I was flying solo last night while my husband was out of town, so I decided to take the kids to Chick Fil A for dinner. We ate and then the girls went to play in the playground area while I finished my dinner and cleaned up our table. After a few quiet minutes of peaceful time to myself, I was startled by the noise of my older daughter bursting through the playroom door. She rushed over to me, indignant, but also clearly suffering from hurt feelings.
“Mommy!” She shouted, “This boy just said that I am a stupid girl! He said I was singing my song wrong and that he didn’t want to play with me because I am just a STUPID GIRL!”
I was pretty angry. I followed her into the play area and had a little talk with the boy who had upset her so badly. I explained that what he said about my daughter was untrue and that it had hurt her feelings. I told him that he could help make it better by saying he was sorry. But even though his big brother was backing me up, the little boy was unrepentant.
So I turned the conversation over to my daughter instead and we started talking about all the things that are true about her.
“You’re not a stupid girl at all,” I told her. “You are a very smart girl. You are a smart person. And you are funny, and fun to be around, and really, really creative.”
“Yes,” she said, “and I am nice and imaginative and I got two prizes in camp today and I am a good big sister.”
But even though she knew all those things to be true, the insult the little boy had thrown at her still rankled. She couldn’t let it go. She brought it up repeatedly last night and it was still bothering her this morning.
And every time she mentioned what had happened, she always said the same thing: that she was upset because the boy had called her “a stupid girl.” She has been bullied before by another student in her class, and while the experience was very hurtful, she never dwelled on what the child from her school said to her as much as she did on being called a stupid girl.
My daughter had a new experience last night, and it was one that I always knew was coming. For the first time in her six years of life, she was exposed to the fact that there are people in this world who add the word “girl” to insults with the goal of making them more offensive.
The little boy who said those hurtful words was just that – a little boy. I know he probably had no real concept of what he was saying. Insults get bandied around playgrounds like balls at a tennis match and most of the time the words kids use to hurt each other are empty of any real meaning. This morning my younger daughter was mortally offended when my older daughter made eye contact with her and said “nah-nah nah-nah.” She sensed the intent to insult, even though the words her sister used were nonsense.
But still. There was something more to what that boy said, whether he was aware of it or not, and my daughter is perceptive enough to have felt that there was an extra barb in what he said.
Because it is undeniably true that in our social lexicon, the word girl – and all of its synonyms — are often used to convey criticism.
“You run like a girl.”
“You fight like a girl.”
“You kick like a girl, throw like a girl, hit like a girl.”
“You cry like a girl.”
These are not generally meant as compliments.
During football season, when people want to denigrate a member of the opposing team, they come up with memes of players in tutus and post them all over Facebook:
We imply that men are weak or cowardly by calling them pussies – and we’re not referring to cats. Men who are strong and imposing are “manly men,” while men who are more meek and subdued are “girly men.”
Even among women, when we say someone is “girly” we aren’t remarking on her strength of character, or her intelligence, or on the fact that she has the body parts required to build another human being. We are implying that she likes shopping, and pampering, and makeup, and pretty things.
The implied negative connotation we have connected with the word “girl” is prevalent enough that Always – that’s right, the feminine products company – has released a video highlighting just what people mean when they use the term “like a girl.” It’s worth watching.
My daughter got her first taste of this social phenomenon last night, but thankfully she still doesn’t understand just how deeply rooted it is in our culture. The truth will dawn on her eventually. My hope is that, when it does, she remembers this: that she is the only person who defines who she is. And that what it means to be a girl — or to do something like a girl — means nothing more or less than to be her best self and to do what comes naturally to her with courage and confidence.
And one more thing – you know the song my daughter was singing that the little boy found so annoying? It was my daughter’s cover of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It went like this:
Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star
And I love just what you are.
Up above the world so high
Like a heart up in the sky.
Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star.
And I love just what you are.
When it comes to being her best self, I can’t help but think that she has a pretty good start.