Like a Girl

By Jess Mahler

I remember the day Coach Devine taught me how to run. Such a strange thing to need to be taught.

He took me over to the side of the field, away from the rest of the team, and had me run up and down the field line for half an hour. “You need to pick your knees up more.” he said. “Stop throwing your feet to the side,” he said. “A lot of girls run like this,” he said, “flailing knees and not getting anywhere.”

I wonder if he was trying to make me feel better about being singled out or did he see girls as have some specific way of running badly? And if he did think that, how did he explain that only one girl on his team of 30 ran that way?

In school I was always the last person picked for teams. Always. I was the pick that team captains fought not to get stuck with. Again because I ran, or threw, or kicked “like a girl.”

But I was the only girl in the class who did.

My female classmates were snapped up just as fast as the boys. Team captains wanted Jackie and Nikki on their teams as badly as they wanted me off of them.

One of my basketball coaches spent weeks working with me on my free throws. Our gyms were tiled, and they found that when I stood on the tile half way between the basket and the free throw line, I made the shot easily. So they had me work backwards, one tile at a time. When I was regularly hitting the basket on one tile, I took one step bask to stand on the next.

I reached the tile just before the free throw line. I was regularly hitting eight or nine baskets out of ten from that tile. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t take that last step. Put me on the free throw line and I’d miss, every time.

If that coach thought I threw “like a girl,” they never said so. I wish I remembered that coach’s name. Even if they never got me making free throws, they taught me that I could improve, and how to small changes can add up.

But that story also contains a glaring hint to what was really going on. And I wonder — would any of my coaches and gym teaches have noticed the problem, if they hadn’t been so willing to just default to “like a girl.” Ignoring that other girls in their care didn’t have my problems?

Here’s the truth it took me nearly 25 years to learn:

I was terrified of my body.

A combination of Catholic guilt and sexual abuse from a young age taught me that my body couldn’t be trusted. That it would betray me. That there was something inherently wrong and evil about it.

So is it any wonder than when I was asked to climb a rope in gym I let go barely a foot off the ground? What if I got 10ft off the ground before my body failed me and I fell? How badly would I be hurt? Better. Much better. To let go at the first sign of strain.

To not give my body a chance to hurt me again.

And “like a girl” became a veil, keeping most of my teachers and coaches from seeing that there was something wrong. Because as long as I was “like a girl,” they didn’t need to look any deeper. To find out why I was so consistently bad at anything involving my body.

Maybe I’m being too hard on my teachers and coaches. After all, the only saw me for a couple hours a week. Even if they didn’t fall prey to “like a girl,” what are the chances they — with little or no training in psychology — could have even begun to figure out what was wrong?

But “like a girl” hurt me in other ways.

How would my life have been different if some of those teachers or coaches sat me down and said, “Hey, look, I don’t know why you are having this trouble, but it’s not about what you are physically able to do. You could be just as good as anyone on this field if it was just about the physical stuff. Something else is going on. I don’t know what, but I can see the way you don’t trust yourself. It not being able to trust yourself that’s stopping you. That’s not something I can help with, but I’m here if you need to talk.”

Or what if one of my gym teaches had gone to a guidance counselor?

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t think Jessica is really trying in gym. It’s not willful, but something is stopping her from trying her best. I think it might be a good idea if you pulled her in.”

Maybe even this is asking too much of my teachers and coaches. The coaches, at least, were volunteers on pee wee leagues, and weren’t expected to do more than teach us to throw a ball or run around a field.

But what if I hadn’t been told, from a young age, that I did everything “like a girl”? What if I hadn’t been given another reason to hate and distrust my body? To believe that I would fail at anything I tried so it wasn’t worth really trying? What if more people than just that one basketball coach had said, “I believe you can do this and I’m going to show you how you can get better”?

I don’t know. But it would have made a difference.

So yes, I get upset when I hear someone does something “like a girl.” I have no idea how much harm that phrase did me in my life, but I know it is a non-zero positive number. I don’t know how much sooner I might have learned the truth and started healing, but it probably would have been sooner.

I was the only girl on my teams who had these problems. The only girl in my gym classes — even, in high school, in an all girl school. But still I was “like a girl.”

So no one, not even me, had a chance to see that my failures weren’t inherent, they were learned and protective.

The next time you are tempted to say someone does something “like a girl,” think of me. Then think of Nikki and Jackie and all the other girls on my teams and in my gym classes who didn’t do things “like a girl.”

And find something else to say.

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