I identify with the word “girl.” I like how the word sounds and the feeling of being a brave girl: a girl who walks under a moon, a girl who walks in the woods, a girl who is shy but is not afraid to fly. I’m drawn to the dramatic use of “girrrrl!” as if miles away from the word “man” or “boy.” My own femininity seems to be the result of social and biological influences that place me within my gender, so I can’t help but not like the word “girl.”
However, it can be limiting to trap myself within those boundaries, the boundaries that I’ve been told I can’t cross. I’m told I shouldn’t travel alone because I’m a girl. When I’m by myself in a restaurant, someone ceremoniously asks, “What’s a nice girl like you doing alone?” implying that a girl always needs to be accompanied.
I can’t ignore that my femininity stems from my upbringing.
I get that some women want those traditional aspects, but they should not be made to feel like failures if they don’t aspire to that life or if they find another road to self-fulfilment. Britain has become a more open society; it nonetheless remains strongly patriarchal and sexist. But there are exceptions, especially with the newer generation, who questions the gender hierarchy and voice their disenchantment with traditional gender roles.
When I was growing up, it was common to hear women talk about their physical appearance and behaviour in relation to “being a lady.” When I was little, I was told that only boys put their hands in their pockets when walking, and as a girl, it didn’t look right if I did it. Similarly, it was unbecoming of a lady to burp.
While it didn’t seem harmful for a child, it nonetheless shaped how I viewed feminine and masculine traits. It often made me disobey in secret. I remember when I was four, my aunt found me in a corner sipping wine with already purple lips during a family party. I was told, “A girl never acts like that. Only boys do that.” As if emulating a “masculine behaviour” was something gross, and could devalue your feminine qualities and make you unworthy.
I felt these notions were restrictive, especially when someone would ask me, at the age of 10, if I had a boyfriend. At another time, I remember wearing shorts sitting at a family reunion, and hearing an aunt tell my mum, “She doesn’t have thick thighs like the rest of the women in our family.” That sentiment resurfaced in high school, where there were subtle hints from classmates that I wasn’t voluptuous or didn’t flaunt my sexuality in the same manner as some girls my age did.
As a young teenager, I tried to be that girl who wore provocative jeans and tank tops. But I realized I was betraying the timid person I was for reasons that felt like pressure and less like personal freedom. From my female friends, there was an unspoken nudge to seek attention from boys or to be in a relationship, and I found those two things to be at odds with my personality and sexuality. I felt more comfortable exploring my girlhood without having to worry about how people should perceive me. Instead of being worried about having a boyfriend, I concentrated on dancing ballet and joining the gymnastics team. I liked the gentleness of ballet, but I also wanted risk — having chalk on my hands, jumping on a balance beam, doing walkovers, running for a round-off handspring, and inevitably having some bruises here and there.
Years later, I realized those standards of beauty hovering around mainly served to reduce girls to sex objects. And with girls normalizing these competitive games of who looked more attractive, it felt like we were more concerned with our bodies for the benefit of an audience. Granted, some behaviours were learned throughout the years (so that no one gave it a second thought), but it also felt natural, which makes you wonder how much of it was learned through conditioning and how much of it was just us experimenting.
What helps us find our own femininity is the personal freedoms we encounter in environments where we are pressured to act one way or another, but instead choose to listen to our instincts so that others cannot define us before we have a chance to define ourselves.
There is something powerful about the word “woman” too. It makes me think about the older generation of women in my family, the ones who sometimes put too much importance on feminine qualities and traditional roles for females, but forgot they too were once girls who rebelled and continued to do so in their adult lives. In their roles as mothers, daughters, and sisters, they didn’t suddenly become submissive and stop questioning the way males viewed them, or how they were held to a different standard. In their acts of bravery, some expanded on what it meant to be feminine. They were the ones who helped keep families together often without credit — single mothers who relied solely on their own wits, women that did not wait to be saved by a husband, girls who were less concerned about the qualities that demonstrated they were feminine and were more devoted to the realization of the self.
Seeing their lives through the lens of a 20-something girl, it seems despite the gender roles society imposed on them, they listened to their instincts.
In my case, it’s often the opposite, as I’m always learning from the rebellious girl that I am.