The breadth and scope of the Internet promises an opportunity for free and open expression of all that we have always wanted to say or express. But it is a freedom that is, I believe, illusory and it is particularly so when it comes to women and girls.
The Internet provides a venue in which girls can supposedly express their sexuality in the form of sexting, explicit pictures, videos and the like. Even as regular people, they have the chance to become “movie stars”, seen and appreciated by thousands, even millions. Yet that so-called freedom exacts a price from their sense of agency, personal power and the experience of self-hood.
We all love to be appreciated. We respond to external cues and rewards that tell us we are great! That is all fine and good but it can also mean that we are seeking approval by compromising our own integrity. It can be especially true in the male-dominated environment of the Internet. It also explains why females can feel degraded and exploited even when their pictures receive thousands of hits. When we depend exclusively on external validation, we can be left feeling depleted, especially when, deep down, it compromises our principles,
How then can we talk about women in ways that are not distorted by the prevailing masculine lens? What can we teach our daughters that will empower them in ways that do not belittle them or exploit them in the service of another’s needs? I believe that we can teach and exemplify the aspects ofpersonal power–very much an internal experience.
My colleague, Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph. D., lists three categories of personal power that I have found freeing and uplifting. (Young-Eisendrath, Polly. The female person and how we talk about her. InPsychoanalytic Reflections on a Gender-free Case. Routledge, 2005) I am going to paraphrase but the ideas are hers. The three categories are the power of freedom, the power of dependence and the power of aesthetics. I’ll talk about the first two today and the third next week. The power of aesthetics is a tricky one!
The power of personal freedom is distinct from the illusion that we are free to do or say whatever we want without any consequences. As Dr. Eisendrath sees it, (and I agree) personal freedom does not mean that we don’t want to have deep and loving relationships. It also doesn’t mean that we have to “tough it out” or “go it alone.” Rather it refers to our ability to consider our own well-being as having equal importance to that of those we care about. It means having confidence in our own personal authority and in our ability to define truth or goodness or beauty as we see it, even as we acknowledge another’s right to do the same.
The second dimension of personal power as described by Dr. Young-Eisendrath is, oddly enough, thepower of dependence. It is not dependence in the way we may fear, that is, being a child or being somehow non-functional in the adult world. It is rather our awareness of our emotional dependence as a primary condition of human life. The idea of the “self-made man” is the antithesis of the dependence that Dr. Young-Eisendrath is talking about. Women have long been privy to the interdependence of the human family by virtue of their roles as mothers, children of mothers and mothers of mothers. In those roles they have learned what some call “woman’s intuition” which is in reality, the ability to read and understand nonverbal cues. Women and men must learn to trust and value these largely intuitive experiences both as they allow them to traverse their multiple roles and as they function, often independently, of patriarchal authority.
The third dimension of Dr. Young-Eisendrath’s categories has to do with sensitivity to beauty and art as a dimension of personal power. Whoa! Isn’t that what we just said girls and women shouldn’t rely upon? Okay! This will take some explaining. So we’ll save it for next week!
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.