For a few minutes one afternoon while my dog was sniffing bushes, I overheard a family walking down the street in our direction. A girl and her brother, about 10 and 12 years old, were rough-housing—playfully punching each other in the arm, squealing, pushing each other toward the curb, trying to trip the other, laughing and carousing. From behind them, their mother called out, “Bella! You’re wearing a dress. Act like a girl.”
My brain began to buzz and my heart sank toward my shoes. Thus occurred another in an ancient line of incidents—not just for this girl, this Bella, but for girls and women the world over—another brick in the prison wall of sexism, rape culture, and the indelible lesson for Bella and all of her sisters that the world is not designed for them.
It is precisely the innocuous-sounding nature of this mother’s remark that makes it so dangerous. Bella may not remember it, because she has heard and will hear so many like it, before this day and after, from every possible source: her mother, her father, movies, magazines, teachers, pastors, lawyers, courts, men on the streets, girls in her dorm, her future bosses, her best friends. Like a dark symphony that begins with the draw of a bow over one violin and builds until the instruments cannot be distinguished from one another, this music will play in her ears until she cannot hear it anymore, until she is completely unaware of its existence. Yet it will direct and determine so much of the life she leads.
Unless we all agree to wake ourselves from this trance. The ideas I am putting forth are not new—but in an age when more information than we can possibly process assaults our senses on a near-constant basis, a message must be repeated by as many voices as possible until it is heard by every set of ears—just like the symphony. We must be louder, and stronger.
This mother and her children—how am I connecting them to the most sinister atrocities committed against women and girls around the world? Picture, if you will, half a triangle. At the bottom corner—the narrowest point—are Bella and her mother, on their way to dinner on their beach vacation. As the angle widens, about half way up, is a woman in an office who hears the whispered word “Bitch” trailing behind her as she leaves the break room. She is expected to ignore this, as she has many times before, and she knows she would be regarded as petty and ridiculous if she brought it up to anyone in charge. As the angle widens further, to infinity, we find child marriage, domestic violence, “honor” killings. It’s what is known as a continuum—the same principle operating at multiple levels. And it is crucially important to understand that any instance of its employment, no matter how small, sends ripples up the slope of the triangle, reinforcing the whole, like a pebble tossed into a lake, if all the lakes on all the continents were connected to each other, with millions of pebbles thrown in each day.
Women swim their lives in this lake, all with the water just below their chins, some pulled under and drowned. Many of the perpetrators, like Bella’s mother, may have no idea they are throwing a pebble in, but many do know, and choose to shrug and walk away, because it has always been this way, and their lives are humming along just fine. This is privilege, and while its face is often white, wealthy, straight, and male, we must understand that it comes from everywhere—other women, every country, every culture. There are as many forms and sources of sexism as there are fish in all the oceans.
It stops when we say, “Stop.”
One way to do this is to smash the smallest pebble and study its molecules. Let us do so with our Bella. What was she doing that was not “girl-like?” Making noise? Moving around too much? Pushing a boy when he pushed her? Why did it matter that she was wearing a dress? If she had been wearing pants, would her actions have been considered more acceptable? Why? But most, most importantly: why was her brother not admonished? They were engaged in exactly the same behavior. Was he already, appropriately, acting like a boy? Regardless of whether either of them was doing anything wrong, why was Bella told to stop and consider her gender, her actions, her wardrobe, while her brother got to simply keep whistling down the street, never breaking stride? And he heard his mother, too. So not only Bella, but her brother learned that day that girls and only girls must act a certain way, must stop and censor and correct themselves, and must do so as a gesture of obedience and without complaint. The family probably went to Red Lobster that night. They probably never thought about that moment again. But arms were already drawn back with other pebbles, waiting.
Walking along the continuum together, it’s not hard to see how “Act like a girl” will be followed by “Pour your own drinks at the party.” This is said aloud to college women. Does anyone say aloud to the college men, “Don’t put something in her drink?” And then followed by, “How many drinks had she had?” How many drinks had he had? “Why was she dressed like that?” Like how? Like Bella? Does anyone care what he was wearing? “Why didn’t she just leave?” Why did he punch a woman in the face?
Asking the counter-questions is a great place to start. So is getting there first. Every single one of us has witnessed a man “cat-calling” a woman on the street. We can say to our doubting friend or our child, “That’s not how a man should behave. The woman should be able to walk down the street in peace.” It won’t be hard—at all—to find teachable and learnable moments, once we decide we want to learn and teach.
Another strategy to employ is “reclaiming” the offending word or phrase—redefining and reshaping it into a point of pride. So let’s start a hashtag revolution. What would we rather have “Act like a girl” mean, instead of “Be quiet and rein your body in”? Let’s tell our stories. Would you rather study judo than ballet? How about a picture from your dojo posted on Facebook, with the hashtag #ActLikeAGirl. Do you love ballet, and the strength and grace your body can command through dance? Go ahead and dance, and #ActLikeAGirl. Are you a girl born in a boy’s body, and is there something you wish we all knew about your experience? #ActLikeAGirl—we’d love to hear about it. Are you a father learning to embrace feminism, and teaching your sons to do the same? A young woman in high school who wants to learn to weld? To start a company instead of working for one? To walk down the street singing or skipping or skateboarding or shouting at the very top of your lungs? You know what to do.
There are myriad layers and intersections of these issues—those faced when any combination of the prejudices toward gender, race, sexuality, religion, and many other identities are combined. I am dissecting merely the most basic of building blocks.
Things do not change overnight—but with awareness and fortitude, they can change. Using only the example of the United States, look at where women were just 100 years ago—barred by law from the voting booth. One social media campaign is not enough on its own, of course, but individuals are never powerless, and together with the efforts and ideas of women and men around the world, little by little, we can all grow and evolve.
For now, let’s keep saying “Act like a girl.” But let each one of us find our own way to make it mean, “Raise your voice.”
*Names have been changed.
Photo by Austin Schmid