Going to the gym is the equivalent of engaging in a sociological study. Today, my lens was gender. I glanced around the changing room and cringed at the curling irons, make up, hair spray, and accessories. Women were in many different stages of preparation, but the intent was the same — to make themselves “presentable” for the outside world. Some were preening to look good for their workout, while others were prepping to leave the gym. I put my hair in a quick ponytail, laced my shoes, and headed out to the main floor.
As I grabbed my kettlebell, I heard a singsong voice off to the side near the racks of free weights.
“Am I doing this right? Are you sure it isn’t too heavy?,” a young woman asked as she smiled and lifted her dumbbells for a shoulder press.
She was clad in pink spandex and matching eye shadow. The man at her side immediately took charge, first guiding her weights, and then placing his hands on her waist to adjust her stance. As I started my kettlebell swings, I couldn’t help but think I was watching some elaborate performance, man and woman each playing the part they had been auditioning for since birth.
But was it since birth? Where and how exactly do young girls learn that it is attractive to be frail, helpless, and senseless? When do they realize that they are expected to play it safe, but also to play the role of the sensitive nurturer? That giggling, crying, or being in distress will bring positive attention from the men in their world?
And more importantly, how do we break this cycle and teach our young girls to stand on their own and bask in their strength?
Early on in life, girls are given toys that promote their sensitivity. They play with dolls, wear ribbons in their hair, and are encouraged to decorate their lives with flowers and rainbows. At the park, they are told to be careful, and parents quickly run to rescue their little girls when they encounter obstacles. Crying girls get picked up, held, and nurtured. They are seen as beings who need protection and as a result their adventures are limited in scope.
As they grow, they are protected from new dangers, such as dating and boys. Protective parents interrogate boys that arrive at their doorstep and send out the message that they need this level of interference for their safety.
In effect, our society is teaching our girls to be frail, to need protection, and to shy away from adventure. And later in life, it should be no surprise when they seek out careers that capitalize on their nurturing or helpful personalities; nurses, teachers, and secretaries continue to be female dominated professions. 80% of these professions continue to be held by women. Sadly, while new technology creates new jobs and opportunities, this statistic has changed very little over the past 50 years.
Our girls need to be exposed to new experiences and heroines. They need to know that when they fall down, they are perfectly capable of picking themselves up and dusting the dirt off of their knees. That isn’t to say that there won’t be someone there to kiss their wounds or dry their tears, but once that business is taken care of, they will be sent back out with a wave and a smile for their next adventure. Athletes like obstacle course racer and endurance athlete, Amelia Boone can show our young girls that it is okay to be strong, to outrun the boys, and to get dirty — that power is attractive.
Girls are explorers, problem-solvers, builders, and scientists. They can choose to help and nurture society by being lawyers, doctors, and engineers. They no longer need to play at being helpless or stupid to garner the attention of the boys around them.
A change in what it means to be feminine is on the horizon. I am inspired knowing that our daughters may soon witness the first female president of the United States. Organizations such as Girls on The Run or the Association for Women in Science counteract some of the gender stereotypes that surround our girls.
My dismay of seeing the gender rituals played out at the gym is lessened when I see a girl in a gi competing at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Tournament, a budding female scientist trying out her new invention, or a young lady taking charge of a group project, because she is seen as a natural leader. Women today outnumber men in colleges and our girls are now on par with boys in the areas of science and math. Our young ladies are taking charge, making the transition from passive to assertive, from home-bound to adventurers, from damsels in distress to conquerors. We simply need to step out of their way and let them rise to the top.