The first time I held my niece I was overcome by love. It was the kind of love I never realized was possible. This tiny, perfect, half-asleep little girl grabbed my heart in a way that flooded me with emotion. One of the biggest pulls: Protection.
As my niece grew, she evolved into a beautiful little girl. She's the kind of child who prompts strangers to stop on the street and remark on her piercing blue eyes, her infectious smile, her ebullient personality. “You are such a pretty little girl,” they would say.
While it made me smile, their observations also made me cringe. My niece was barely a toddler, yet I was terrified she would grow up believing her greatest attribute would be something mostly out of her control -- how attractive others perceived her to be.
It was in that moment I knew I had to change the way I spoke about women and girls while also fighting to make sure others saw the importance of doing the same.
* * * * *
“They're just words,”people will say.
“Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.”
Except . . . words do hurt. They're more than just a compilation of letters and punctuation.
Webster’s Dictionary provides a number of definitions for “word” but one stands out. Definition 2 a (1) states: a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use.
Communicates a meaning.
Translation: Words do matter because they carry the weight of meaning.
As my niece grew, so did my linguistic awareness.
If she wore a cute outfit or had her hair styled a certain way, of course I would give her a compliment. However, I made it my mission to ensure our time together was focused on reading, playing, engaging kindly with others and standing tall for herself.
When she did something well, I was careful to be specific with my praise using words and phrases that endorsed qualities like strength, intelligence and understanding.
I desperately wanted this growing little girl to know she could be and do anything.
* * * * *
Sally. Pink Hat. Throwing like a girl. Playing in a skirt.
How often do we still hear these terms used to describe deficiencies in male athletes or fans who lack knowledge?
On the surface, these phrases seem harmless. At the core, they perpetuate stereotypes that women are weak and inferior to our male counterparts.
Trust me, I fall into the trap of using demeaning language. For example, describing an upset athlete as “whining like a little girl” has been ingrained in most of us for decades. But nothing is permanent.
We can change attitudes and perceptions with a slight shift in how we speak.
Do we need to call a guy a “Sally” or say a team “might as well have worn skirts”? Why not be a little more creative and use our words wisely? If an athlete doesn’t play well, why not explain their performance as “poor, sad, unacceptable, dreadful, atrocious, awful, garbage, shaky, anemic, powerless, weak, etc . . . ” Shall I go on?
Do we have to describe inept fans as “pink hats” or could we simply call them . . . inept? How about ill-informed, bumbling, or incompetent?
The reality is, there is a term for when we use female adjectives to relay a message of weakness: Lazy.
* * * * *
Five years after the birth of my niece, my sister delivered a bouncing baby boy. Any fears I had about my ability to love them both equally was swept away the first time I held his tiny, perfect, half-asleep little boy in my arms. I was once again overcome by a love I never thought possible.
It was also the first time I realized the way I convey messages leaves an impression not just on the women in my life, but also the men.
When we criticize men for showing emotion, or belittle them for falling short, the message we send is that males need to show perpetual strength while avoiding feelings. This only works to drive home the idea that women are to act one way, men another.
If you've ever been around children, you know that while they tend to gravitate towards certain toys and activities, it's often because those are the only choices they see or hear. I’d like to think that by displaying a multitude of options to my niece and nephew, they're perceiving the possibility of a world without limits based on gender.
Women are not inherently weak, men are not automatically strong. Women are not born inferior, men do not emerge into this world superior. Women are not all followers just as all men are not leaders. We're each capable of what we believe is possible.
So let’s stop talking as though the only truths are those which we’ve spoken in the past.