As I watched the Always #LikeAGirl commercial during Superbowl XLIX, scenes from decades past flooded my mind; scenes that shaped my self-image and defined what it meant for me to act like a girl, to live like a girl– scenes revealing why that definition changed over the course of my life.
As a child, I believed everything those young girls in the commercial believe. Running like a girl meant going as fast as I could. Throwing like a girl meant staring down my target, stepping forward confidently, releasing the ball with fury. Hitting like a girl meant clobbering a baseball with an aluminum bat, sending it soaring past the outfield fence as my teammates erupted in cheers.
I believed I was strong and capable. I believed I was mighty.
When I was four years old, my mother and I were browsing in a Boston bookstore during a family vacation. I slipped away and wandered down a long aisle. A forty-something man approached me and asked if I could help him reach a book on the top shelf. He picked me up and pressed his chest against my back.
That book, he said. I reached for the book. No, that one. I reached for the next one. No, that one…
Heat from his breath filled my ear, his hands tightly grasping my ribcage. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know that the world was anything but a safe place. I only knew I had to get away.
I kicked my feet and hollered, creating a scene. My mother came rushing around the corner and the stranger dropped me to the ground, fleeing out the front door.
When I was five, my family and I were visiting out-of-town friends. There were dozens of people at our gathering –adults socializing in the living room while the kids entertained themselves down the hallway in the playroom.
At one point, a teenage boy said he wanted to show me something. He led me into a bedroom, and told me to sit on the bed. He pulled his pants down, and then reached for my skirt, yanking my dress up toward my waist. The look in his eyes frightened me, and I shoved past him, unlocked the door, and bolted down the hallway, spending the rest of the evening in close proximity to the adults.
When I was nine, I was at a friend’s house on a summer afternoon. Her teenage brother and his buddies were goofing around in the backyard. One of the boys came over to talk to us, but when he got closer, he reached out and pinched my nipple through my lavender tank-top, making a buzzing sound with his mouth. I gasped and slapped his arm. My friend and I stomped off to the house, agreeing that boys could be such jerks.
When I was eleven, a friend and I got dropped off at the local ice rink for some evening skating. Beside the rink was a small warming shack operated by two young men. After some laps and group games, we took a break for hot chocolate and pretzels. Ready to skate again, we headed for the door, but as my friend walked out, one of the boys grabbed my arm, and the other slammed the door shut, locking her out.
He pushed me against the wall and leaned his ruddy face in close to mine. He asked how old I was. Ooo, I thought you were at least sixteen, he said. You’re pretty enough to be. He leaned in closer, moving his mouth toward my neck. I shoved him away and scrambled for the door, unlocking the latch and pushing my way back out onto the ice.
When I was twelve, I was at a crowded basketball game, making my way to the restroom at half time. I passed through a crowd of teenage boys. One of them catcalled at me, and another said, Mmm, look at the titties on that one. I rolled my eyes– blurred with tears– and pushed my way through.
When I was thirteen, I was in the basement at church looking for something to drink. A man approached me and said, You look so nice in your dress today. He moved closer. Your hair is pretty too. He got even closer and complimented my necklace, staring down at my breasts. I nervously squeezed past him, running back up the stairs to my seat in the pew beside my friend.
When I was sixteen, I was in an outdoor hot tub at my friend’s house. Two of my friends went into the house for snacks, and I was left alone with just one other boy. He reached his foot over and started sliding it up my calf to my thigh. I told him to knock it off. He came closer to me, placing his hand between my thighs. Uncomfortable, I stood up, saying I had to go to the bathroom so I could get away.
When I was nineteen, my friend and I were out dancing at a crowded club. A man came up behind me and pressed himself against my back. He slid his arms beneath mine and worked his hands up my ribs, toward my breasts. I cringed and pulled away from him, making my way to the other side of the dance floor.
Over a span of fourteen years, my self-image was injured far more than eight times.
Despite my father, brother, grandfather, and coaches telling me that I was strong and capable…
Other men told me I was a commodity. I was there for their objectification– to be stared at, whistled at, groped.
When I saw that #LikeAGirl commercial, when my stomach tightened and my throat tensed, I was overcome by how much this message matters.
It matters because eight is way too many unwanted encounters.
It matters because I had to fight. Run. Escape.
Because what if I couldn’t. What if I didn’t.
Because not everyone does.
It matters because I never told.
Because I wasn’t sure if I had the right to be angry.
Because at some point, I stopped fighting and started rolling my eyes. At some point, I stopped rolling my eyes and started smiling nervously.
At some point, I forgot that I was mighty.
It matters because if you’re a woman, there’s a high probability that you have your own list.
It matters because daughters…
They are watching. Listening. Determining what it means for them to live #LikeAGirl.
I was one of the lucky ones. I found my way back to myself. Those things my father, grandfather, brother, and coaches told me, I know now to be true. I am strong and capable.
I have a husband who also believes those things about me. And I have sons, not daughters, so it’s my responsibility to show them what it means for a woman to behave #LikeAGirl.
But first, we have to show them what it means to behave #LikeABoy. And yes–that means strong and capable and mighty too. But also respectful, compassionate, and empowering to everyone with whom they come in contact.
Those eight episodes from my youth affected me, but they didn’t ruin me or define me.
Still, I wish they had never happened.
Wouldn’t it be powerful if our visions of ourselves as youth – fresh, untainted, hopeful – never became damaged because other people’s images of themselves were once damaged too?
If we could preserve the youthful optimism that our futures are rich with possibility and valuable beyond measure — that #LikeAGirl or #LikeABoy — we are cherished and cheered-for…
We are celebrated.