I think the world wants girls to be pretty and small and quiet. As long as I was able to stay pretty and small and quiet, everything would be fine. – Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior
At Easter, my husband, our girls and I got the train from Madrid to Valencia with the intention of soaking up the sun on the beach. On arrival we went outside the station to see a transfer bus rather like the ones at airports with lots of people getting on.
I got on first and almost immediately the bus driver came down the bus to have a word with me. He was a portly, bald, small man with a sergeant major moustache who only spoke Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish (self-consciously, I now feel obliged to tell you that I speak French and Italian). So, there I was two minutes into my Valencian holiday, already engaged in an exchange in which I had no idea what was happening or why I had to have a conversation no one else on the bus seemed to have to have. The driver hadn’t even noticed that I was with my husband and children.
As I watched him talking non-stop, gesticulating in a way that said I shouldn’t be on his bus, I should get off the bus, and find a different way to complete my journey, I felt like this one moment encapsulated my whole life: I was being prevented from going about my business because a little fat man had singled me out to give me a load of incomprehensible advice and attention which I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and which made me feel uncomfortable.
I drew myself up to full height (5 ft), stared straight into his tache and told him that I didn’t care what he saying but I wasn’t getting off his bus. I was staying for the duration. We each took several turns to repeat ourselves until we were both in a lather, at which point he looked around for some backup, and my husband came over to ask what on earth was going on. The driver threw his hands up in exasperation, went back down the bus, and drove us to our destination.
As we were getting off the bus, chorusing Gracias, as I do try to behave well even in circumstances when I want to tell people to go forth and multiply, the driver came out of his little booth, followed us off the bus, pressed a note into my hand and then started explaining yet more incomprehensible stuff. He then pointed at the note which had various numbers on it. This man was hell-bent on telling me what I should be doing and I decided there and then enough was enough. I have totally and utterly had enough of having my space invaded.
So, the other night I was in a pub sat at the bar having a pint and chatting, the place was almost empty, but then a young man came to the bar stood right next to me and started elbowing me in the back. After he got his drinks I thought he would move away, but he didn’t and there he was leaning on me and crowding me. So, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could just move it along. He was slightly puzzled until I pointed out that he was jostling me in a huge, high ceilinged, empty pub with a very long bar. He looked about with amazement and then apologised saying that he just hadn’t noticed that he was stood so close. WTF? How was that possible?
I am amazed and feel like I have just woken up to reality. How have I not noticed this before? Why wasn’t I angry before? Probably, because I am so used to tolerating all manner of nonsense, I haven’t even thought it was anything to get annoyed about, it has been happening to me since the day I was born.
In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy says that girls in middle school stop expanding like boys do and become smaller and collapse in on themselves, and allow themselves to be invaded. The main reason is that they become aware of cultural stereotypes which say that small girls are attractive to the opposite sex.
In her honest, brilliant book Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton describes how she believed this stereotype was the only way society would accept her which led her to live a life of bulimia, alcoholism, and drug abuse. And, we like to think that society is changing but it really hasn’t, not intrinsically.
Cuddy showed artists models dolls in powerful and powerless poses to children 6-years old, 73% of which said that the powerful poses were men, the powerless ones women. In a group of 4-year olds, 85% of them said that the powerful poses had to be men. It is societal, we associate powerful stances with men and powerless poses to women. Nothing has changed.
I have girls and naively assumed that the world would be a better place by now. Since, my epiphany on the bus I have been going about telling everyone how angry I am, and every woman I have met has a story about how they have been jostled or ignored, passed over for promotion, talked over, discriminated against, and a lot worse, purely because of their gender. And, like the young man at the bar demonstrated to me, it is so deeply ingrained, it is often done subconsciously.
In a brilliant ted talk called Raising brave girls, Caroline Paul explains how we encourage girls to be fragile whilst encouraging boys to be adventurous. We need to treat girls in the same way so that they feel at home in their bodies, so that they feel expanded and strong.
And, in another brilliant ted talk Jude Kelly, says how we should have women telling the story of humanity otherwise our stories will never get updated and we will be forever stuck with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth which is not written for women, which then makes it easy for men like the head of the Paris Conservatoire to believe and speak utter nonsense like: It takes great physical strength to conduct a symphony, and women are too weak.
Cuddy recommends that the best way to change this is, each time your daughters, sisters and friends collapse in on themselves, show them examples of girls and women who are not conforming to the images and stereotypes that kids are exposed to. Show them that there are other ways of being in this world.
Women do not need to emulate men but we do need to encourage girls not to be afraid to express their personal power and to ask people to stop invading their space.
For as Doyle Melton asks: How can you be a successful girl if the purpose of being human and growing is … to find your voice? and society’s message to girls is to stay small and quiet: It’s a set up.
Let us tell our girls: Keep expanding, ask for what you want. And, in those times when you don’t get it, and when people behave badly towards intentionally or otherwise, please know absolutely and utterly: It is not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.