I took my son to his friend's birthday party the other day. They played musical chairs and when each child was out they were told to come to me to get a piece of candy. All the girls who came over to the bowl which I was holding asked if they could have two pieces. None of the boys did. The boys simply assumed they were only allowed one. The girls however, wanted two so they asked for it. I was so struck by their confidence. To them it wasn't about being bold, it was simply about asking for what they wanted. It wasn't about the fear of being rejected or being told no or being cheeky or being smart. They simply saw candy and felt one piece wasn't enough so they asked for more. It made me think, at what point in our lives do we as women stop asking for what we want? At what point do we stop being who we are?
When I was a little girl, I was known as a Chatty Cathy. In fact, that's what was often written in my early report cards--"...she's an inquisitive girl who loves to learn, although she is a bit of a chatterbox." So it was good that I was inquisitive, bad because I wanted to talk about it. My mother would often tell me that I shouldn't be loud or ask too many questions. I shouldn't be argumentative or "too bold." Perhaps she was afraid that I would get a reputation for being "difficult" and then nobody would marry me. Because no one likes a girl who is bold, argumentative and difficult.
I think deep down, my parents have always admired and respected those qualities that they said were not socially acceptable. Even as a child when on one occasion I shouted away some bullies who were picking on my big brother (my brother however, wasn't too pleased with me), I could see the pride in my mother's eyes. My mother raised me to be independent and strong in every way. She taught me to go after everything I wanted. I watched her build two businesses of her own while managing another multimillion dollar business for someone else. I watched her go out and get clients, close sales, and collect cheques. I watched her deal with receptionists and secretaries who looked down on her because she chose, on occasion, because she felt like it, to wear her traditional Punjabi outfits, only for them to realise she was there to see not their boss but their boss's boss. She had and has a spine of steel. So it would only make sense that, as my primary example of how a woman is, I would be like her even though I still have a long way to go.
Yet despite my mother's strength, she would tell me the world isn't always kind. It doesn't always see or respect us for who we are. Sometimes we have to play a game where the rules are designed and implemented by others. And if we want to succeed in life, those rules and games have to be followed. That didn't sit well with me.
I have always been one to ask for a rational explanation to things I don't understand. Things like being judged for the colour of my skin, my gender, even my position in a company. However, as women, being someone who questions things isn't always celebrated. Being honest about our views on things isn't always welcomed. Even an elite athlete like Naomi Osaka faced criticism when openly stating her needs in respect to her mental health--being called "narcissistic" and a "spoiled brat" for protecting her health and well-being. It's as Jessi Gold, M.D. M.S., assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis writes, "we exist in a culture, especially as women, that prizes putting other people's needs before our own."
It isn't easy being ourselves. Whether in our personal lives or professional ones, we often feel we have to tweak, temper, or change who we are to fit into a pre-fabricated box. I have often felt that I don't, nor have I ever, fit into any box. At times I thought I had to "fix" what I thought was wrong with me. When relationships failed, I thought it was solely my fault, or I was just "too much". In my past work life, I had to "toe the line" even though at times I felt that line fundamentally conflicted with what was healthy for me. I felt what a strange existence we live in when an adult is expected to feel as though her objections and concerns were not worthy of being considered and respected without fear of that being held against her.
I wonder, what would that young girl at the birthday party have done if she was in the same position? Thankfully, I recognised some of myself in her who, in her simple actions, reminded me that I had that defiance of norms inside me because I did stand up for myself--although not as much as or as soon as I should have. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in Women Who Run With the Wolves, "Compliance causes a shocking realization that must be registered by all women. That is, to be ourselves causes us to be exiled by many others, and yet to comply with what others want causes us to be exiled from ourselves." Remember, there's a reason why roses have thorns.
Psychologists say that for kids, they start to notice, and become affected by the opinions of others, in their early teens. According to Michelle Anthony, PhD, "Around puberty, adolescent egocentrism emerges, deeply affecting how 11-13 years feel about themselves. There are two aspects of egocentrism at this age: the imaginary audience (where your child believes that others notice and care intensely about her appearance and actions) and the personal fable (where your child believes that his experiences and emotions are unique and experienced by him alone). As a result, children this age are highly self-conscious, while at the same feeling powerful and invincible. Although children this age know that others have differing points of view (in contrast to the preschooler who displays egocentrism), this knowledge leads her to become preoccupied with others’ perception of her." This is where a healthy relationship with family and close friends come in.
As difficult as it can be to parent a tweenager or teenager, therapists say the first and foremost thing to always keep in mind is our own experiences from when we were that age. The fine balance between giving them space to grow, achieve, and fail, and to have boundaries is key. And for girls, how they see their mothers are towards themselves, how they treat their bodies, their minds, and their souls, is how their daughters will learn to treat their own selves that way. Of course there are powerful forces of influence out in the world such as social media and pop culture. Kids will experiment with all that comes with it and boundaries will stretch. But consistency from home, a healthy relationship with primary caregivers, will ensure they come back to their core values.
The people I respect are those who aren't afraid of (and don't judge) someone who is speaking their truth. The people I respect are those who don't feel the need to dull the shine on someone whose light is bright in order to feel their own brightness within. The people I want to be around are those who respect and seek out authenticity because they know through them the path becomes clearer. Oftentimes, while these are qualities many of us are born with, they get worn down by society's 'shoulds'---"you should be more accommodating; you should just suck it up; you should just let it go; you should be nicer; you should be less confrontational or aggressive; you should wear more/less make up; you should work out; you should have more friends; you should have a partner; you should have children; you should be successful; you should be more sociable; you should eat less/more; you should smile more; you should wear a dress; you should be more modest; and the list goes on...
I loved being a witness to those girls at the birthday confidently walking up to me and asking for what they wanted. I hope life doesn't change them. I hope they hold onto that confidence. I hope they always feel as though that's the way things not only should be, but just are. And after all, if you don't ask you don't get. Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed, describes it so clearly:
“We weren’t born distrusting and fearing ourselves. That was part of our taming. We were taught to believe that who we are in our natural state is bad and dangerous. They convinced us to be afraid of ourselves. So we do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely. That is the end goal of every patriarchal culture. Because a very effective way to control women is to convince women to control themselves.”
Perhaps one of the most important lessons I would remind any young girl is one that I keep reminding myself. I will paraphrase the message written by Byron Katie. It goes like this: It is not someone else's job to like you, it's yours. When we like who we are unapologetically, when we see who we are as whole and wonderful, everything else falls into place.
I was once one of those girls from the birthday party. When I young, I loved watching Wonder Woman. Many afternoons after school, I could be found flying my invisible plane in our living room. Looking at it now, that plane represents my life. My skills at piloting and directing my flight path get stronger every day. There has been turbulence, there have been moments when I doubted my abilities, but I am still flying. These days though, I've got a co-pilot in my husband and precious passengers in our son and our cat Gracie.