Two years ago, the United Nations designated October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child. This movement is changing the way girls are treated and perceived globally. “An investment in realizing the power of adolescent girls upholds their rights today and promises a more equitable and prosperous future,” the U.N.’s website says.
With this in mind, it’s time for us to really look at the messaging we pass on to girls and young women—especially our daughters. It’s no secret that words are powerful, and as Always’ Like a Girl and Lean In’s Ban Bossy campaigns show, oftentimes those words include assumptions that women are lesser, helpless, and weak.
Words Make Women the Weaker
Take the term “sissy,” for example. Often this is a cutesy nickname exchanged between siblings as shorthand for sister. But it’s also a word rooted in negativity.
Merriam-Webster defines sissy as a “person who is weak and fearful.” And a quick Thesaurus search delivers the synonyms “coward,” “pushover,” “wimp,” and “wuss.” It goes without saying: None of these are pleasant nicknames for anyone.
“Calling someone a sissy implies that those weak characteristics are typical of women,” says Jess Weiner, confidence expert and CEO of Talk to Jess. “It reinforces harmful gender stereotypes.”
Especially when it comes to adolescent girls, we have to instill new words—words that are true terms of endearment.
Whereas sissy is used to degrade someone, terms meant to inspire strength and fortification are often masculine. “Man up” is often used when someone falters in the face of a problem. It’s the same connotation as the saying that someone needs to “grow a pair.” Both suggest that being or thinking like a male is the way to tackle a roadblock.
And while there’s nothing wrong with essentially implying that someone should do the adult thing, oftentimes these phrases are used as a form of gender policing. “It devalues men who are emotional or vulnerable,” says New York City social worker Amanda Wetzstein Frey, LMSW. Emotion and vulnerability are two strengths of being human. Men and women should be able to embrace and express emotions in healthy ways. Likewise, women are able to take control of a situation, which needn’t be a masculine trait.
Young girls (and boys) need to be taught that both strife and success are experienced by everyone at different times. Male or female, everyone can weather a storm without the need to face stigmas.
Self-Expression Shouldn’t Be Gendered
Self-expression is a beautiful thing. It’s what makes you, you. We’re talking everything from artistic habits and hobbies to careers and personal style.
As young girls age, expressing themselves is a part of natural development and progression. But what happens when we associate weakness and imperfection with female-oriented terms? It emphasizes the notion that being a woman (or being like a woman) isn’t about being strong or fulfilled. And that has to change.
One of the more egregious examples of this is the phrase “be more ladylike.” That may seem innocuous enough—often it’s used to indicate that someone should have a little more class. But it’s also used to censor women who are more outspoken or assertive. Frey mentions that the speaker of this phrase most likely feels uncomfortable that the person being spoken to is violating gender norms. “This is true even if those social violations don’t directly affect the speaker,” she adds.
Stereotyping of communication affects men, too. “Machismo pride keeps individuals from admitting when they need help,” Frey says. “It often ends in disastrous results.” Strength isn’t to man as weakness is to woman. Instead, both aspects are human characteristics, neither male nor female.
Let’s not forget the myriad of personalities out there. With such diversity, men and women will express themselves in so many ways. Instead of insinuating gendered personality rules, let’s use phrases that encourage esteem for the self and others. Saying “have courage” or “please have respect” are excellent starting points. These phrases focus more on the person than his or her sex. Let’s encourage each other toward healthy self-expression to be the best versions of ourselves.
“We don’t need to narrowly define males and females,” Weiner says. “We can all be strong and take risks.” Weiner suggests developing our potential based on our unique traits, attitudes, and behaviors.
Normal Emotional Reactions Are Not Medical Conditions
Gendered phrases often serve to remove a certain amount of responsibility from actions. Things get chalked up to being a symptom of being either male or female. “Like a girl” might be used to excuse someone’s lack of athleticism—as though being a girl is an automatic excuse for not excelling in sports.
Or take menstrual health, for example. A common phrase that casts a negative view on being emotional is to blame a woman’s emotions on PMS. Premenstrual syndrome is a real medical symptom for many women—yes, often resulting in emotional changes. But PMS has also become a brush-off catchall for any burst of female emotions—tears, anger, sadness, anxiety, or panic—which may all be legitimately from the circumstances, not from any hormonal changes.
“Using PMS in this way implies that women who menstruate can’t control themselves,” Frey says. “People use this to cast others who menstruate as being a slave to their emotions.” And it isn’t limited to women. We attribute a lack of emotional or mental control to that time of the month. When used to describe a man, it poses that expressing emotions is like being a woman. But, let’s be real. Regardless of biological processes, we all have valid emotions. Even if used in jest, it’s not healthy, and it’s not right.
Instead of using gender-disparaging terms to describe a person expressing emotions, pay attention to why people are acting the way they are. Are they reacting to a situation or stressed out? Everyone’s experiences and feelings are real. Everyone also expresses emotion in different ways, especially in times of physical or mental stress. It all comes down to helping others release these emotions in healthy ways. Communication, after all, is not what’s intended; it’s what’s received.
It’s Up to Us to Change
These are just a few problematic phrases that have become societal norms to the point that we may think nothing of it. Many of us can recall using and hearing these words from a young age. But it’s time to get intentional.
It’s up to us to choose our expressions with grace, not only for our generation but also for those after us. By changing our word choices, we teach our children to opt for better phrasing. And in doing so, we can inspire a generation of advancement and empowerment.
So let’s be mindful of the traditions we pass through our families and communities. What could be better than one day hearing a young woman say you taught her that everyone is equally deserving of dignity and respect. Let’s do it for the girls!