The interwebs have been all abuzz over the Always ad “Like a Girl” that became a hit during the Super Bowl. The message has obviously resonated with many of us, myself included. After watching the full length version of the advertisement, I really got to thinking about all of my “like a girl” moments and how that phrase being used in a negative way has affected me over the years.
I mean, I think of myself as a pretty independent, strong woman, but if I’m being honest, even I cut myself down for being a girl in many areas of my life, especially in the sports arena.
One example is as a runner. I have been running for almost ten years now and am proud of how far I have come from the 25-year-old who couldn’t even run half a mile. But get me out running with my boyfriend and I suddenly become an apologist. “I’m sorry, I know I’m slow. It’s not my fault. I’m a girl. I’ll always be slower than you.” What? For years, my inner monologue has been all about how it doesn’t matter that I’m slower than other runners as long as I am getting out there and doing better each time I run, whether by running farther or running faster. Yet, here I am, 10 years in, and every time I run with my boyfriend I end up begging him to just run ahead of me because I hate the feeling that I am slowing him down. He just wants to run with me. He wants to spend time together. He doesn’t care how fast we go. But I just can’t let it go.
Another example comes from climbing. A few years back, before I started a year abroad, I began training pretty intensely as a climber. When people would ask me why I was training so hard, I would tell them it was because I was going to be traveling alone but wanted to climb, so I needed to be able to show the male climbers out there (because they are the majority) that I could keep up with them. I didn’t want anybody refusing to climb with me because they thought I was weak. Upping my climbing ability definitely helped in this area, but this fear of being seen as “a girl” made me do some climbs that really scared me. The worst part about this is that had something gone wrong, I could have been seriously hurt. Climbing is no joke. This was really brought home to me after an experience I had in Australia.
I was climbing in Arapiles with some newfound friends. Like I said, I was traveling alone, so I was always having to make friends if I wanted to climb. I was a pretty strong climber at this time, but I had never tried trad climbing before. On my third day there, one climber really wanted to try a multi-pitch route that interested me. He didn’t have a partner, so I agreed to follow him up. Everything was going OK, until we reached the first belay station, when the wind suddenly picked up and the temperature started to drop. As I was belaying him up the second pitch, I started shivering relentlessly and my hands were turning bright pink. No problem, I’ll warm up as I climb, I thought. But as I was climbing, each time I needed to remove a nut from the wall, I’d accidently jam my hands against the wall because I couldn’t feel anything. By the time I reached the belay station, I had a couple of bloody spots and a ton of scrapes. But whatever, I’m a “real” climber, it comes with the territory.
To this point, I was determined to continue. But then, as my partner headed up the third pitch, it began to rain. It was just a sprinkle at first, so he continued up, hoping it wouldn’t get worse. It got worse. By the time it was my turn to climb, it was raining hard and the wind was whipping against my face. I was shivering uncontrollably, and I was beginning to panic. As my partner started to pull the rope up so I could climb, I began to cry. “Cry now, so he won’t see you being such a girl,” I told myself. And then I sucked it up and I climbed. Again, I fumbled with the gear all the way up. I also began to strain my muscles because I was gripping everything so tightly for fear of slipping on the now wet rock. As I ascended, the panic in me continued to rise. All I wanted was to get off of that wall, but now we were 450 feet up with no repel station in sight. When I arrived at the belay station, my partner asked if I felt OK to continue despite the weather. “I really want to be brave and say yes. I don’t want you to regret having come up here with a girl, but I really don’t want to continue. I’m freaking out and I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep going. I’ll do it if you really want to, but I’ll warn you that you may have a panicked, crying girl on your hands by the end.” (Little did he know that he already had a panicked, crying girl on his hands). So we hooked in some cams, tied our ropes together, and repelled while praying we’d have enough rope to get to the first belay station, where there was a bolted anchor.
When we made it down safely, I apologized for making it so he couldn’t finish his climb. I’d known he’d really wanted to do this climb and he would be bummed not to have finished it. Surprisingly, he told me he was glad that I’d said we should come down. He had been afraid to continue also, but he hadn’t wanted to admit it. Later, when I told some other climbing friends about the incident and told them how embarrassed I’d been about panicking and wanting to go back, they also surprised me with their response. “Climbing is an inherently dangerous sport. If you feel something isn’t safe, you should always say so. Nobody would say you’re afraid because you’re a girl – and if they do, you shouldn’t be climbing with them anyway. When someone literally has your life in their hands, you have every right to say that you think something is unsafe.” This statement is so true, and yet I’d let my fear of being seen “as a girl” almost put me into a potentially dangerous situation.
To put it mildly, I hope the “Like a Girl” ad and others like it can really change how we treat girls and women and think about how much words can really affect us. Sticks and stones and all that, but words really do hurt too. And they are so much more lasting than broken bones.