by Naomi Katz, Founder and Director of Beautiful Project.

In the past year, following the publication of my book, Beautiful, I traveled extensively in the US and abroad to share my work, in particular with young women. Everywhere I went, I saw that girls today really do believe that women can achieve anything and that doors are open in ways they had never been previously. This is great…and it comes at a very costly price. Girls are understanding that equality for women means doing the same things the men are doing, achieving in the same arenas, at the same levels.

But women and men are different. Naming, recognizing and celebrating this difference is essential for the positive growth and development of both boys and girls. In a culture where we measure progress in patriarchal standards, we devalue that which is different about us. We have forgotten to value women’s work – as women. We are valuing women’s work when they work like men. Equality is not about being the same. Equality is about equally valuing that which is male and that which is female. 

Time and again, I have watched girls internalize the message that to be a ‘successful’ woman in our culture, they can choose one of two routes – transform yourself into a sexual object or do all that you can to achieve in the same ways as the men. 

We are doing great work to address the issue of sexual objectification and how it impacts girls. What about the other route?

It’s a dangerously slippery slope, this argument to celebrate the difference between men and women. Because I am not saying that we can’t achieve in the same ways men do. Of course we can. For example, could you imagine a successful political candidacy based on a woman’s perspective as a grandmother? Or even as a woman? 

In that light, I am questioning whether the notion that we can do it all has truly served us, whether that idea is what will bring true equality. When I speak to a 12-year- old girl and she tells me that in her perspective, associating particular qualities with women makes those qualities less valuable, I worry. When we educate girls to believe that being equal means being the same, we rob them. We diminish, or perhaps even eliminate, the value of being a woman. 

In the time when girls are in the transition to becoming women, they feel an awesome power growing inside them. Cultures all over the world have been celebrating this moment for generations – because the amazing power growing in these girls is the capacity to give life. In our culture, instead of honoring the young woman’s beauty and emerging sexuality, we capitalize on it. We use her beauty, her youth, to sell things. And we teach her to do the same. Our culture demonstrates to girls that their sexuality is a tool, a commodity that can be traded, often for power.

Movements for equality have helped girls understand that they don’t need to acquiesce to the cultural expectation of sexualization, but have offered a very cheap alternative. 

How are our girls understanding what it means to be a woman in today’s culture? How do we, as adult women, see womanhood? What values serve as the basis of the initiation of our girls? And, for that matter, our boys? 

We really need to reconsider the initiations we are giving our youth. It is my sincere hope that we can help girls embrace that which is special and unique about being women in a way that allows them to see that celebrating difference is, in fact, deeply empowering. Would we call it racial equality if we were teaching youth of color to act white? 

So I ask – and I really would love to hear from you – what does it mean to us to educate emerging women leaders today?