The Space for Little Girls
Trigger warning: brief mention of self harm and eating disorders
When I was little, I spent most of my time in books. It wasn’t something I thought much about, I simply enjoyed them and doing other things was not as fun. But in my last therapy session, I described it as “I always wanted to be someplace else”. What on earth would cause a 10 year old girl with no trauma in her past and a perfectly happy family to want to always be someplace else?
Before I went to school, I played mostly with boys. The kids in my neighborhood were boys, mostly my brother’s age. I spent a lot of time tagging along after larger boys who would wrestle, dig in the dirt, throw footballs at squirrels, and generally remind me that I could not keep up as I was three years younger, and of course, a girl. When I reached school, there was a sudden and uncrossable gulf between boys and girls. The boys were rowdy and loud, and the girls played make believe games in which anything could happen. I suddenly had power and control. I could tell stories and pick the rules instead of trying to join into something foreign that I could never be good at (and was never wanted in).
At this same time, I both had major invasive surgery and found out that I was blind in one eye. I was told that my depth perception was horrible, that I would not be athletic like my brother. My body was not my self.
When I was about five, I have a distinct memory of playing basketball with my brother and my dad in our driveway. It was a hot summer day, and at some point both my dad and my brother removed their shirts as men working out tend to do. I was hot too, so I followed suit. Immediately my dad came over to me and told me I couldn’t do that. I was confused. “Why?” “Because you’re a girl”. In my mind this was a little bit like saying “because the sky is blue”. It was true, but utterly unrelated to what we were talking about. Gender was a world with rules that made no sense to me and which I wanted no part in, but it was clear that when I tried to partake in boys’ activities I was doing something wrong.
The older I got, the more it seemed clear to me that boys were messy and loud and unruly, that they disrupted important things (like learning and school), but that the people who got attention were the boys. And the older I got, the more it seemed clear to me that boys just took up more space. They ran more, they yelled more, they were more athletic, they were bigger. Oftentimes I felt like a tomboy: I had grown up surrounded by them, I was tall, I was strong. But somehow I could never bring myself to be loud like them. I could never bring myself to be messy and out of the boundaries and unabashed like them.
Except when I was someone else. There is no single role to be, there is no limitation, there is no compression of space in books. There is infinity and it is beautiful. There is nothing that says “no” or “you don’t fit here” or “you’re too small”.
Girls are full to bursting with energy, creativity, movement, self, and space. And yet space is the last thing they are given. My family was incredibly feminist. My mother is a staunch feminist who always worked outside the home, espoused feminist values, challenged my father vocally and openly when she disagreed with him, demanded respect from everyone, and refused to be contained in the box of “woman”. Yet even in such a context that was so explicitly feminist, covert moments of gendered identity that said boys are supposed to be messy and make mistakes but girls must simply go elsewhere. Girls may play, but their games are of the mind. Their games are not in this world. They must go elsewhere, take up less space.
When boys are loud, parents simply smile and say “boys will be boys”. I was a loud and intense child. I got rolled eyes, concerned looks. There was too much of me. I am afraid that there are other girls who are hearing this same message: you cannot be like the boys. You cannot be loud. You cannot be big and brave unless it is in an inspirational story far from here.
Is it any surprise that many of us start creating pockets for ourselves in far away worlds or cutting our skin just to let little bits of self seep out? Is it any surprise that many of us begin to hate ourselves because we are too much? Is it any surprise that we begin to starve away, or feel disgust at the mess, or shut ourselves far from the noise?
I am allowed to be all those things. I am allowed to be as dirty and goofy and big and wrong as the boys. I am allowed to yell back at them when they yell. I look at the picture of myself up there, the little Suzy Sassafras that I was, and I wish that I had been told every moment of every day that I never have to stop, I never have to play nice, I never have to be respectable. My self is far more important than fitting the space that was alloted.