Stop Telling Girls They Can Do Anything

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I grew up on the lie that girls could do anything. And I wasn’t the only one: My classmates dreamed of becoming the president, Oscar winners, and the first women on Mars. We got the message from the adults in our lives, from educational TV, and carefully selected books that pushed the feminist agenda our mothers and grandmothers fought so hard for. In the mid-'90s, even our pop music perpetuated a bubblegum version of this intoxicating myth. The Spice Girls, in towering stacked heels, sold us the rallying cry of “Girl Power,” as insubstantial as it was catchy. The cherry on top was my all-girls high school, where the fantasy of a genderless meritocracy seemed achievable in my lifetime, if only because there weren’t any boys around to disprove it. I was incubating in a warm goo of female empowerment.

But I knew I wasn’t destined for the Oval Office or the International Space Station. I was going to author the great American novel. Nevermind that aspiring to “published novelist,” or even “self-published novelist” would be setting a high goal. I was certain that a modern-day female Huck Finn was inside me, waiting to be written. The Pulitzers and critical accolades galore would naturally follow.

And while adoring teachers and impressed strangers were happy to encourage this elaborate fantasy, there was at least one adult who tried to keep me grounded: my mother. She had gone to the same school as me, almost exactly 30 years earlier, and had been fed the same stories about how she could do whatever she wanted. She, too, wanted to be a writer, and she, too, believed success was inevitable. Then came the cautionary tale she would repeat throughout my childhood: She left to get her MFA in fiction, and was crushed under the criticism of her fellow students. It killed her desire to write for years.
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
Determined that her own daughter wouldn’t have such rosy-hued ambitions, my mother not only told me the story of her MFA, she also shared such uplifting tidbits like, “No one read Emily Dickinson’s poetry until after she died,” and “Most writers never get a book deal.” At the time, I felt like she was trying to let me know, as gently as she could, that I wasn’t good enough to be a writer. In retrospect, of course, she was simply trying to temper my grand ambitions with a dose of reality.

When I got to college, I gave up my writing aspirations, partially because I was terrified of the rejection my mother had described. Not wanting to completely give up on writing, I chose to go into communications, where I could apply my love of the written word to churning out press releases and event blurbs for local newsletters. It didn’t last long.

When I finally admitted to myself that I’d rather fail at being a writer for a while than succeed at something that didn’t really fit, I moved to New York to really, actually try this time. What followed was nearly two years of swings and misses, and successes so small that they felt like misses. Then, finally, after 74 job applications, a series of low-paying jobs adjacent to what I really wanted to be doing, and a few family get-togethers where I explained that not all New York nannies made insanely good money, I finally landed a full-time job at Refinery29. And, starting in 2017, I got to add “writer” officially to my job title. Now, when I tell someone, “I’m a writer,” I still feel like I’m telling people I actually grew up to be a Disney Princess.

While my mother’s lessons on the near-futility of making a living off writing was exactly what I didn’t want to hear, today I credit them for getting me where I am today. Telling me I could do anything I wanted wouldn’t help in the long run. Preparing me for the kinds of challenges I would actually face, ones she could not change or control, did help.

Telling me I could do anything I wanted wouldn’t help in the long run

After generations of women being told they can’t aspire to a career, or to only a very small number of them, it’s understandable why it’s so tempting to tell girls they can do or be whatever they want. But that is not the world we live in.

While we’ve made huge leaps forward, the fact of the matter remains that there’s a lot keeping women and girls from doing whatever we want professionally, and very little of it is in our control. The realities of being a working woman are bleak. We’re still just making 77 cents to a man’s dollar — and those numbers only get worse if you’re a woman of colour. There are still no federal protections for paid maternity leave, and women who do choose to have children have to deal with a wage gap of their own.

Yes, there are the victories we can celebrate, but even they often come with an asterisk. In 2017, there are a record number of female Fortune 500 CEOs, but there’s still only 24 of them. A baby girl born today who lives to 100 won’t live to see equal pay for equal work. A woman finally won the popular vote, only to lose the presidency to a man who has shown himself to be a misogynistic sexual harasser.

Obviously, there are plenty of glass ceilings that we still need to shatter. But when we simply tell girls they can do anything and don’t give them the tools to back up that promise, we’re doing more harm than good.

We absolutely need more women in boardrooms, on judge’s benches, at Silicon Valley startups. But it’s short-sighted to simply tell girls and young women that all they need to achieve their dreams is hard work. It ignores a history of sexism and societal inequality that will be there to slam the door. And if we’ve only ever told girls that the limit is their imagination, who will they blame when they fail?

I am not saying that we have to correct every 6-year-old who declares she’ll be president, but I do think that well before her first job interview, we need to be talking to her less about the limitlessness of what she can achieve in the future and more about what she can do now. We can tell girls they are strong, smart, problem-solvers who can take on challenges. And, like my mother, we need to remind girls that they will fail, too. Then we can nurture resilience, and tempered (rather than blind) optimism, and the resulting self-esteem will be made of steelier stuff.

Telling girls that their power lies in what they already are versus what they might do may seem subtle, but it’s all the difference in the world. And maybe if we raise a generation of girls who believe in themselves that way, we can be even more amazed by what they accomplish.
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