When I was in my late 20s, I was told I “hit like a girl.” I was taking a self-defense class and had never thrown a punch before. The instructor didn’t say “you hit like someone who’s never thrown a punch.” Instead he went for an insult: “you hit like a girl.” I wasn’t confused by what he said: he meant I wasn’t trying hard enough or doing it correctly.
That thoughtless instructor came back to me recently when I saw an ad campaign for products targeted at active women that included the phrase “Like A Girl.” I wasn’t inspired to buy the product, but the ads were a valuable reminder that the negative connotations associated with being female are, even in the 21st century, pervasive in our culture. The phrase “you _____ like a girl” is so deeply ingrained in our society that we automatically know it means we’re not doing something well enough, strong enough, fast enough, smart enough. If we’re doing something like a girl, we’re doing it inadequately.
I was tall, and self-conscious about standing out, as an adolescent. I don’t think I would have felt the same way about being the tallest in the class if I’d been a boy. It can take decades for a girl to unlearn those messages and learn instead how to expand and occupy her space. Yoga became, for me, a great equalizer where the anatomical differences between genders were balanced out over the span of the practice. On the mat different is just different, not better or worse. I was lucky to have been introduced to yoga and weight training at a young age, which helped me develop a strong sense of self and presence. However, that development process took time as well as defiance against what had been an accepted standard that women should take up less space and have soft voices. We continue to use language that reinforces the idea that being a girl means being insufficient.
I’d like to think the days are gone when girls were told to dumb down or to let the boy win to get his affection. However, we are still neck deep in cues for acceptable behavior that teach young girls how to blend in and shrink back. It comes out when we confuse the strength of being self–centered with the weakness of being selfish. It’s apparent when women swallow their voices for fear of being labeled bossy or bitchy. The “Like A Girl” ad campaign tries to turn around the paradigm and make it positive.
It may take much more effort and vigilance to stamp out the idea that to be female is to be a member of the weaker sex, but this ad campaign presents itself as an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable for lazy language as well as the misperceptions behind it, because a single positive message alone cannot erase a cultural standard. As active women, we are all helping to show what it means to be strong and feminine.