A few weeks ago, I attended my four-year old niece’s first dance recital. Excitement was in the air as the little ones filed onto the stage and faced the crowd in the packed auditorium. There were tutus and leotards aplenty, and enough tulle to fill the entire auditorium. They danced – all cute and awkward as four year olds do - took their bows, and exited the stage.
There were about 25 routines in the program. Most were very tasteful and the songs age-appropriate for the dancers. But occasionally, a group of pre-teen girls would be brought out on stage in outfits that left little to the imagination and dance to songs with lyrics that made me cringe. I couldn’t help thinking about the sexualization and objectification of our girls at such a young age. My mind quickly turned to the men in the audience, and I started wondering how many of them were perhaps looking at these young girls in a sexual way. Looking back to the stage as another group of young girls were brought out, the “1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused by the age of 18” statistic popped into my head. And so began the downward spiral. Talk about vicarious trauma! I guess I had been under the false assumption that vicarious trauma couldn’t happen to me because I no longer do direct service work. But this experience made it perfectly clear that is not the case.
I wanted to process my thoughts. When a family member remarked how wonderful the show was (and 98% of it was), I had to throw in my two cents about the inappropriateness of some of the dance routines, costumes, etc. Wow. Talk about a moment where I was lacking a filter for my thoughts. I did a good job of alienating those in my company.
Yes, my prevention-oriented brain kicked in in an appropriate way (thinking about how we objectify and sexualize our young girls); but my thoughts quickly snowballed into vicarious trauma overload (thinking about how many of the young girls were experiencing violence or how many of the audience members were perpetrators). It was a clear signal to me that I needed to take a breath and step back. And I was reminded about how important it is to stay grounded when doing prevention work, practice self-care, and not get knocked down by that snowball. There is a time and place to have those discussions and fight that good fight. Being there that day and supporting my young niece as she bravely displayed her newfound dancing talent was what it was all about. Yes, we need to see situations like this as opportunities to challenge unhealthy social norms. But sometimes we also have to see it for what it is – a sweet, four-year olds first dance recital.
The NSVRC has a great resource on vicarious trauma . I hope you’ll check it out. Feel free to share how you practice self-care when doing prevention work by leaving a comment below.