Recognizing our internal misogyny
In 2014, “Always”, a company that manufactures feminine hygiene products and promotes female puberty education, launched a campaign under the hashtag #likeagirl. There exists a very interesting three-minute-long video on YouTube that I am very thankful for, a video that I religiously show to my audience whenever I am invited to speak to young girls in workshops arranged by organizations I volunteer for. This video is very interesting, and it has an even more interesting reaction from the viewers. Whenever I play it, my audience which usually consists of both young men and women start out by laughing and sniggering. But by the end of the first minute, the laughter dies down and is replaced by silence so deafening, you can hear their shame and confusion.
Let me give you a summary of what happens in this video. Two separate groups are asked to demonstrate what it’s like to run, throw and fight like a girl. The first group consisting of young adults, go out of their way to dilute each action: a weak throw, a half-hearted punch, whining and complaining and ridiculous flinging of limbs to demonstrate a “girly” run. Throughout this first minute, none of them, not even the females in the group seem to register the fact that they are in fact demeaning themselves with this cruel and thoughtless demonstration. Then the second group, which consists of girls below the age of puberty comes on stage and their demonstration could not be more different. When asked to run like a girl, they pump their legs and run and sprint; when asked to throw and fight like a girl, they gather all the power in their bodies for that one action. When asked, what it means to run like a girl, one little girl says, “It means to run as fast as you can.” At this point, the first group is invited back on stage and they admit to never realizing that they were demeaning themselves and the women in their lives with their mocking demonstration of what it’s like to do something like a girl. Turns out, a girl’s confidence drops during the vulnerable ages of 10 and 12 because children are taught that doing something like a girl is not something to be proud of; that it is in fact an insult.
I bet if you take a look back at your childhood, you will rediscover memories where you had tried to shrug away the cloak of doubt by frequently and relentlessly declaring yourself “different from other girls”. I know I’ve done it as a teenager and I am ashamed of it. After years of trying to identify, speculate and unlearn my own internal misogyny, I think I have finally figured out where this insecurity stems from.
If you are not a woman and are unaware of this phase in most girls’ lives, let me educate you a little bit. This is a chapter in almost all adolescent girls’ lives when they use the exact words, “I am not like other girls” to express a strong and inexplicable disdain for femininity and anything feminine in an effort to lift themselves up and boost their “uniqueness”. But have you ever wondered who these “other girls” are? And what definition of femininity we are talking about? The universal definition of “the other girls” and their femininity is a very faulty, one-dimensional, and over-simplified one. It means you like shopping, drama, boys, the colour pink, did I mention shopping? It also means you are either mean, jealous and controlling in a relationship or completely submissive, have no aspirations in life other than a rich husband and his credit card. Anything else like intelligence, knowledge, independence, strength, humor and daring are categorized as “different” and “not feminine.” Essentially what it means is that the less feminine the trait, the more powerful a woman is. It is shocking that women themselves often perpetuate this faulty concept of femininity and waste no time to put “the others” in a box. If you look at yourself or the women in your lives, you know this is false, because I cannot think of one woman who is restricted by that definition.
We cater to a culture that likes to pitch one woman against another, and this why this implication is everywhere, in real life and in literature and film. “Not like other girls” is a term used to describe female characters with admirable personality traits. For instance, Georgina Kirrin from The Famous Five, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Josephine March from Little Women, Evelyn Carnahan from The Mummy, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Shivani Roy from Mardaani, Arya Stark from The Game of Thrones. These fictional characters are brave, clever and strong, and to showcase their uniqueness, they are often placed next to hyper-feminine characters who are portrayed as weak, scared, mean or shallow. When young impressionable girls are conditioned to this sort of placement, they begin to believe that to be attractive, a woman must be “different” from the others. This concept of “the other girls” causes two problems: 1) the stereotype that all women are the same 2) an unspoken battle between women to prove who is most different and therefore special.
Rewriting the rules:
While many may shrug this off as a phase, the truth is that it really isn’t. Till date, the phrase “not like other girls” is given and received like a compliment. However, in response, if you ask, “what do you mean by that?” there really is no answer because this compliment stems from the idea and women in general are uninteresting. Our concept of gender has shaped social norms that praise some and demean others. When girls feel independent and have interests outside of “the box”, we find it important to announce that we are different and do not fall under the same category as “the other girls”. We are taught that to be amazing, we have to steer clear of the definition of femininity. But this definition of femininity is flawed, it is wrong and it is cruel. Femininity is multifaceted and for each woman it is unique: I could love shopping and still be brave and ambitious; I could love makeup and still crack hilarious jokes; and I could love pink and still be a scientist. It is problematic to constantly associate femininity with being helpless and needy and talentless. This phenomenon only serves to promote sexism and cancel culture. It is important to understand that “being different” is a concept entirely independent of gender. Therefore, we need to redefine femininity to include interests and talents that the wonderful women around us possess.
Let’s stop saying “I am not like other girls” and put an end to furthering sexism. Let’s try to embrace the wonder of being women. Because femininity can be brave, intelligent, accomplished, kind, tough and funny all the while rocking the colour pink. Or any other colour for that matter.
Sameirah Nasrin Ahsan is a Mechanical Engineer based in Dhaka. She aspires to be an author someday. For rants and book recommendations, you can follow her on Instagram: @booksnher