By Heath Kull
Note: I have spent precisely ZERO days of my life as a girl. I was raised at a “boys ranch” in rural New Mexico and was surrounded by a seemingly endless stream of fresh male faces. None were the same but none too different either. My experience with girls comes primarily from being married and having 3 female children…and working with at risk youth of both genders. Growing up in rural New Mexico in the 70s and 80s wasn’t without its charm, but my childhood also didn’t come with much in the way of intricacy or nuance when it came to children. “Boys will be boys” and “sugar and spice and everything nice” were the prevailing thoughts about the genders and little more thought was attached. All of the kids that I grew up with were either “at-risk” boys living on a ranch at their families request due to behavioral issues or abandonment or neglect; or they were the children of the people who worked with the “at-risk” boys – “staff kids” as we were called; both boys and girls. Due to the sheer numbers of us, boys were prioritized and tended to get the majority of the attention. Despite the disparity in numbers, the girls and the women were a part of life on our campus and there was little to differentiate them from the rest of us males. Looking back, I can only imagine the feelings that the girls and women had about our little male-dominated oasis in the New Mexico desert. Oddly enough, I don’t really remember the issue being discussed openly, if at all.
As a result, my views on girls and women were formed through my rather myopic lens and through a limited number of relationships with the opposite sex; that is, until we moved to a big city and I was enrolled in a large public high school. Going from a community of 70 to a school of 2000+ was a rather shocking experience. The things that remained the same for me were that “boys will be boys” and that I was still expected to take risks and somehow gloriously stand out while sheepishly fitting in. I did my best but rarely, if ever, felt that it rose to the threshold of being “good enough.” I just wasn’t good enough, but for who? I still do not know who I was striving to be “good enough” for, but I do know that I wasn’t enough and, in many cases, still tend to feel as though I don’t quite measure up to some unspoken standard. If I felt and still feel this way, I fear that I have more in common with girls and women than I have allowed myself to realize. I have also failed to be able to summon the courage to regularly try and put myself in the shoes of those girls and women that I am surrounded by in an effort to understand their pressures and fears. I failed to summon the courage until the choice was removed from me and I was forced to face what I had chosen to ignore. I had a capable, competent and beautiful wife and three capable, competent and beautiful daughters. I had to ask myself, “What are they facing? What are their struggles? Their fears?”
Raising girls of my own – even with their mom being ever present in their lives – has been humbling, rewarding and terrifying in varying doses and mixtures. While I had expectations for them as a parent, I was not prepared for the myriad expectations that people feel that they have the right to place on girls with whom they have no relation or connection.
- “She seems or is…”
- “Too quiet”
- “Too loud”
- “Too big”
- “Too small”
- “Too tall”
- “Too short”
- “Too masculine”
- “Too feminine”
- “Too angry”
- “Too meek”
- “Too blunt”
- “Too timid”
- “Too agreeable”
- “Too disagreeable”
- “Too much”
- “Too decisive”
- “Too indecisive”
- “Too cautious”
- “Too cavalier”
- “Not enough”
And the list continues, ad nauseum. So, what’s a girl to do? This is where things get complicated as there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer. The women and girls that I know have both conquered and at times still struggle with expectations. Whereas men and boys seem to have channeled the accusations of toxicity into anger, women and girls seem to have gone a different route altogether. Many who have failed to successfully navigate and overcome the never-ending list of expectations in their own unique and acceptable manner seem to have settled more for isolation and, in many cases, the shame of social inadequacy. If it all gets to you and at times overwhelms you, who and what are you, if not all alone? If Dr. Sigmund Freud is to be believed, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” What we are seeing today is the uglier ways that unexpressed emotions in girls and women come forth. We have sent the message to girls that they aren’t good enough and are, each in some unique way, unacceptable. Many learn to accept and tolerate that they are to be ashamed. Furthermore, when a woman or girl dares to stand up and express frustration and fear, she is almost immediately told that, in order to get her needs met, she will need to calm down, sit down and offer some uncharismatic and dishonest impression of an apology to someone who has attempted to shame her; not for her feelings towards them but, because she dared to stand up and be less that compliant with unfair expectations. In my experience, this leads to one of two roads; fear or isolation. Both options tend to be rather toxic, but both are altogether avoidable if a group of capable, non-fragile people who are neither bothered by nor judgmental of a woman’s true self will support the expression of her unexpressed emotions that were, indeed, buried alive.
As if the expectations and shaming weren’t enough, the reactive isolation of the girl or woman allows those who stand in judgement of her to believe that they were righteous and noble in setting expectations for her and also in shaming her results.
Observationally, isolation begins with a question. “What if I can’t be perfect and nice and polite and agreeable?”
All too often, girls are choosing isolation; romantic isolation, social isolation and even physical isolation.
Sadly, isolation is in itself, torturous; even when self-inflicted.
So, what are women in our culture and in society? When I look for answers, I tend to look upward. What does the Bible tell us about women?
