#LikeAGirl: What young girls teach me about the woman I want to be

pink-bike-triathlon

This past Sunday, I did as I often do, which is get up at an obscenely early hour and drive to the site of a race.  Except this time I wasn’t competing; I was volunteering.  But even if I had wanted to compete, I wouldn’t have been able to, as we were volunteering at a youth triathlon.

The opportunity for volunteerism came about because Brian and I have recently gotten involved with a local running and triathlon team, and part of our responsibilities as members of the team is to volunteer for at least two events sponsored by the team.  The youth triathlon was being held about five minutes away from home, and really, who can resist the lure of watching hundreds of little kids run around a soccer field and pedal furiously on bikes equipped with training wheels?  Volunteering at a youth triathlon seemed like a total no-brainer.

The team members were assigned to serve as marshals in the transition area, which meant being on hand to help with everything from racking bikes before the race began to making sure they didn’t leave transition without their bike helmets on.  The triathletes ranged in age from 5 (seriously, how cute!) to 15, and for a lot of them, you could tell it wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo.  Some kids had their gear in big Speedo tri bags, nicer than the ratty pink gym bag I tote my gear around in.  Some of them wore tiny Zoot tops, and in a few cases, wore the tri kits of their elite youth teams.  One kid had a gorgeous charcoal black bike that probably cost about a year’s worth of tuition and fees at a major state university.  We adults kept picking it up and marveling at how light it was.

Not all of them were future ITU pro triathletes, though. There were the kids who rolled up in borrowed mountain bikes or Huffy bikes with training wheels on, dressed in swimsuits and clutching helmets shaped like pink dolphins or decorated with mohawks of rubber spikes, all their gear in grocery bags.  You could tell these kids had never done something like this before. I think everyone who is involved in triathlon can relate to this to some degree, especially those of us who completed our first ones on hybrid mountain bikes while wearing a swimsuit under a pair of running shorts.

I helped where I could, but for the older kids there wasn’t much to do.  (Most of the work came later, when we all found ourselves swarmed with 5-, 6- and 7-year-old kids who needed help taking off their shoes and buckling their helmets.)  As a result I spent a lot of time just observing what was going on around us. I talked a bit with the other volunteers, trying to get to know my new teammates a little better.  I tried not to roll my eyes too hard at the overly competitive parents screaming at their kids from outside the transition area…okay, I lied. I totally rolled my eyes at them and even muttered “Give it a rest already” under my breath a few times.

Mostly, though, I watched the kids.  I liked watching all of them – the tweens, the kids just out of toddlerhood, and all of the different skill levels and abilities – but I found myself particularly taken with the girls in the 9- and 10-year-old age group.  They blazed through transition, their faces set with an intensity that blew me away. They were adorable, yes, but they were also awesome.

I turned to another one of the volunteers, a lady named Constance, and said, “Did you see them?  That was awesome!” What she said in response stuck with me. She said, “That’s because none of them care about what they look like.  It’s not like adults, where we’re always worried about what we look like even when we’re racing.”

Later that day, I kept coming back to those little girls, how for those few minutes they seemed utterly without self-consciousness and how completely beautiful it was to behold, how I aspire to have as many moments as possible like that in my own life.  I thought about the paradox of self-consciousness, particularly in the context of athletic and artistic performance, how the moment you step outside yourself to think about how you might look to others is the moment you are most likely to miss a step, to drop the ball, to stumble, to lose the beat.  How this even affects me as a writer, how the second I think about all of the potential people who might read my work is the second the words stop coming to me.

I thought about the concept of self-objectification as articulated by the Drs. Kite at Beauty Redefined, and how it can limit us:

Research shows us that when we live “to be looked at” in a perpetual state of self-consciousness about our looks, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, we have lower sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left anxious and unhappy.

I thought about the Always #LikeAGirl ad directed by Lauren Greenfield, which started going viral last week.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it here.  (And if you have seen it already, well, why not watch it again?)

