Recently my family was at a get together where the children decided it was a grand idea to go swimming in the pool. In May in the Midwest the water inside in-ground swimming pools is not at all warm, not by any stretch of the imagination. I cautioned my nine-year-old daughter of this as she marched directly to the end of the diving board, did a few bounces, hesitated for the briefest of moments, gave me a wicked smile, and then hurled herself into the water below.
She surfaced with a great scream that began below the waves and erupted onto the pool deck as she raced for the ladder and out of the frigid pool in one smooth, giant movement. Her younger cousin and younger brother watched all of this with equal amounts glee and horror.
She screamed again and then jumped back in from the side of the pool. Repeat screaming and jumping.
My daughter stood triumphantly shivering on the deck as the younger two decided to take the safer route of inching their way in from the shallow end on steps that were still being warmed by the fading afternoon sunlight. A short while later we were joined by more cousins, two older boys, who noticed the littles weren’t splashing about with abandon and recognized it was most likely due to sixty degree water.
These older boys were wisely hesitant to get in.
Until they were teased and emasculated into doing so, one jumping in to save face and the other forcibly thrown in despite his pleas not to be. They were called names for not jumping in that equated them to weak girls, sissies, and every other gendered, derogatory name just short of calling them “pussies”.
I think so many people do this without thinking about what they are really saying. It is a part of our culture and we grow up with and around that sexist vernacular. They don’t mean to be insulting to girls, they wouldn’t say demeaning things to a girl’s face. Yet they use phrases and words associated with the female gender and body as insults. As if being a girl is the worst thing you could be.
All the while, my daughter who is very proudly a girl, stood there dripping wet from having already jumped in numerous times. The first one in the pool.
Without having been pressured to do it. Without having been thrown in.
My six-year-old niece, who by now was standing in the chilly water up to her navel, is really a fascinating person. She is clever, beautiful, and has the voice of a puppet. She also has an incredible knack for calling people on their bullshit, is tenacious, and will not yield nor show mercy until you acknowledge what she has said to you. She is simultaneously darling and ferocious. And so it went when she found her voice to address all the adults on the pool deck to say, “The girls have already been swumming.”
Her words were met with “isn’t she cute” smiles and she was asked if the water was cold.
So she repeated herself. Louder this time, never breaking her gaze from the one adult responsible for the gendered teasing she said again, “You are teasing those boys for being ‘girls’ for not jumping in. The girls have already been swumming.”
The adult looked at me, not understanding the point of her comment nor the intensity with which it was said.
I tried to clarify to the individual my niece was addressing by saying, “I believe her point is you’ve looked right past the fact the two girls at the pool have already been in the pool. They were the first ones in the pool so the hesitation to jump in has nothing to do with being a girl. The six-year-old is calling you out right now.”
“The girls have already been swumming,” my niece said for a third time, her steadfastness demanding she be heard.
“Yeah, Amelia jumped in before any of us!” said one of the big boys who had been tossed in.
“Get used to it, Clara. Women like us usually do great things first and they don’t even see us,” my nine-year-old said in her trademark matter-of-fact style, in attempt to comfort her little cousin.
I said nothing more to the girls. I sensed their strength and resolve and knew they were just fine. Instead I found myself looking over at my son, who was beaming at his big sister and his cousin.
Not everybody was looking right past these intrepid girls.
Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.