Definition of a Girl: It’s More than Just Someone Who Faces Sexism

What does it mean to be a girl? Ad that shows people how the worl thinks of girls. (Advertising Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, Dubai, UAE)
“Girls should….stay home, be slaves, be in the kitchen
not speak in church” (credit: Ogilvy & Mather, Dubai, UAE)

“Girls are crippled when they fall under the spell of perfectionism,” said a girl ambassador during the Girls Speak Out conference held at the United Nations on International Day of the Girl (IDG) on October 9.

I attended this event and realized how often we ask girls to be perfect. You need to be the perfect girl, you can’t be too smart because that will humiliate boys, and you can’t be too stupid because people won’t take you seriously.

But what is the definition of a girl?  In relation to boys, it is simply being the opposite, and if you read that over quickly you would probably think ‘well obviously,’ but what does that really mean?  If men are in power, women are not.  If men and boys are strong, women and girls are not.  If men and boys are educated, women and girls are not.  If that’s what being a girl is, that seems pretty depressing. 

Other questions begin to arise when thinking about girls and boys in this dichotomy. Are boys and men worried about what they wear when they go outside because they might have a chance of being harassed if they wear too little? Do boys need to go home and change into more “appropriate clothing” during the school day because it might prevent girls from learning?  Do boys need to worry about their safety as they commute to school?  Do boys need to be reminded everyday that they are lesser than half of the population?  Do boys get criticized and beaten down for having sex, even if it is not consensual for both parties?  If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no,’ there is something wrong in our society.

Photo at the International Day of the Girl (Girls Speak Out) Conference at the United Nations. Top (left to right): Avery, Lutfah, Alexa, Jessica Bottom (left to right); Lauren, Amalia, Sofia, Carson. Photographer: Unknown
My high school feminism class at the International Day of the Girl Girls Speak Out at the United Nations, October 9, 2015.

As one girl ambassador, Francesca, said at Girls Speak Out, “Sexism alone cannot explain the entire extent of oppression against girls.” For example, the oppression against girls and women has to do with how boys and men are taught to feel superior and how the world allows for a culture of domination to arise out of that superiority.

Another girl ambassador at Girls Speak Out spoke about how women and men are treated differently in the workplace. She shared with the audience that she has often been told by peers that she will have to flirt with the boss, because “a girl [or woman] can go [farther] by unbuttoning her blouse.”  This anecdote really stayed with me.  I don’t want to be more successful than someone else because my breasts are bigger. I want to achieve success because I worked harder. 

I agree with these girl ambassadors and feel that these issues are rooted in more than just sexism because “when women’s voices aren’t heard, there is nothing for women,” said Kathryn Joyce in her Ms. Magazine article, “Girls Take the Lead.” Meanwhile, men’s voices are heard all of the time in the media and politics as well as in schools and at home. Their voices also speak through their silence around issues that affect women and girls, such as violence against women, and they also certainly speak with their actions or inaction.

It’s important that days such as International Day of the Girl are dedicated to the oppression girls experience, so that the world knows these issues actually exist.  Even with this day marked on the calendar, however, it won’t do anything unless men and boys are fighting with us.

It is more than just sexism because as a few girls in my high school feminism class shared in our International Day of the Girl Assembly on Thursday, October 8 there are 62 million girls are deprived of an education.

It is more than just sexism because as a girl ambassador at the Girls Speak Out conference brought to my attention, “all girls have the right to a quality education, but for a lot of them it isn’t easily or safely accessible.”  These girls can’t go to school because they will be put in danger by men during their journey to school in the form of street harassment, rape, and assault. Men are threatened by the thought of girls and women being educated and will prevent them from taking the opportunity. Gender-based violence is a primary way of stopping girls from becoming self-actualized.

