I was 5-years-old when boys my age would throw things at me and pull my hair. I tried to tell an adult, but all they’d say is, “Awww, that means he likes you sweetie.” I was 5, and my head hurt from my hair being pulled, and I didn’t understand.
I was 7-years-old when my class was playing kickball, and some of the boys yelled, “You kick like a girl!” I turned, confused, to my female gym teacher, who gave me a shrug and a smile, as if I had to get over it, as if I needed to accept the fact that it’s an insult to be a girl. I was just trying to have fun playing kickball. I was 7, and I didn’t understand.
I was 10-years-old when my teacher needed her desk moved and asked for “four big strong boys” to help her move it. I wanted to help out too, and I knew that I could. I understood that the lifters needed to be strong, but I didn’t get why they had to be boys. I was 10, and I didn’t understand.
I was 14-years-old when I worked as a counselor in a day camp, and watched the kids play outside during break. I sat with my fellow counselors when a 3-year-old camper came up to us and asked if we could put her hair up. As my fellow counselor styled her hair, she praised its honey-blonde color and smooth, fine texture. “You’re going to be a cheerleader when you grow up!” “With hair like that, you’re going to break a lot of hearts!” “I bet you’ll be a model!” I wondered why a 3-year-old was being told that her beauty defines her. I wondered why this counselor did not say the same of the other 3-year-old camper, who had short, frizzy brown hair. I looked at my fellow counselor, with her long, honey-blonde hair, and wondered if she had been told the same thing when she was that age, and if she viewed it as a compliment. I wondered if she had ever wanted to hear a different compliment, but since she hadn’t, this was the only one she knew how to give, the only one she thought mattered. The little girl was 3, and she didn’t understand.
Make no mistake, I wasn’t bullied growing up or harassed by other kids, this was just the way it was. I had male friends and female friends, and we all got along. An entire generation of young boys and girls being shoved into a society of stereotypes, and it all seemed normal. What I experienced was casual sexism, the kind you’ll find in everyday life. But like little drops of water every day for years, there is an impact. This sexism affects everyone, whether they realize it or not.
Sexism affected my childhood, and has impacted who I am today. I grew up being told that I was weak, that boys were strong, that beauty was all that mattered. This is the same thinking that is ingrained into each generation of impressionable young children. This is the same thinking that causes girls to grow up and think they are not allowed to look or be strong because it’s not feminine, that a man can do our work better simply because he’s a man, that abusive relationships are acceptable because dominance and violence show that he likes you, that being sporty makes you “one of the guys” instead of what you are, which is a girl. This is the same thinking that causes boys to grow up and think that they have to be big and strong in order to be masculine, that they should take pride in being better than girls, that they cannot cry, that if they are aggressive girls like them, and if they aren’t aggressive they are a girl — which is the worst insult possible to a young boy.
So, you know what I did, in the face of all this sexism? What I did to combat the ideas that were pushed on me since birth?
I pulled their hair just like they pulled mine.
I kicked farther and ran faster than they did in kickball, to show them how to really “play like a girl”.
I helped my teacher lift her desk.
I told all the 3-year-old girls in my camp that they are strong. And smart. And beautiful.
I was a young girl, and maybe I understood more than I thought.