When was your last epic fail? Chances are I can make a good guess about it by knowing whether you’re a man or a woman. If you’re a woman, I bet you can’t remember an epic fail. And that’s a shame.
Reshma Saujani, author of Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder, says that we’ve conditioned girls to fit our mold of the perfect girl. “From the time they are babies, girls absorb hundreds of micromessages each day telling them that they should be nice, polite, and polished… They are praised mightily for being A students and for being helpful, polite, and accommodating and are chided (however lovingly) for being messy, assertive, or loud.”
We’re training girls to be afraid to take chances, to try things they might fail at. Failure is messy, scary, and will almost certainly disappoint all those people who count on her: her parents, her coaches, her teachers, her friends.
Social networks have ratcheted up the pressure and the stakes exponentially. Girls (and women) see everyone else’s carefully curated and edited photos of their perfect lives, creating anxiety – even despair at the idea of someone finding out how imperfect our own lives are. When we tell girls they can do anything, Saujani says, they hear that they have to do everything – and make it look effortless. “Now they need to be nice, but also fierce; polite but also bold; cooperative but trailblazing; strong but also pretty. All this plus, in a culture that lauds effortless perfection, making it look like they’re not trying—not even a bit.”
Saujani says the conditioning starts very early – almost from birth. She describes a scene at a local park near her home.
[Her 16-month old son] “Shaan’s shirt was smeared with strawberry ice cream and his nose was filled with boogers, but he didn’t care—and neither did I. Still new to the whole vertical coordination thing, Shaan toppled over a couple of times as he waddled from one end of the playground to another; each time, rather than run to his rescue, Nihal calmly waited for him to get up and keep going. At one point, I looked over and saw him coaxing Shaan, who was a little scared, down the big slide. “You can do this…you’re a big boy…you’re not afraid!”
Nearby, a few older boys were play-fighting using sticks as swords and chasing one another. Lots of happy hollering and a sea of dirty, scabby knees and elbows: a classic case of grade-school boys at play.
Meanwhile, over at the sandbox, five girls who looked to be around three years old were playing quietly. No ice-cream-smeared shirts or booger-encrusted noses there. Wearing cute coordinated outfits, they took turns scooping piles of sand to make a pretend cake, while their moms watched intently from a few feet away.
In a ten-minute span, three of the five moms jumped up from their perches and climbed into the sandbox—one to straighten her daughter’s headband and another to reprimand her daughter for being “rude” by taking the shovel from another girl. The third mom rushed to her daughter’s aid after her sand “cake” fell over and hurriedly helped her daughter rebuild it while making soothing noises and wiping the tears from the girl’s face. When the cake was fixed, the little girl smiled and her mom beamed with pride, “There’s my happy girl!”
You can’t make this stuff up, Saujani writes.
We’re sending wildly different messages to our boys and our girls. We tell boys to figure it out. We let them push and shove and test their limits and each other’s. We let them fall down and get back up again. Meanwhile, we reward girls for being quiet, cooperative and pretty.
The messages girls absorb become so deeply ingrained that they are changed forever.
It’s time we changed that.