Last fall, my 4-year-old daughter started playing on her first sport’s team. In a flurry of new cleats and shin guards, evening practices, and Saturday morning games, she made her debut on the soccer field.
To prepare for this momentous occasion, I took her shopping and let her pick out some brightly colored athletic shirts and shorts to wear on the practice field. One of the shirts was boldly emblazoned with the logo: WIN LIKE A GIRL.
I was attracted to the underlying message of the shirt. Once an insult to play LIKE A GIRL, this shirt projected another idea. The large, purple, glittery letters proudly asserted a sense of confidence and pride in winning LIKE A GIRL.
When I held the shirt up to my daughter in the store, I saw images of her fulfilling this message. She would run fast, kick hard, and not give up. With a bit of determination and grit, she could and would WIN LIKE A GIRL.
My daughter liked the shirt because it was pink.
At first, soccer proved challenging. My daughter tends toward shyness in new settings. She was timid on the field, unsure of herself amongst a new group of peers and coaches. She hesitated to go after the ball, and then was uncertain of what to do with the ball when she got it.
This was to be expected since it was her first time in an organized sport. She eventually settled into the new routine of practices and games and slowly gained confidence. More importantly, her love of the game slowly grew.
She wore that pink shirt to several practices before she asked what those purple, glittery letters spelled. I was delighted to explain. “It says WIN LIKE A GIRL!”
She looked at me quizzically. “I am a girl,” she replied bluntly. “What does that even mean?”
“Girls can play just as hard as boys,” I started to explain.
I then hesitated. Now, that it was time to explain, I struggled to articulate exactly what the shirt meant. I realized that it was a phrase loaded with meaning.
Girls often have to fight extra hard to get the same thing as boys. Is that what this shirt meant? Does that make winning LIKE A GIRL even more satisfying since you worked even harder for it? Or, maybe it’s worse because you had to work that much harder for it?
Looking down at the expression of confusion on her face, I realized there was no need to continue with an explanation.
The shirt’s message meant absolutely nothing to her. At the age of four, she has never experienced the phrase LIKE A GIRL as an insult. No one has ever told her in a derogatory way that she throws LIKE A GIRL or she runs LIKE A GIRL. Of course girls can play as hard as boys!
At home, she receives the message that she is strong and capable. Although she can often be found in a princess costume, she also runs wild with her brother in the woods - barefoot and shirtless and without a care in the world.
She loves to play with her Shopkins and My Little Ponies, but she also spends much of her time digging up rocks and hunting dinosaurs in our back yard.
Her brother is 19 months older and quick-footed, but for every race in which he beats her, she pummels him in the next wrestling match. Every time he kicks a goal into the net, she follows up with one of her own.
The fact that she has never experienced a negative LIKE A GIRL comment makes me want to push pause. Give myself some time to strategize. How can I make sure that she continues to give confused looks when someone says she plays LIKE A GIRL? How can I make sure this phrase does not defeat her in years to come?
I know that this grace period will be short-lived. As she gets older and is exposed to more competitive sports, begins to be more aware of news and media, and experiences the inevitable stereotyping when she gets to school, she will recognize a gender gap.
I can teach her the biological differences between men and women. I can teach her to be proud of her body and what it is capable of. But, what can I say about how these biological differences seem to give many the right to label, underestimate, and misjudge her? She will have questions that I do not have answers for.
As the season progressed, I saw remarkable changes in my daughter. Once afraid to go after the ball, she now raced after it. Once unsure of what to do with the ball once she stole it, she now scored goals. Once needing water (or cuddle) breaks every five minutes, she now just wanted to play.
She and two other blonde, ponytailed girls became a force to be reckoned with in the co-ed league. During one of their last games of the fall season, I watched the sun set as they stood in the middle of the field waiting for kick off. Their shadows stretched long across the field as they joined hands, giggled, and made a ridiculous 4-year-old inspired game plan. Then the whistle blew and without hesitation, they were off running, kicking, and laughing across the field.
They were on a mission to win. Not like girls. Not like boys. Just as players.