My daughter was born in 2016. The rhetoric of that year was particularly polarizing, outlandish, and oftentimes, outright sexist. I remember it as a hard time to be a new mom, trying to navigate the ins-and-outs of raising a girl.
I try to be mindful of gender-related messages – for better or for worse.
Even before all of that toxic talk, I considered myself hyper-aware of all things princess culture and other traditional, girly pastimes. I wanted my daughter to be free to choose her path instead of destined for the tired “damsel in distress” trope. Yes, she takes dance class and her favorite color is pink; but she also has a t-ball set and dinosaur toys. Her life; her choices; her voice.
But it was a particular memory from my middle school years that came to the surface only recently, reminding me that this was not always the case.
It bubbled up while I was doing jumping jacks at the gym. I was alone in the ladies’ workout room. We all know the room: just a bunch of mirrors, a loud fan buzzing in the corner, and my thoughts.
Suddenly, I could hear a long-forgotten male P.E. teacher’s voice echoing in my mind. He yelled, “Boys say the evens. Girls say the odds.” This was his way of getting reluctant adolescents to count out jumping jacks as part of our P.E. class warm-up.
It would have been fine if he had stopped there. But he didn’t.
He always paused for a beat and wryly added, “Because they are!” (Get it? He’s basically saying that girls are odd.) He thought he was being funny, but he was actually being sexist.
I didn’t know that word for this back then, but I knew the feeling.
It’s like feeling as small as a speck and as meek as a mouse. It feels like an extra weight being placed on your shoulders. It feels like being the target of a cruel joke. All for being a girl.
He was teaching young men that women are strange and fall into the category of “other.” And he was teaching young women to accept that they are a punch line and voiceless.
I vividly remember the female P.E. teacher, also in charge of our class, shaking her head in dismay as if to admit that this is the way of the world. She should have talked to the male teacher in private (and maybe she did). But I could tell that she felt powerless to change the situation. Perhaps she still felt that her voice did not matter either.
My classmates fell in line. Most of the girls jumped and shouted the odds with pride, their hair pulled back in neon butterfly clips and too much blush covering their rosy cheeks. They were figuring out their place, and they were being told that it wasn’t with the boys.
We repeated this ritual during every P.E. class for three years of middle school. I heard this male teacher dismiss half of the room, half of society, hundreds of times.
I refused to count.
It was my idea of a silent protest. I wasn’t odd, and I didn’t want to get even. I wanted to be equal. I wanted a voice. And I want my daughter to have the same opportunities to soar and be heard.
And I believe that it starts with how we think of ourselves as women.
We need to stop apologizing for taking up space or for jumping too high. And it would help if people stopped attacking women and girls for voicing their opinions or trying to do their jobs – Greta Thunberg, Mary Louise Kelly, and criticism of the Super Bowl Halftime Show are some recent examples.
Our words and the words of others matter. They have an impact. Apparently, they can sneak up on you 20 years later while trying to squeeze in a quick workout.
I’m sharing this story now, not because I was too scared to say something then, but because it never occurred to me to use my voice and to speak up. I didn’t know that my voice counted. We should call out sexism when we see it. That’s the only way to make a difference.