The Invisible Girl
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?
- We start early. Children begin to notice gender differences in preschool. It is at this time, that kids start to attach gender norms to toys. Dolls are for girls, trucks are for boys. We have a tendency to encourage girls to play with whatever toys they want. We tell them early on, “You can be whatever you want to be.” But what about boys? Do we encourage our boys to play with dolls? Do we allow them to develop their nurturing side? Do we talk about feelings with our boys? Or do we prescribe to that dangerous old adage, “Boys will be boys”?
- We consciously control the division of labor in our household. Chores are a big part of childhood…or should be, at least. Children need responsibility, but we have to be conscious of how we divide that responsibility. Do we have girls wash dishes and do the laundry while boys mow the lawn and chop wood (we don’t chop wood in my house—we’re not Little House on the Prairie—but you get the point)? We need to make certain there is no “women’s work” and “men’s work” in our children’s vocabulary. This is easier in a lesbian household like mine where all the work is done by women, but even lesbians and gay men can fall into the trap of assigning chores along gender lines.
- We dole out affection equally. Everyone needs hugs and kisses. Boys, in particular, need loving, non-aggressive affection. And they need to know how to give loving, non-aggressive affection. As parents, we need to model this behavior.
- We monitor their language. Honestly, I don’t care if my 12-year-old son says “shit” or “damn.” He hears this language from me, so it would be hypocritical to expect that he will not repeat it. The words I am more concerned with are the ones he hears in school. Phrases like “that’s so gay” and words like “sissy” and “pussy” and “faggot” and “bitch” and “slut.” These are words for which I have absolutely ZERO tolerance. Words that demean and objectify others—males and females, alike—have NO place in a boy’s vocabulary. As a writer, I know that words have a great deal of power. We need to consciously teach our children how to wield this power with kindness and compassion.
- We value physical autonomy. Our sons need to know in no uncertain terms that the female body does not exist explicitly for their use. A girl’s body belongs to her and her alone, and only she can decide what she does with her body. The same applies to him. Individuals control their own bodies. Period. End of discussion.
- We discuss feelings. Emotions are a huge part of what makes us human. However, emotions are not considered a masculine trait in our society. Boys are taught to suppress their feelings from an early age. “Man up.” “Don’t cry like a little girl.” “Don’t be such a pussy.” These are the dangerous messages our boys receive. Our children need to know that emotions are never wrong. And our boys need to be encouraged to embrace and express their emotions.
- We talk about inequality. It is important to point out inequality where it exists in our society. Boys need to understand that they are not more valuable than girls, regardless of the messages society sends them. That is not to say that we need to tell boys they are not important. We need them to understand that boys and girls are equally valuable. They need to know that the messages of inequality society sends are wrong and dangerous. By discussing inequality, boys will come to understand that our society is flawed and that they can be a positive change in the world.
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.