The ad’s main purpose is to interrogate the use of “like a girl” as an insult, and it does a wonderful job of that by showing how older teenagers, men and boys define “like a girl:” as silly, ineffectual, unfocused, simpering.  The girls themselves had not yet quite received those messages, though, and they threw, ran, punched and jumped with everything their bodies and hearts were capable of mustering.

The faces of those young girls in this ad?  Those are also same faces of the young girls I watched at Sunday’s triathlon.

If you have ever read Reviving Ophelia, then you know the central thesis, which is that many young girls are confident and self-assured until they hit adolescence, which is when they start to pull back in on themselves in an attempt to prepare themselves to occupy the smaller, less expansive role of “woman.”

The girls in this ad, the girls I watched at the triathlon – they are not in need of reviving, not even close. I hope they never are.

All this led me to spend some time thinking about myself as a girl, how I would have liked to have been one of those confident and self-assured young girls. Sadly, though, I don’t have much of a memory of a time before the veil of self-consciousness descended upon me, as my childhood between the ages of four and eight was a rather difficult one, peppered with traumas whose severity I only came to fully appreciate as an adult.  (And by the way, this is why I refuse to subscribe to the cultural idiom that “like a girl” automatically means weak and silly.  I was a resilient survivor as a little girl, which in turn made me the tough, compassionate woman I am today.)   I thought about how I am one of millions of people who never even get that supposedly idyllic time before adolescence arrives and throws everything into disarray.

I thought about myself as a teenager and a young woman, how self-consciousness hampered me as an athlete and as a student and as a human being.  How I dressed in a way that I hoped deflected the attention I didn’t want, the dangerous attentions of grown men, even as part of me craved attention in hopes that it would validate me.  How I finally came to understand that I was putting far too much stock in what I perceived as the opinions of people who, in all likelihood, didn’t care about me nearly as much as I worried they did.  And I thought about how grateful I am to have finally reclaimed the tiniest bit of what I see in those girls.

I made a comment a few weeks back on someone else’s blog, about how being extraordinarily tall has forced me to get used to the feeling of being seen  and to eventually understand that being seen doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything at all.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I am being judged and found wanting in the eyes of others, and if it does, well, who cares?   Just because someone thinks something doesn’t necessarily make it valid or true.

I don’t think this necessarily has to be a case of paradise lost, never to be found again.  I don’t think we have to exist in a perpetual state of self-objectification, nor do I think we must allow the gaze of others to, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, shrink us and make us smaller.  I think it is possible to recapture that spark I saw in those girls, and to cultivate it and nourish it and to sustain it through the rest of our lives.

I believe we can and should at least try to pursue a life in which we live with exuberance and joy, in which we take delight in ourselves and our bodies and our minds.  If anything, we owe it to the girls we once were and the girls who are growing up today and the girls who have yet to be born.  If we can’t do it for ourselves, let’s at least do it for them.

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23 responses to “#LikeAGirl: What young girls teach me about the woman I want to be

  1. This is just a fantastic, inspiring post. It makes me a little sad to think back on my own “pulling back” around the age of 11, but like you said here, I, too, am grateful to “have finally reclaimed the tiniest bit of what I see in those girls.” That line honestly got me a little overwhelmed and teary-eyed. Thank you for putting into words so well, like you always do!

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  3. This is such a great post. I have a 2 year old girl and I constantly worry about making sure she is a tough, compassionate, confident girl. Even more so because I wasn’t and ended up spending a large part of my life with an eating disorder. I always try to let her know that it’s not about doing things like an x or y but doing things like herself. Having said that, I love the determination shown by the younger girls in that ad and have started using positive reinforcement if the word ‘girl’ as also encompassing strength, courage, confidence and compassion.
    Thanks for the post!

    • Good luck to you and your daughter! I’m sure that your concern and compassion for her will go along way toward helping her navigate the tricky waters that lie ahead for her.