10 Bible Promises for Women
- You are loved. (Gal. 2:20, John 3:16)
- You are not condemned. (Rom. 8:1)
- You are included. (Eph. 2:19)
- You are accepted. (Rom. 15:7)
- You aren’t alone. (John 16:32)
- You are wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:14)
- You are free. (John 8:36)
- You are God’s. (John 1:12)
- You are chosen. (Eph. 1:4, Col. 3:12)
- You are no longer a slave to sin. (Rom. 6:6)
Can we honestly say, as a society, that we feel the same way about girls and women that God affirms?
As someone who works with girls and women, I can honestly say that I don’t always treat women as loved, not to be condemned, included, accepted, not alone or pushed aside, wonderfully made, free – especially of expectations, fear and isolation, God’s own, chosen or no longer a slave to their past mistakes and sins. I am, indeed, part of the problem. While it’s easy for me to say; it can be very challenging to change the world, even if my motivation is to change it for my own daughters. But I can find the motivation necessary to change me. I can then look at how I must change my views, my thought and my actions.
Expectations, fears and the predictable isolation that comes from those expectations and fears is a part of everyone’s life at times. I was, thankfully, taught to take risks, to pursue my ambitions and my dreams and to not submit to other people’s expectations of me. While this was my experience in being raised as a boy, I can do the same for the girls and women in my life. I do, however, have to understand that I cannot truly understand. My experiences are my own and I am a fool for attempting to narrate someone else’s experience through the lens that was created by my own trials, tribulations and struggles.
Girls literally have no choice as to their gender before they are born. God, or for those less faithful, some predetermined spin of the genetic wheel, determines their fate until they are old enough to have that fate determined by boys, men, girls, women and a society that demands that expectations be met without so much as a respectful nod to the individual child who struggled against all of the pressures associated with being female. Want to play sports with the boys? You do it on their terms. Want a job in a male dominated field? Work twice as hard and accept that the boys will indeed just be boys despite how you feel when they act awfully. Speak out against the expectations that you feel are unfair? Please just sit down and be polite…and labeled. Want to play the same way boys are playing? You’re a girl, now act like it. Don’t want to settle for a boy who is weak or emasculated? How dare you judge. Don’t want to have kids and a family? What’s wrong with YOU?
This is not a case of girls being too much or too aggressive or too outspoken. It is simply the game that girls and women are expected to play while being polite and gracious. Many women and girls have simply had enough, and, in many cases, they simply want the freedom to no longer play; or no longer play by the rules that they were never even asked to agree to.
So, girls are choosing isolation and the shame that is often associated with choosing to shun the expectations of others. In my experience, this often leads to feeling of anxiety, depression and internalized shame for not being what others expect you to be. Oh, how unfair we can be when we fail to empathize with someone who happens to be different than we expect them to be. I propose that we start teaching kids, both boys and girls, to learn to accept themselves and strive to be the very best versions of themselves. Additionally, I propose that we take the expectations away from those that have never walked a mile in other’s shoes and who’ve never even taken the time to get to know the individual before lumping them into some predetermined victim group or victimizer group. Girls and women, boys and men, can learn to be complimentary to one another and to leave the expectations and judgements out of the equation. Boys and men can also learn to accept the competency and even superiority of women in situations where those women excel…even against the men that don’t always appreciate their excellence. Women can also learn to take pride in their excellence and to take risks in pursuing their ambitions and dreams; despite the backlash that may come along with their pursuit.
One of the very basic ways that we can start to change the world for girls and women is to value, promote and facilitate the mentorship of girls by women who have, for their entire lives, walked in the shoes of those girls. As a man, I want nothing more for my children than a community of women that support them; their ambitions, their dreams and their difference.
As a dad, I fear that my daughters will choose isolation as the most basic of survival mechanisms due to the fear that they have no other choice and will never achieve the mythical status of “good enough.” For they have always been good enough for me, but I fear that I have failed to communicate that message to them often enough and with enough clarity that it will never become one of their core beliefs about themselves. I still have so much to change in myself and instill in them. While daunting, I know that the most basic and important thing that I can do in pursuit of their brighter tomorrow is to model my belief and value of their mother while they are young. I have to accept that I am, no matter how intimidating it may seem, teaching them how they should expect to be treated by men. If I fail to show them the value that I see in their mother and in them, I have perpetuated the problem for another generation. I can do better so that they can expect better for themselves.
Maybe, within a few generations, we can start to reverse the effects of unfair expectations, fear and the requisite isolation that comes as a result. If we truly value others, we can create a world – even a small part of the world – where shame can be reserved for those that hurt, marginalize and unfairly judge others. Maybe, just maybe, our daughters can find a firm footing of their own and see their value, not in comparison to others and not in producing other humans, but in who they are and who God designed them to be. Maybe we can create fairer and more equitable expectations, reduce fear and put an end to self-imposed isolation as a means of survival. Those girls who I have the honor of raising cannot do this alone but can thrive if supported and valued instead of judged by unfair and unwanted expectations, shamed, isolated and shunned.