Something happened at the gym the other day. At first it didn’t seem like something outrageous, or scary, or even really noteworthy. Which is exactly why I felt the need to write about it.
I exercise a lot. Mostly to get fit in case there’s a sudden zombie apocalypse and I need to be able to outrun the bastards, but also because I find it fun. I often attend group fitness classes; the class environment feels very supportive and inclusive, there’s an instructor cheering you on, everyone else looks just as miserable as you feel after another cardio track, and you know that every session brings you one step closer to your fitness goals. In short, it’s a great way to work-out, have fun, and maybe even make a few new friends.
A couple of days ago I attended a class that focused on martial arts style workouts; it involved a lot of punching, kicking, dodging, and other actions that brought out my inner ninja. In my mind, I was kicking ass and taking the patriarchy down one imaginary, privileged male at a time. I felt like a badass.
However, as I was dodging a particularly nasty (imaginary) roundhouse kick, I heard something that made it feel like my opponent had started to hit back: “I don’t want to see any weak, girl punches. Make sure they’re tough and strong.” Just that sentence made me stop mid-punch, and would have led to a K.O. for sure if my attacker had been real.
“Weak like a girl.”
I thought it strange that our instructor would use such derogatory phrases in order to motivate a fitness class that was almost all-girls. It felt odd and alienating, and I enjoyed myself less during the rest of the class. I tried to make sure that my punches were anything but weak; to prove not just to myself, but to the instructor as well that girls can punch really hard, wishing that she would stop using “like a girl” as a threat, and start using it as a compliment.
She made me feel like being female meant being weak.
Before I sound like I am singling out any one person, I will admit that in my lifetime I too have been guilty of using “like a girl” as something that people should be ashamed, rather than proud, of. I’m sure that many of us have, at one point or another, used phrases such as “you hit like a girl”, “stop crying like a little girl”, or “you’re such a pussy”, in order to insult someone.
For men it is even worse. Not only do they have to suffer humiliating comparisons to females, they also have to live in constant fear that if they act weak in any way, then in the eyes of their peers they will become a woman (“he just doesn’t have the balls”). Which is apparently the worst insult you can deliver to a man.
Wow, those poor men.
In truth, both men and women are guilty of saying such nasty things, but it’s so tragic that in doing so, women are casually mocking their own sex just because the belief that girls are naturally weaker than boys is so ingrained into our society.
A belief that is perpetuated by self-fulfilling prophecies.
According to Lise Eliot, PhD, the way that we perceive children - weak or strong, nurturing or aggressive, verbally or spatially intelligent - shapes how we treat them and thus what types of experiences they are exposed to. Studies in laboratories and playgrounds show that mothers are more likely to discourage physical risk taking in daughters than in sons, most likely because they believe that girls are more fragile and need to be protected (Eliot, 2010).
Peer groups also play a large role in early social conformity; at young ages children tend to stick to all-boy or all-girl groups. Thus, in all-boy groups, energetic boys will be encouraged to engage in more active and rough play, whereas energetic girls are encouraged to settle down in groups of more docile friends and to play games that promote a more nurturing disposition (Elliot, 2010).
Essentially, girls are taught from a very young age that they should be more docile, nurturing, and to take less physical risks than their male counterparts. These young girls will then most likely grow into adulthood believing that they really are weak, fragile, and in need of protection, and will treat their own daughters as such.
I am not arguing that girls and boys have exactly the same physical capabilities. It is true that males tend to have more muscle mass than females, and that they are generally taller and bigger overall. But that does not mean that women are weaker by default, and we should definitely not be raising them as though they are.
So where does this leave us? Well for a start we can stop using the phrase “like a girl” as an insult; in fact, let’s just stop using it altogether. Girls can hit hard. Girls can run fast. Yes girls do cry sometimes, but so does every other human being on the planet. Girls can kick ass and rule the world, if only they are allowed to believe it.
So the next time someone tells you something that ends with “like a girl”, treat it like the compliment that it should have been, and strut off into the sunset like the queen that you are.
(If you do feel the need to insult someone by comparing them to something else, try using the word ‘duck’. Ducks can’t punch. Ducks can’t kick. Ducks can’t run fast. Poor ducks. I would hate to be compared to a duck). ▼
For further reading:
‘Pink brain, blue brain’ by Lise Eliot, Phd.
‘Out with the pink and blue: Don’t foster the gender divide’ by Lise Eliot, PhD.
‘The truth about girls and boys: Challenging toxic stereotypes about our children’ by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett.