If you've never read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (or listened to Beyoncé's "Flawless" for some inexplicable reason) allow me to introduce you to one of her most iconic quotes: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man." Socially and, yes, physically, we train girls to be inconspicuous, smaller, and less. So how can we counter this? How can you teach your daughter to unapologetically take up space?
At first blush, this idea perhaps sounds like some sort of out-there feminist agenda conspiracy theory. "What do you mean women aren't allowed to take up space? That's crazy!" But, if you really stop and think about it, is it? "Femininity," as it is usually imagined by mainstream society, is usually dainty, petite, quiet, and demure. Femininity is often also linked with another social preoccupation: thinness. And let's be clear: the pressure female-bodied people face to fit within these very narrow confines of what it means to be "feminine" is tremendous. So, how do we fight it? Because make no mistake, it is worth fighting.
As with anything to do with instilling values in your children, it's just as much about how you make them feel about themselves as how you treat yourself and others out in the world. Modeling assertive, confident, expansive behavior is probably going to do more for them, in the long-run, than telling them to be assertive, confident, and expansive. Still, I could (read: will) argue that both approaches work best in tandem. Here are some specifics you can try to encourage your daughter to unabashedly (and appropriately) spread her wings.
Look At "Manners" Critically
Make no mistake: I am from Connecticut and, as such, good manners are a must. However, I would encourage everyone to think about what constitutes "good manners." More often than not, they're just another way to prop up the status quo by prescribing a set of behaviors depending upon your age, gender, class, race, etc. What is considered "good manners" for women and girls (crossing your legs at the ankle, for example) is never asked of men and boys. Male identifying persons are told to hold doors and pull out chairs for female identifying persons "because it's polite," but if it's simply because it's polite, why doesn't it go the other way around? A great deal of "good manners," as suggested to women and girls, often necessitates their being quieter, less conspicuous, and physically and socially smaller than their male counterparts. We can tacitly but explicitly ask this of them without even realizing it: we just want them to be "polite."
A good way I've found to distinguish what's good manners and what's just sexist drivel is asking myself, "Is this polite or is it ladylike?" If it's mainly ladylike, it is almost certainly unnecessary.
Apologize Way Less Than You Probably Do
Ever since it was brought to my attention that women apologize way too much, literally for taking up any noticeable amount of space, it forced me to confront this particular behavior in myself. At first I thought, "I'm an empowered, feminist lady. There's no way I apologize any more than is necessary."
Then I went to the grocery store, where apparently my being within three feet of another person's cart caused me to apologize for it.
Realizing that my daughter would eventually pick up on this behavior, I've taken great efforts to curb it. (I've found that replacing "Sorry" with "Thank you" is a good way to help move past it.)
Don't Let People Cut You In Line
This is advice my friend's mother gave to her and my friend, in turn, shared with me. I feel like it's such a good symbolic principle to instill the idea that you have every right to assert your presence and demand fair treatment. You do not have to slink off into the background when you've been wronged to avoid an "awkward" confrontation. The confrontation need not be awkward at all, actually, as you could easily say something along the lines of, "Excuse me, I was next," or, "Sir, the line forms behind me." Those comments are just as assertive as they are polite.
Call Out People Who Interrupt You
As with letting someone know they have taken your place in line, you do not have to shy away from letting someone know they have taken your place in a conversation. Again, there's no need to get salty (though if you get a little salty, don't worry: I won't judge), but letting someone know that they have encroached on your space asserts that you are entitled to that space.
Don't Fat Shame
Fat shaming and diet culture asserts that women not only have to be socially demure and inconspicuous but also literally small. Parents: we're going to need you to push back on this one pretty hard. Encouraging a girl to unapologetically take up space means not making her feel crappy about taking up as much physical space as she needs, either.
Take An Active Interest In Her Opinions
Because when she knows that someone is interested in what she has to say, she will be less afraid to say it. Taking up social space means your thoughts, ideas, and opinions has as much a right to be seen as anyone else's.
Shush Only When Necessary
Please know that I know that children are loud. Like, unnecessarily loud and on more than a few occasions. I'm not saying we should smile warmly every time our daughters emit an ear-piercing shriek in the library. But, as with "good manners," we often expect different behaviors in boys and girls, which often means we allow a certain "unruliness" with boys than we permit in girls. So I'd just encourage everyone to ask themselves, "Is my daughter running around the playground screaming really bad manners?" or, "Am I asking her to be quieter because it's genuinely polite in this situation or because I think shouting is unladylike?"
There's nothing quite like physical activity to encourage the idea that bodies taking up space is a good thing. On the soccer field, for example, you want to cover as much terrain as possible. Sports (and other physical activities) give girls a chance to see that their bodies can do amazing things, and that their bodies do not merely exist for the visual enjoyment of others. Sports enable girls to do something within and with their bodies that's just for them. Bonus! If they stick with a sport they will get better and gain the confidence that comes from having improved.
Speak Up When You're Uncomfortable
Because part of being visible and taking up space means you are entitled not to suffer in that space. There are exceptions, of course — sometimes there is a great deal to be gleaned from sitting in your discomfort and picking it apart a bit. Obviously the world isn't going to cater to your comfort levels at every turn, but being vocal about your limits and boundaries and clearly defining what you're OK with and what you're not is, at the very least, a great starting place to move forward.
Be OK With Making Mistakes
Women are often put up on pedestals, and unless you're quite tiny, remaining balanced on on one is pretty difficult. Taking up social and physical space means that people are going to see you as you are, and you are not perfect. It's OK, though! Because no one is. If you can demonstrate this to your girls, and drive home the idea that mistakes are not only common but learning opportunities, they are less likely to be afraid to put themselves out there.
Never Apologize For Not Wearing Makeup
Apologizing for not wearing makeup indicates that there is a particular way a woman or girl must look in order to be acceptable in public. This, to use a highly technical term, is bullsh*t. Bullsh*t already takes up too much space out there. We need less of it. Be unapologetic in your lack of face paint.
Don't Be Weird About Girl Farts
Hear me out, guys.
I don't like farts. Farts smell. The thing is, though, everyone farts. The fact that boys and men routinely giggle over there own airy butt babies while women and girls are burn in mortifying embarrassment if a little toot slips past the goalie is telling. (I've actually heard, on more than one occasion "Girls don't fart, guys. They poof.") Of course if a guy lets one rip in the middle of a business meeting, of course he's going to be embarrassed. But girls are expected to be unduly embarrassed for having a functioning body in all circumstances. I've met women who have been married for years who leave the room rather than fart in front of their husband. The husbands, I have been assured, do not offer the same courtesy.
The idea that women should somehow be above body function is ridiculous and, yeah, damaging. Now I'm not saying that you should have farting contests with your little girl, but if she happens to pass gas (or if she intentionally and repeatedly farts in the bathtub and laughs maniacally at the ensuing bubbles, which is something my kid did recently), just teach her to say "excuse me" and don't make a big deal of it one way or the other. (The same goes for boys.)
Encourage Leadership Skills
Because leaders necessarily occupy visible and emotional space in the world. Hey, I'll be the first to admit that, gender aside, leadership positions are not for everyone. But letting girls know this is an option means that, in time, we will see more women in positions that enable them to effect change, which makes the physical and social landscape one that more female-bodied people can feel entitled to occupy.