      And also “doing things like herself” is so wonderful, and something I think all of us could stand to do, regardless of gender.

  4. Ugh, yes, my heart aches for my younger self.

    But even In my adult life, even after I’ve educated myself about these gendered tendencies of ours, I find it painfully difficult to un-learn them, especially when self-objectification takes the form of other, more subtle things like waiting for validation, asking for permission, apologizing, etc.* It sounds like you’ve made more progress on this than I have. Would you consider writing about how you unlearned damaging gendered thinking/behavior?

    *I appreciate but feel extremely skeptical about these companies’ pro-women youtube videos…

    • I can try, but I don’t really feel like I have it all figured out, you know? Part of it is surrounding myself with supportive people, part of it has been practicing mindfulness with regards to my behavior and thinking.

      I will say that a big part of it has simply been getting older and no longer caring as much. I cared a lot when I was younger, and all it ever got me was heartbreak and frustration, so now I just don’t really see the point in continuing to think that way. I don’t think getting older is necessarily a magic bullet, but it definitely helps.

      The other thing that happened is that I had this experience when I was 31 or 32, where I was certain for about 30 seconds that I was going to die. I didn’t die, obviously, but it had this really profound effect on the way I approach my life. Instead of operating as if I will live forever, I’ve come to understand that I can die at any time, and that I will not get a do-over. As far as any of us knows, this is the only chance we get at living, and so I refuse to let things like insecurity about my body or fear of judgment prevent me from taking full advantage of that. I don’t recommend near-death experiences, though, because they are scary as shit, but it’s a big part of why I am as adamant as I am that people should not waste their lives living in fear.

      And yes, I totally get the skepticism regarding this kind of advertising. However, I also feel like advertising is here to stay, and so I’d rather have ads like this than more ads that aim to make us feel bad and ashamed of ourselves.

  5. Amazing post! Really touching and you are absolutely right. I remember playing sports as a girl and not giving a rat’s ass how I looked all I cared about was how I was playing and somewhere along the way that changed. Happy to say that I think I’ve gotten back to that (rowing is not a sport that is easy to do while keeping an aesthetically pleasing face I can tell you that). Your writing is brilliant and if I am ever lucky enough to have a daughter I want to remember this post so I can make sure she knows how little it matters what you look like, do what you are passionate about and let your focus and determination be what shows!

  6. Love this post Caitlin. I have a 9 yo boy who hangs out with lots of 9 yo girls and I could see all of these awesome girls in the post you describe. They are tough. And cool. And don’t have a care in the world about how they look–you called that right. Funny I never thought about it, and think using them as inspiration is spot on. It’ll be interesting to see though when that change does happen–sadly I’ll bet it’s soon.although like you, I can’t remember when it first started with me.

  7. I love this post so much! I am 53 and a couple years ago I read that postmenopausal women become the preadolescent girls they used to be; that special time before hormones and societal pressures. I know this is not true for all women; some grieve their standing as vital women in a youth oriented society. Not me! I don’t care what people think anymore! Like a young girl, I am figuring out who I am, and who I want to be for me, not for my child, my husband, friends or employer.
    Some older women complain that they have become invisible, for me bring it on!! Like a young girl I want to experience new things, have joy and pleasure without my appearance or what people think having any part in the experience. What a gift it could be if all women could just opt out of the feeding frenzy of our society’s expectations and be that 9 year old again, but if you are not there yet hold on cause getting older is sweet!

  8. Fantastic Post!
    I don’t have much memory of not being shy and self-conscious either, and I really wish I could go back and tell younger me to stop being so paranoid. I think one of the biggest things for girls is that we are taught that being proud of our accomplishments and telling people about them is ‘bragging’, and this seeps into everything. Don’t try to be the best, because you’re just showing off, don’t express your opinion (loudly and with all the background information), because you’re just being bossy. It’s sad that girls learn that they are bossy, braggy and bitchy instead of confident, leaders, and achievers.

