Today, I want better for the young girl at my food pantry volunteer event who put down a heavy box of food because her mother said a man should lift it instead. The girl, no older than 10, displayed immediate wound on her face, but before her mother could notice, she had already motioned for me—the nearest man in sight—to pick up the 24-pack of Campbell soup cans.
Shocked by the subtle yet undeniable sexism occurring in the course of five seconds, I muttered out a meager, “I’m not very strong. She might be able to lift it as easily as I can,” but that wasn’t good enough to persuade the mother. I found myself compliantly walking toward the box, the girl still frowning. The mother, however, had already moved on with her life.
I felt an invisible spotlight shine on me, begging me to deliver an epic progressive manifesto about the bogusness of perpetuating gender norms, the long-term consequences of mothers identifying daughters as weak and unhelpful, and the perpetuation of male privilege through actions that uphold men as physically strong problem-solvers. This was the opportunity to create a teachable moment out of a box of soup.
I asked myself the question, “Is this the time and place to educate a stranger who holds traditional values?” and decided the answer was “no.” Instead, I locked eyes with the girl as I bent down for the box. I believe she sensed my lack of conventional masculinity—or perhaps it was my visible disdain for the odd social justice one-act play we found ourselves starring in—but something made her connect with me in the absence of words. Our momentary glance to one another said, “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” It said, “Can you believe people still don’t get it?” It said, “How do we make this right?”
These “soup-can oppression” moments affect young girls on a daily basis. From waking up in the morning and deciding how to look “pretty” for school, to practicing tumbling in gym class while boys play football, to playing with toys and reading books adorned in pink glitter, girls learn what we expect of them and internalize those expectations unconsciously. But what if we taught girls to look happy instead of pretty? What if we taught girls to advocate for themselves when they’re pigeonholed into doing an activity they don’t want to do? What if we taught girls to play with toys and read books that spark their genuine interests?
What if we treat girls the way we treat boys?
Boys and men also feel the consequences of gendered oppression. When we tell girls they are incapable of actions, emotions, and ideas expected of boys and men, we create a dually-damaging network of assumptions linking gender identity and behavioral outcomes. Then boys inversely learn they are expected to be strong and do what girls cannot. One of those boys grew to be 24-year-old volunteering at a food pantry, type-casted as the “strong man” and wanting to shout at the top of his lungs, “Stop expecting this from me! This isn’t what it means to be a man!”
I want to see parents empowering their children—regardless of their gender identity,—to live confidently. I want to see girls harness that confidence and evolve into women with vision, leading our world with great ideas and with the same amount of positional leadership men have. Today, and every day, I want better for young girls whose potential is stifled due to socialized gender norms. I want better for men like me who will be lifting things our entire lives because we're held accountable for a type of masculinity we didn't sign up for.
And most of all, I want the defeated girl to remember that when her mother made me lift the box, it was heavy for me, too.