By Shannon Ralph
My nine-year-old daughter likes boys. Not in a boy-band-posters-covering-her-bedroom-wall sort of way. Not in a gushing-and-squealing-loudly-because-OMG-NIALL-IS-SO-CUTE! sort of way. Not in any pre-pubescent romantic sense whatsoever. She simply likes to hang out with boys.
It only makes sense. Sophie has a twin brother who is her very best friend in the world. She has an older brother who is simultaneously her idol and the bane of her existence. She has three male cousins with whom she shares a passionate love/hate relationship. She has been around boys her entire short life. Boys have been her pals, her confidants, her arch-enemies, and her very best friends.
Sophie is an active little girl who likes to play sports and wrestle and build forts and engage in fierce water gun battles. She has always related to boys with much more ease than she relates to girls, which has proven difficult for her at times. She doesn’t have many girl friends at school. She doesn’t understand little girls’ desires to sit around and talk. To play house. She has no interest in babies. She has never played with dolls. She wants to move. She wants to be physical. To scream and run and fling her body head-first at the world around her.
Sophie desperately wants to play soccer, and she is really quite good. We missed the cut-off this year to sign her up for the summer leagues, so she is taking classes through our local park system to work on fundamentals.
When we arrived at her first class at 6:45 last night, there were two classes practicing simultaneously. We had signed Sophie up for a co-ed class, but there was a “girls only” class, as well. The co-ed class ended up consisting of Sophie and five boys. Concerned that she would not want to be the only girl in the class, the coach and I offered Sophie the option of moving to the girls’ class. I was not surprised at all when Sophie declined, of course. She had no reservations about playing with the boys. They were her tribe.
It was hot and humid in Minneapolis yesterday evening. Sophie’s ponytail bounced up and down as she ran from one end of the soccer field to the other. She followed the coach’s commands. She defended the goal. She dribbled the ball perfectly. When the boys complained about the heat, Sophie wiped the sweat from her upper lip with her t-shirt. When the boys complained of being tired, Sophie stole the ball from them. She was phenomenal (I may be speaking as a proud mother, of course, but she definitely held her own with the boys).
When the coach called for a water break, Sophie ran to me (the keeper of her water bottle). “Mama,” she said. “No one’s passing the ball to me.”
I looked at my baby girl, sweat beading on the bridge of her nose, and smiled. “You’re doing great, honey.”
Sophie was the first one back on the field after the water break. As the scrimmage game resumed, I realized that she was right. The boys were not passing the ball to her. She was making herself open, but they were ignoring her. The coach noticed, as well.
“Sophie’s open!” he yelled. Again and again. “Sophie’s open!” For 30 minutes, he repeated this mantra.
Occasionally, the boys would pass the ball to Sophie, but she mostly went ignored unless she jumped into the fray and stole the ball. I could see the frustration on her face. Her shoulders slumped. Her entire body seemed to bend in on itself, as if to make her invisible. Eventually, she mentally removed herself from the game. She would run from one end of the field to the other, but her efforts became half-hearted at best.
When the class was over, Sophie stomped to the car. In the backseat on the way home, she did not speak a word. She hugged her knees tightly to her chest and hid her face.
I tried to talk to her. I tried to tell her that everything’s okay. That this was just the first class and that it will get better. That she is just as good as the boys are and that they will realize it soon enough. But my comments fell on deaf ears. She didn’t want to discuss it.
Sophie was quiet the entire evening. At bedtime, I tried to broach the topic again, but she simply dismissed me, saying, “I don’t want to talk about it, mama.”
My heart was broken.
For the first time in her life, my baby girl was made to feel invisible. Made to feel different for being a girl. And it killed me because I know that this will not be the last time.
Sophie will be in 4th grade this year. She is quickly approaching middle school—that magical time when a little girl’s confidence and self-worth plummets. Before yesterday, I would have balked at the idea that any boy could make my fierce little girl invisible. But I watched it happen with my very own eyes.
And it terrified me.
How do we teach our daughters to steel themselves against a world that values them less than boys? And how do we teach our boys to respect and honor and include girls? To really see girls?
A nine-year-old girl knows who she is. She is confident. She is brave. She is authentically herself in a way that she has never been before and will likely never be again. She is female perfection personified. And she stands on a precipice.
The world can embrace her authenticity and encourage her to be her amazing self. Or, as so often is the case, the world can tell her that she is nothing special. She has no value beyond the contours of her body. The shape of her face.
The world as we know it places a greater value on boys and men. This is sad and disturbing and abhorrent, but it is a fact of life in 2015. That does not, however, mean that it can’t change.
As parents, we are raising the next generation of men and women who will shape the society we live in. We have a responsibility to teach our boys to respect girls. To see girls as equals in all matters. But how do we do this?
It’s going to take girls and boys—women AND men—working together to change the sexist attitudes that permeate our world. I am determined to raise my two sons is such a way that little girls like Sophie become visible again. In our homes. In our schools. In our boardrooms.
And definitely on our soccer fields.
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Originally published on The Seattle Lesbian
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