October 23rd, 2001 11:55 am Sunday morning: A baby girl is born at Seton Hospital in Austin, Texas. When she is cleaned up and ready to try at this thing called “life”, the baby is handed to two overjoyed parents. As she looks into these strangers’ eyes, strangers who have vowed to do everything in their power to keep her healthy and happy, there are no conditions. No expectations. No fear.
A minute passes. And by 11:56 am, the world has already begun its analysis. It’s too late now. Society has placed its expectations on her shoulders and there is nothing that anyone can do to stop it: not her bright and optimistic parents, not her protective elder brother, not even herself. But before society can start establishing and confining her boundaries, she must be taught. This 8 pound 7 ounce newborn must be taught what it means to be a girl. She will not be taught through a book or a lecture or by any teacher. This baby girl will be taught through experiences: situational learning. And when it’s all over, her final result will not be calculated by a grade atop a piece of paper or a number on a computer screen. No, this girl’s aptitude will be measured by everyone who has ever laid eyes on her, everyone who has ever had an opinion of her.
Looking back, I wish it were as easy as I will soon make it out to be. I wish it didn’t take mixed messages hidden in the way people will speak to her and the hurdles she will never be able to cross without knowing why. I wish she could read one book and understand it all. I wish she could be taught the same way she is taught calculus and chemistry. But, the only way to learn what she is about to learn is through experience.
As a girl I’ve been taught that makeup is nothing but a synonym for narcissism and covering insecurities.
As a girl I’ve been taught to always keep a smile on my face in fear of coming off as unapproachable.
As a girl I’ve been taught to make men and women think that my skills are rudimentary compared to theirs so that my abilities and qualifications never threaten theirs.
As a girl I’ve been taught that other women’s beauty is a lack of my own.
As a girl I’ve been taught to keep my face pretty if I ever want to be marketable in any job field.
As a girl I’ve been taught never to raise my voice in fear of being unladylike.
As a girl I’ve been taught to let others lead to shield my reputation from words like “bossy”.
As a girl I’ve been taught that my dreams have limitations
As a girl I’ve been taught to work twice as hard only to get half as far
As a girl I’ve been taught that what I wear means more than what I say
As a girl I’ve been taught not to be surprised by phrases like “first female (fill in the blank) in history” or “It’s another loss for the feminists”
As a girl I’ve been taught to deflect compliments but never come off as insecure
As a girl I’ve been taught that even though my parents taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be, achieve anything I set my mind to and dream as far and as wide as the sky, society has taught me the truth: that as a girl, I have limits and I have expectations to meet.
As a girl I’ve been taught that “That’s just the way it is”.
But growing amongst great women, women of different color, creed, sexual orientation and backgrounds different but nonetheless, women with similar experiences of blatant and subtle sexism has taught me so much more than society would have wanted.
But the most valuable thing that I have learned as a young woman in this society is to unlearn it all.
Unlearn the need to be jealous of other women
Unlearn the idea that a woman is less adept than her male counterpart.
Unlearn the importance of looking presentable at all times and learn how to be presentable at all times.
As a strong and independent girl, I believe I have two options. Two very simple options. Give up or try harder. Now it would be incredibly hypocritical of me to say that I have always chosen the latter. That I never give up when I feel that a certain system is too patriarchal and unjust. Because as a girl, I’ve learned to pick my battles. That no matter if I am in the middle of a classroom, audition, leadership conference or interview, I will never fully escape the jaws of sexism. Sometimes it’s smarter to walk away and instill positive change elsewhere than to stay attempting to be released from these jaws. And other times, times like this, it’s only satisfying to continue fighting, to attempt to change the system.
Looking back fifteen years and into the watery eyes of that 8 pound 7 ounce baby girl, I would tell her to trade out what society has taught her about how to be a beautiful girl and replace it with how to be a beautiful person. Learn that women are the future.
As a girl, I think therefore I am, undoubtedly strong and unapologetically capable.