When a 15-year-old girl asked Hillary Clinton how she would heal the damage caused by Donald Trump’s comments about women, Clinton’s answer was a little confusing, sort of contradictory … and completely accurate.
“I see with my own eyes the damage Donald Trump does when he talks about women and how they look,” the girl, identified as Brennan Leach, daughter of a Pennsylvania state senator, said to Clinton during a town hall in Haverford, Pa., on Tuesday. “As the first female president, how would you undo some of that damage and help girls understand that they are so much more than just what they look like?”
First: I love this girl. At 15, I was plotting ways to meet any and all members of Duran Duran, so I could talk them into attending my prom. Politics, not so much.
Second: Clinton’s answer.
“My opponent insulted Miss Universe,” she said to laughter.
“We can’t take any of this seriously anymore,” she continued. “We need to laugh at it. We need to refute it. We need to ignore it. And we need to stand up to it.”
Wait. Ignore it and stand up to it? Don’t take it seriously and refute it? That sounds like a rather impossible combination.
That’s because it is.
It’s also exactly what girls and women find ourselves trying to do every day, whether we’re deciding how to respond to Twitter trolls or playground taunts or boorish presidential candidates.
Clinton’s answer captured the dialogue that runs on a continuous loop in so many of our heads:
Just ignore it. It’s laughable!
But it’s also not funny.
OK, it’s not stopping. I’m going to say something. Should I say something?
Are we doing don’t-poke-the-tiger or out-the-troll these days? Don’t-stoop-to-their-level or beat-them-at-their-own-game?
It’s exhausting. There’s no right way to do it, because “it” is an impossible task:
Turn off your humanity and your ability to experience and process emotions.
Craft a plan.
Throw out the plan when it doesn’t work.
Know that the plan will never work because you’re fighting centuries of bias and expectations and messages that tell you to be beautiful and be nurturing and be nice and be ladylike. Have thick skin and laugh it off and don’t take everything so seriously. Speak up and don’t let yourself be mistreated and don’t be an enabler.
Clinton’s answer was confusing because we’ve put girls and women in a confusing spot. It’s tough to remember that you’re so much more than your looks when magazine covers and beauty-product marketers and Kylie Jenner indicate otherwise.
It’s even tougher when a presidential candidate goes on a middle-of-the-night tweet storm about a beauty queen gaining weight.
As for undoing that damage, a female president would be a good reminder that girls and women are more than their looks.
And for our part, we can do all the things Clinton mentioned to combat the notion that our appearance is our worth: Laugh at it, refute it, ignore it, stand up to it.
We get to decide when one (laugh) feels more appropriate than the other (refute), and we can cut ourselves some slack when our first choice doesn’t work.
And, above all, we can shore up other people – girls, boys, women, men – when we see them trying to achieve that impossible balance in the face of taunts.
Brennan Leach was brave enough to stand up in an auditorium and speak truth to a presidential candidate. Let’s find the courage to answer her with some humanity toward one another – and ourselves.