Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It takes a village: Interview with Kelly Valen

by Stephanie Horton

Kelly Valen is a successful writer and an attorney, but most importantly, she is an incredibly strong woman who is currently sharing her difficult experiences as a college student with thousands of readers with her book The Twisted Sisterhood. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about this book and it's messages. Lucky for us, Kelly agreed to answer a few follow up questions! Check it out...

1.) After such struggle with female relationships, I find it so fascinating, (almost gift-like), that you have twin daughters! In your research, you said that you learned a lot about the mother-daughter relationship and it's influences over how females build friendship bonds with one another. How will this influence your relationship with your daughters? What kinds of things will you tell them to encourage them to be supportive of each other and of other girls?

My twins are so cool and, yes, it’s a grand irony that I was dealt three daughters in this life. A major motivator for me to write the book was this sense that, as a mother of three young girls, I wanted them to navigate Girl World better than I had. I wanted them to make strong, authentic, reliable girlfriendships and to make it through adolescence and beyond with their confidence and spirit intact. I had been seeing so much nonsense among girls and women at the time I wrote my New York Times article, so much of it unnecessary, gratuitous, and self-defeating. It was demoralizing. After conducting a survey with more than 3000 women, many of them mothers, I now know that I’m in good company with these sentiments.

The influence of mothers on daughters was a theme that actually came up over and over in women’s responses to me — so my book deals with the role of mom on a number of fronts. And while I don’t think we can simply blame mother dearest (or anyone else) to excuse our own bad behavior in perpetuity, I do call on mothers to engage and take a more proactive role in their girls’ lives if they aren’t already. It sounds like there is a lot of denial and distracted or under-engaged parenting out there. I’m not here to judge; I just want to get people thinking about how we can grow our girls to be more confident, kind, supportive, and collaborative beings.

I’ve tried very hard to teach my girls kindness and empathy, both by talking about it and through example. I’m their chief role model, after all. So if I’m gossiping and judging, constantly comparing, and excluding or playing other manipulative games in front of them, well, that’s a pretty powerful message about how the world works. But I’ve also tried not to pass along my own wariness or ambivalence. I don’t want my girls starting out of the gate feeling that way! So far — knock on wood — I’m lucky: all three seem pretty confident, are kind and empathetic kids, aren’t afraid to tell their brother to take a hike, and have made terrific, deep, and meaningful friendships with girls. They amaze me.

2.) Guiltless is about promoting positive body image and self-appreciation. How do you think your experience shaped your own self-image?

Such an important goal! Unfortunately, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my sorority debacle, which happened over two decades ago, seriously undermined my self-confidence and left me hobbling about with a pretty negative self-image. Even when you’re able to pull yourself up, dust yourself off, and succeed in other areas of life, those kernels of doubt and wariness are tough to shake. I’ve now heard from so many women who, after run-ins with other females, have carried forward residual, phantom doubts about themselves like a sack of bricks. They can feel demotivated and demoralized, become more self-conscious or cautious, less willing to take risks, disinclined to put themselves out there or open up to new friendship possibilities and, ultimately, less productive humans. At some point, then, it’s not just about one person — the effects radiate outward, impact the broader gender, and ultimately society as a whole. All too often, I think, we women can be found handing over the keys to our self-worth to others —male or female. I think that finding value and worthiness from within, instead of looking outside ourselves to others for validation, is key to sidestepping or overcoming this self-flagellation and reaching our full potential in life. Knowing you have a supportive "sisterhood" at your back can only help.

3.) What's the connection between female friendships and health?

Researchers and other experts will tell you that female friendship, when it’s healthy and positive, can literally be the best and cheapest medicine we have for leading happy and qualitatively better lives. The scientific evidence in this area is compelling and very exciting. The flip side is also true. When our relationships (with females or males) become strained, or when a source of nurturing or comfort (e.g. other females) becomes an emotional threat or no longer feels safe or supportive, it’s going to take a toll on our mental, physical and emotional health. Women cope in different ways, but some will have a more difficult time; their struggles can manifest as poor choices that affirmatively harm their well-being.

It’s useful to keep in mind that the emotional toll can be worse when we’re talking female-female relationships. A number of studies underscore the distinction. Generally speaking, the stakes are often higher because our expectations for each other are great and our style of relating is often more intense and intimate. We share a lot of information with each other, invest trust and emotion, and have been socialized to expect a lot from one another in return. This can tee things up for big hurt when things go awry.

4.) How can we intervene in high schools and colleges to end this type of behavior? What could we say or do to prevent this from happening over and over again?

Again, we have been working from the angle of discussing the behaviors themselves for a long time now. This hasn’t really prompted much behavioral change — it seems like business as usual out there. My book takes a fresh perspective: it looks at the power and influence females have over one another (for better and for worse) and lays out the actual impact and fallout from our inhumanity and incivility. I really believe most of us don’t mean the extent of harm that our behaviors can cause; we just don’t appreciate the impact that these garden-variety insults or outright cruelties can and do have on other human beings. A lot of it is simply done out of habit, sport, or even as a bonding mechanism. But these aren’t parlor games we’re playing. Girls and women all around us are getting hurt and feeling ambivalent about their own — they just aren’t talking about it. With all the recent bullying and suicide stories in the news, however, I do think many folks are at least beginning to appreciate that people have different degrees of resilience. Hopefully they’ll pause, start thinking twice, and do the right thing. It really goes back to the old golden rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated; treat people with respect, tolerance, and dignity.

5.) Your story is not an easy one to share, and I thank you for opening up and sharing. What is your number one goal that you hope to accomplish by spreading your message?

This book is all about raising awareness about what’s really going on within the gender. I want to promote a more proactive, mindful civility generally, but starting with females (over half our population, after all) isn’t an unreasonable place to begin since we have our own set of unique issues to tackle.The fallout from our incivility is, again, appreciable. A lot of women are subtly turning away from each other, bunkering down in more exclusive clusters of carefully selected girlfriends, feeling wary of women they don’t know and, ultimately, contributing to a less connected and collaborative society of females. I can’t tell you how many women have told me things like: “Gosh, I’d never considered that my current insecurities or the reason I avoid female group events or certain types of women might have something to do with that pack of girls who tormented me back in junior high.” Many of us truly don’t appreciate that a seemingly innocuous nudge, slight, or outright jab can leave lasting marks on another human being. I think that awareness of that is key to changing the status quo.

Beneath the surface, there’s a lot of ambivalence and quiet suffering within our gender - women just haven’t been talking about it openly. We feel awkward, ashamed, or like the odd girl out. It feels vaguely anti-woman, too, to point fingers within the gender when there are plenty of other culprits to blame for our problems, such as men and the media. While I can’t necessarily deliver tidy Hallmark solutions or silver-bullet methods for engineering social change, I’m hoping the book will trigger reflection and fresh dialogues among women and, yes, a genuine commitment to pausing, thinking twice, opening up, and being more supportive toward one another. Almost 97% of my survey say they believe the female culture in this country has to change. They want something better for the gender, a “new normal,” if you will. But this is going to take serious reflection and resolve. And it’s going to take a village.


Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Kelly. We're part of the village.

1 comment:

  1. Wow what a beautiful interview! She is so wise, and insightful! Thank you Steph and Kelly!