Speaking at our school's International Day of the Girl Assembly. Speaking about a personal story on sexual harassment. Left: Alexa Right: Stella Rose (Photographer: Steve Neiman)
Here I am speaking about street harassment at our school’s International Day of the Girl Assembly. (photo credit: Steve Neiman)

It is more than just sexism because as we shared during our International Day of the Girl assembly, “the enforcement of the dress code is to make things ‘easier’ for boys, [making sure] the learning environment belongs to them.” Dress codes are inherently sexist and we are working at my school to revise our code, as no one deserves to feel targeted for what they are wearing, unless it is intentionally harming someone else through racist, sexist, homophobic, and or transphobic language on clothing. 

It is more than just sexism because during a sex education class, not only should I learn about getting my period but also about street harassment. People tell me to watch what I wear, but as a girl ambassador at Girls Speak Out said, “It’s not even about attraction, it’s about power roles.”  I concur. I have been catcalled on the street after swim practice at eight in the morning, wearing sweatpants and a baggy sweater, with my hair in a messy bun. These street harassers feel they need to assert their power over me no matter what I’m wearing. 

It is more than just sexism because my parents assume my husband will be the doctor in the family. Indeed, my college counselors are telling me to write down that I am pre-med even if I’m not pre-med because I will have a better chance of getting in that way. They are saying this not because I have an interest in math and science, but because I am a girl who shows an interest in these traditionally male-dominated topics. 

It is more than just sexism because as Joyce brought to my attention in her article “Girls Take the Lead,” “one in eight US films include sexual violence” and almost all of these incidents are shown to be the girl’s fault. Indeed, when I told people I was molested in ninth grade, the first question they asked was “what were you wearing?”

It is more than just sexism because as I learned in a post from Hollaback!, 84% (21/25) of women are sexually harassed before they are 17.  From experience, I can say that I didn’t know what the boy was doing was wrong, and I have been taught in the past that when a boy is mean to you it means he likes you.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 10.40.15 AM
“Leyualem, 14, sits with her husband-to-be, 23-year-old Alelegn, before their wedding in Yeganda Village, Amhara Region, Ethiopia. This was their first meeting.”

It is more than just sexism because according to one of the girl ambassadors at Girls Speak Out, there are 3.5 billion females in the world, and only 18 female world leaders.

When I learn about history in school, I can name about twenty male leaders that have changed the course of the world, and I can name zero female leaders.  When I talk about politics, I can name about twenty more male politicians, and I can’t name a single one of the eighteen female leaders.

It is more than just sexism because another thing I learned at Girls Speak Out is that every two seconds a girl is forced into early marriage and more than 140 million girls will be married before their eighteenth birthdays. 

It is more than just sexism because every 10 minutes, one girl dies because of sexual violence; that’s about 144 girls a day.

It is more than just sexism because I need to explain the reason that girls are different than boys, excluding the area between our legs.  As one girl ambassador at Girls Speak Out said on the issue of Muslim headdresses, Muslim girls feel more comfortable wearing clothes that cover up most of their bodies than not wearing those clothes because they want to make sure that men are dealing with their minds and not their bodies.

Ultimately, I believe what Hillary Clinton declared at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference in Beijing: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” Twenty years later, we are still trying to make this point. I don’t want to wait another 20 years for a better world to happen for girls and women. Don’t we deserve better?

4 thoughts on “Definition of a Girl: It’s More than Just Someone Who Faces Sexism

  1. I appreciate that you wrote that male politicians “speak through their silence around issues that affect women and girls”. In my Human Rights class we discussed how sexism is a men’s problem but it is marketed as a women’s problem. This way, the women can continue to be dominated without those doing to dominating being held accountable.

  2. Your statements that start with “It is not just sexism….” give a wide range of the issues girls face in the world we live. They do a really good job of examining just how many forms of sexism girls face today. How do we get male politicians to see that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights?

  3. I agree that we cannot simply define girls by their oppression! It is very interesting to look at the binary of sexism, but also the ways in which people who are female by sex but not by gender are treated by this dichotomy. I wonder how we can began to dismantle the internalized power roles that oppress women/girls/people with female genitals and also embrace non-cis identities.

  4. I love how you open this piece. Talking about how much pressure girls have to be perfect is such an important issue to me because it is so crucial and center in my life. It is horrible about how they think their legs have to be perfectly shaved all the time and their hair has to be perfectly straight.

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