Before the Crash

A Girls' Project Strives To Save Self-Esteem

We are girls.
We are cool.
We are smart.
We work hard.

And we are def-in-ite-ly equal.

Such is the straightforward, political, in-your-face tenor of the second annual performance of the girls' project at the East Village's Neighborhood School. Eighteen fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade girls have come up with a show of cheers, poetry, and songs about their "issues"— hashed out since October in after-school gab sessions.

The Supreme Court recently recognized sexual harassment in the schools by placing legal responsibility for it on school districts, but the girls at this alternative public school were already all over the subject. They talk about how they feel when boys— or girls— mock their size or call them things like "flat-chested monkey," one of this year's least favorite epithets.

Two and a half years ago, Cydney Pullman, a local labor specialist and mother, began the project specifically to address such harassment. It begins with what Pullman calls girl talk, an open conversation that this year focused on bullying and teasing about race, gender, and body types. Various local all-female performers and political groups, including Urban Bush Women, Write on Sistas, and a squad of former cheerleaders (who seem to have had quite an impact), came in to touch on the themes.

It's not hard to see how the final show emerged from this stew of experiences. The girls begin with a list of reasons they get made fun of, which they shout out in turn before running to the back of the line. These include: wanting to play basketball, being African American (in a mostly white school), liking school, being short, and having breasts.

Some body-related problems have already begun, as one tall nine-year-old reports: "A kid came up and said, 'Can I rape you?' and he started to push me to the closet. That was one of the most scariest things," she says matter-of-factly, then adds: "If my body starts to change, it's probably going to get worse."

It's no accident that the project targets girls at this anticipatory age. "There's a lot of documentation that girls are vulnerable as they move into adolescence. They suffer academically. They suffer in terms of self-image and self-confidence," says Pullman. "We wanted to get them when they were right at that point before they crash."

For the most part, the project attempts to ward off such collapse by having girls repeat positive statements as if they were mantras. Cheers and chants sound like decrees, as in "Girls have a right to play sports/And play with whoever they want." Or the military left-right-left-style chant, "This is skinny. This is fat. I'm proud of my body and that is that." In what is no doubt an adult- inspired number, they even spoof plastic surgery. ("Flub is a girl who thinks she's all that, getting her breasts redone. . . . Now she's getting plastic surgery and she looks like a little rat.")

Even though girls clearly know the upbeat party line— it's okay to be short, it's okay to be fat, et cetera, et cetera— the self-affirming messages are already mixed in with negative feelings. For instance, one 10-year-old volunteers: "Girls are always like, we have to be like Barbie. But we don't." Then she adds that she hates her gut: "It's too big. Like I spend dreams wishing that I was different."

The floating bits of misinformation about imminent bodily changes are far easier to defuse than social messages about body images. "When I started thinking about periods I got really scared," says one nine-year-old whose mother and little sister have come to watch the show. "People were saying that it's going to hurt." But a visit from a gynecological physician's assistant, Virginia Reath, put such fears to rest. Reath also addressed other trepidations, like the fear that when puberty comes, they'll be forced to have sex.

"They were terrified," says Reath, who told the girls they may want to have sex, but that they didn't necessarily have to. (Reath also noted the girls' fascination with the tampons and pads she brought to the class, which some students quickly tore apart and transformed into hats.)

Not all of growing up is such fun and games, of course. For Pullman, who arranged for some of the older girls to take a self-defense class, safety concerns are paramount. "There is no question that as their bodies change they suddenly become meat on the street," she says. "All you have to do is walk down the street and watch what happens. Men look at them and talk to them."

Her solution? To institute boys' as well as girls' projects all over the public school system. The Neighborhood School girls don't initially agree, however. When one audience member asks if the girls think there should be a boys' project, the response is a cheerful chorus of nos. Why not?

"I've never seen a boy express his feelings," says one smiling fourth grader. Another pipes in that she's "not sure what they would teach boys. They're always so macho and stuff." But gradually— perhaps responding to their parents' discomfort or the wide-eyed looks of the little brothers in the audience— the girls change their minds.

"Boys should have a group," one says later. "Then they could learn not to tease us."

slerner@villagevoice.com

 
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