A few weeks ago I was at a concert where I overheard a conversation between a young girl, probably around eleven or twelve, and her dad. As I waited, earbud-less, for my sister to get back from the merchandise table before the band finally came out, I played idly with my phone and attempted to drone out the overwhelming number of voices around me, but one in particular snagged my attention. A young girl sitting behind me was complaining to her dad about another girl she described as “one of those girls” who wore too much makeup, tried too hard to impress boys, and was honestly overall just “super extra.”
When I heard this, I immediately had the urge to jump up and turn to this young girl and be like, “we need to talk.” My introverted self would ever, in actuality, do such a thing, but I did have a fleeting image of the two of us unpacking these statements together, resulting in mutual personal growth. It’s probably the big sister/inner camp-counselor in me. To be fair, I obviously didn’t get the full context of this conversation. But the girl’s dismissive tone struck me and I remember thinking naively, “It’s 2019, haven’t we moved past this?”
In an age of #LikeAGirl social media ad campaigns and an abundance of positive female role models/“influencers” out there (Lilly Singh, Anna Akana, the list goes on…) the iPhone-wielding young girls of today are generally more tuned in to/likely to reject harmful messages about femininity and what it means to “correctly” perform gender. Women are taught to conform to conventional beauty standards (steeped in glorification of thinness and whiteness), but if they try too hard, they’re seen as shallow; attract the admiration of men which are ultimately meant to culminate in marriage for societal validation, but they must do so in a way that appears effortless and natural, or else they’re boy-crazy sluts. Girls and young women are to present themselves as nonthreatening and unobtrusive as possible, or else they’re witches-with-a-b. It’s undoubtedly a fine line to walk.
Of course, there is still plenty reason to be hopeful that culture is changing, as this was an isolated incident, but what was truly jarring about overhearing this exchange was how it brought me back to my own middle school years. Growing up, I definitely considered myself more of a tomboy and looked down on typical “girly-girl” things like makeup and clothes as well as judging girls who did care about such things as superficial and frivolous. I was athletic and listened to U2 (shout out to my parents) and prided myself on not being like other girls (something that, if someone today were to “compliment” me upon, since I am now in my twenties, would certainly be an instant red flag). It wasn’t until late high school that I really began to examine these deep-seated beliefs and challenge them.
So I understand where this young girl was coming from and am by no means condemning her (plus, let’s not forget the dad could have stepped in to say something). When you are repeatedly told—sometimes explicitly, but usually implicitly—that that which is feminine is stupid, inferior, shallow, or just plain bad, you start to deny those parts of yourself and scorn other girls who display those same “feminine” qualities (or that which we deem to be feminine, anyway, things like the color pink and dolls and oh, I don’t know, feelings). This is not to say that women need to be nice to each other all the time. Conflict is normal and part of being human. But what needs to change and is changing, is the way women are socialized to put each other down or think less of each other for how much or how little of their femininity they express, if they choose to express it at all. Overcoming internalized sexism is an unlearning process that is maybe never fully done, but it is absolutely crucial as we empower the next generation of young girls and help them live up to their full potential. Today I know that I am just like other girls, and I’m more than okay with that fact. I’m proud of it.
Brie McGhee is an undergraduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying Psychology and Public Policy. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she moved to North Carolina during high school and started college at Wake Tech Community College, where she earned her A.A.S. degree in Networking Technologies. Brie is passionate about advancing women in the public spheres of business, government, and other positions of leadership and plans to continue her education in law school. Outside of classes, she enjoys running, being in nature, reading, and going to concerts.
Brie was Women AdvaNCe’s 2019 Moxie Intern.