One mistake will ruin your life. For generations, adolescent girls have heard that message over and over from mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, and busybodies galore. Whether the warnings are about getting their hearts broken, losing their oh-so-precious virginity, or –- worst of all –- getting pregnant, the admonitions are urgent, repetitive, and (even when they're ignored) effective at instilling anxiety and self-doubt. Girls born as recently as the 21st century are taught that adolescence and young adulthood consists of a series of pitfalls to be avoided, and that one false step could mean a lifetime of heartbreak and regret.
This "do one wrong thing and you'll pay for it forever" narrative isn't just tied to perennial parental fears about high school pregnancy. Regrettably, it's become one of the primary lessons of the Amanda Todd tragedy. Less than three weeks after the Canadian teen killed herself, her story has been hijacked to serve as a brutal object lesson about the lethality of a single lapse. In the Examiner, Angela Gaines writes "I'm sure she never fathomed what could happen to her as a result of that unforgettable few seconds of her life, but now we all know… This story is one sad example of how a life was blown to bits because of one regrettable indiscretion."
Gaines' piece is itself "one sad example" of the way in which Todd's suicide has been appropriated in the service of victim-blaming slut-shaming repackaged as concern for vulnerable teens. It's hardly the only one; a story this week on Emoderation carries the URL "Young People's Lives Ruined by Sexting Images." The report itself isn't alarmist, simply warning of the very real likelihood (88%) that a naked image sent privately will end up in the public domain sooner or later. Research shows boys and girls sext in nearly equal numbers. The problem isn't gendered. But the hand-wringing rhetoric about "a life blown to bits" is directed almost exclusively at girls.
It's easy for girls to internalize this message. In her powerful story about being bullied into making nude webcam videos when she was 15, "Anonymous" writes of the pain of her parents' disappointment. Despite her interest in theater, she decided that "a career as a musician or actress were completely out of the question. A job in the public eye could be ruined over a mistake I made at a young age." No doubt Anonymous believes what she wrote. Yet given the great and growing number of celebrated actresses with nude pics or sex tapes in their pasts or presents, her fear seems grounded less in objective truth and more in culturally-reinforced anxiety about what "one mistake" can do.
The heartbreaking tragedy of Amanda Todd fits all too well into the larger cultural narrative that demands perfection from girls. Her "error" serves as a very public stand-in for all the other possible mistakes young women can make that will, we tell them, mess up their lives. The perfectionism that drives young female athletes to ignore warning signs of injury much more consistently than their male counterparts (a growing phenomenon documented in Michael Sokolove's Warrior Girls) reflects a belief that admitting fragility or exhaustion is a mistake that can both ruin a soccer career and reflect badly on their future chances of success. The "Supergirl crisis" is far from over-hyped, made worse by a culture where male underachievement just exacerbates the pressure ambitious and anxious girls already feel. The end result is a cruel double-bind: "you can be anything you want to be," we tell our daughters, "but you're so fragile that a single mistake can wipe out everything you've worked for." That's a recipe for exhaustion.
The reality is that girls are more resilient than we think. That doesn't mean that hurt isn't real, but that their capacity to overcome shame, heartbreak, and a C on their chemistry quiz is much greater than we permit them to believe. We're scared to teach our daughters that they can slough off humiliation, largely because we fear that letting go of the "one mistake can ruin your life" narrative will be misinterpreted as a hall pass to recklessness. The erroneous belief that fear is the best tool to keep girls "safe" and "on track" is what drives this pernicious myth of female frailty.
Acknowledging girls' capacity to thrive after a "mistake" doesn't mean that we shouldn't acknowledge their very real pain. Teaching resilience doesn't mean foisting an unhelpful "big girls don't cry" message on vulnerable adolescents. It means focusing on giving them what we've given their brothers for decades: the chance to see failure –- and even humiliation -– as an opportunity rather than as a life-destroying disaster.
In his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs spoke about the hidden blessings of his very "public failure." After his firing from Apple, Jobs said he felt "like running away... I had let the previous generation down." But, he pointed out, his humiliation turned out to be the seed of his liberation: "the heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. (What had seemed like a mistake) freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."
Yes, there's a difference between an adult dealing with the fall-out of getting fired by a computer company and a 12 year-old coping with the aftermath of having flashed her boobs on a webcam. At the same time, Jobs' address didn't go viral because it was only relevant to male software engineers and entrepreneurs. It went viral because it was a universal human reminder about resilience and the capacity to overcome obstacles. It was a more eloquent version of the same speech we usually give to boys, when we urge them to shake off setbacks as learning experiences and "try, try again." Teen girls hear that message much less often, and when they do, it's likely with the implicit reminder that 2nd, 3rd, and 97th chances are mostly for men.
Obviously, Amanda Todd needed and deserved a lot more than a pep talk about getting through the hard times. Ending the "one mistake will ruin your life" narrative must also be accompanied by a war on the cyber creeps who prey on young girls. We also need a (long-overdue) campaign against a slut-shaming culture that pushes girls to walk the impossibly thin line between being sexy and being skanky. While there's absolutely no need to encourage girls to send nude pics far and wide, it would also be helpful to press home the message that a young woman's worth has nothing to do with how few –- or how many — people have seen her naked.
The freedom to fail is an indispensable prerequisite for success. We know it because it's part of an old American narrative about endless possibility. Today, women can be successful athletically, academically, and professionally in ways that earlier generations couldn't have imagined. But we've made the mistake of expanding young women's opportunities to succeed much more rapidly than we've expanded their right to fuck up along the way. The result is a culture that sees the Amanda Todd story not merely as a terrible story about misogyny, bullying, and slut-shaming –- but about the fatal consequences of a single wrong impulse.
Someday in the not-too-distant future, a powerful woman –- a Jobs-like figure -– will come forward and produce a pixelated image of her own naked teen body. She'll share what it was like to send that picture out, and what it was like when it was spread all over school. And she'll talk about how as painful as it was, it didn't ruin her life.
That day can't come soon enough.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.
Image by Jim Cooke