A good boss makes even mundane work worthwhile and opens new doors for growth. A bad boss is just bad.

Oh, and there’s one of the lesser rules that bears repeating, even if it will be a few years before I share it with my daughter: if you wear underwear in public, people may mistake you for a hooker. Or perhaps for the misguided, rule-breaking, split personality offspring of Billy Ray Cyrus.


  1. Lists of rules ARE really popular in girl-oriented literature. They can be so burdensome, but clearly there is still a market. Partly I think this is because girlhood is in the process of being redefined, and it’s hard to be a girl when there are competing visions of girlhood (does taking control of your sexuality mean be modest/prudish or sexually bold/sluttish?). And partly I think it’s because, whether it’s essential or socially learned, girls like to TALK about what they should do. They might not follow the advice, but they want it anyway. At least I often do. Grown-up example: I love to read Dear Prudence at My enjoyment of this kind of baffles me, but there it is.


  2. I broke one of my mothers rules this week and wore white after labor day. What a rebel huh? Loved what you said about people saying ugly things about other people. So very true. Once again you got me thinking..Lisa


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