  9. Bravo. I saw that ad a few days ago, and loved it till I had that little shiver of advertising-cynicism. And then I got over it.I know we’ve talked about positive advertising here before – http://fitandfeminist.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/dove-nike-and-the-perils-of-positive-advertising/ and here http://fitandfeminist.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/the-upside-of-faux-empowering-advertising-yes-there-is-one/ and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple kinds of positive advertising – the sort that reinforce women’s insecurities (faux-empowering ads for diet foods, beauty products), and the sort that do the opposite (Always, Nike, etc.) As the quantity of such positive advertising grows, working out which is which will become more critical.

    • Yeah, the conversations that have unfolded in the comments of these posts have actually caused me to be a little bit less cynical about these kinds of advertisements. I used to be like “ALL ADVERTISING IS EVIL!” but now I recognize that it’s not necessarily evil as much as it is powerful, and I’d much rather see the powers of advertising be used to promote things like this (or ads that are artistic and/or entertaining) than the old shame-and-fear routine that characterizes the vast majority of advertising. Of course, it should go without saying that we should remember that it’s ultimately meant to sell products, but I think it’s possible to keep that in mind while still appreciating/criticizing advertising on its own merits.

  10. Great post. The “like a girl” clip was discussed on morning TV here in Australia, and the commentators all said how great it was that the young girls were breaking the stereotype. I was sad because I didn’t think that at all (I hope I’m wrong), I just thought that they hadn’t yet had enough exposure to how society views the phrase “like a girl”. I feel that if those same girls were asked the question in another 10 years, they would do as the older participants have done.

    • Oof, talk about missing the point! Jeez, commentators, get it together!

      I really hope that the young girls of this generation are the ones to finally do away with the internalized girl-hate once and for all. It didn’t happen with my generation, as a lot of women I know (myself include) all went through a phase of being the “cool girl” who hung with mostly guys because we didn’t like most girls, but I’m hopeful that it will happen SOMEDAY.

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  12. Caitlin, your thoughtful reflections in this post remind me of the work of the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, who wrote in 1975 (quite famously, among us performance academics) about narrative Hollywood cinema and the ways it places women in positions of “to be looked-at-ness” (her phrase). Mulvey was exposing a (perhaps to us now obvious) problem, but the exciting thing was the way her work was taken up in the following years as an inspiration for *looking back* at the pressures of the gaze. So, for example, in 1988 Elin Diamond (a theatre scholar at Rutgers, and one of my all time favourite feminist writers) wrote about strategies we might use on stage to create situations in which we “look at being looked at”. This notion of returning the gaze has always seemed to me to be much more than staring down the eyes of society and the many people, men and women, who take it upon themselves to embody those eyes. Rather, it’s more, I think, about looking *at* the way we’ve been set up to look a certain way, *be* a certain way in public space, on the stages of art and sport and so on, and then blinking and saying, forget it, that look doesn’t capture me at all. Move along.

    I love the way the young women in the second half of the ad offer that return of the social gaze, so personally and so powerfully. And I just love the young woman in the blue dress who so forcefully sums things up. My first reaction to the full frontal shot of her body (hello, ingrained social gaze!) was to think, ooh, chunky legs. (Also: thanks mom. But that’s another story.) THEN, almost immediately, I caught myself – or, actually, *she caught me* with the force of her words and their strong, direct delivery. The next thought I had was: STRONG legs. What’s her sport? Which is exactly what I hope the return of the social gaze can always achieve.

    Chapeau, Caitlin!

  13. I’ve been following Amy Poehler’s smart girls campaign. This summer she encouraged girls to go out and get their hair wet. I’m someone that has always worried about getting my hair wet. I decided to take her challenge. I watched how my nieces would jump into the water without hesitation about. I also noticed how most of the adult women would not fully submerge themselves in the water. I’m glad I tried it. I truly loved swimming with my nieces without any concern of my hair.

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