I am fairly sensitive person. PC? Not really. But when it comes to language and using words or terminology that can be seen as offensive, derogatory, racist, or sexist, I try to be mindful of what I say. Why? Because words can hurt — words do hurt — and what we say unconsciously forms how we feel, and what societal expectations and stigmas we force upon one another. As someone who struggles with mental illness, I know much words can hurt. And as a woman, I know how deeply they can slice.
I make it a point to never ask my daughter to "toughen up," mainly because I don't believe in asking her to be something or someone she is not. I am careful not thrust gendered clothing or expressions at her, because I don't want mine (or my partner's, for that matter) preconceived notions about gender to affect who she is (or who she wants to be). It's why we don't say things like: "man up," "sissy," and "like a girl" aren't used in our home (and why they're banned in schools in the U.K.).
But when this assignment — telling my daughter to “man up” — came my way, I volunteered. Why? Why even entertain such a chauvinistic and institutionalized beliefs? Because these stereotypes exist. (Case in point: Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s sexist response to sexism.) Because, consciously or subconsciously, we all have tapes we play in our head that tell us what makes a man a “man” and what makes a woman a “real woman." As much as my partner and I will try, we can't protect our daughter from these comments forever. She deserves to learn from me and grow beyond me, and I hoped this experience would create a gender dialogue at the very least.
I started this assignment on a Tuesday afternoon. The premise was simple: I was to tell my daughter to “man up” for full week and see what happened. Going beyond that, I used terms and phrases often reserved for boys on her — things like "brush it off," and "stop acting like a baby — too. When I would say it and why was up to my discretion, but after a slip and fall, and a few too many tears, I uttered those two words, and so began the experiment.
Would my daughter carry herself differently in light of this news? Would telling her to “man up” make her tougher, stronger, more stoic or — perhaps — more independent? (TBH I don’t think that is possible; I have the sassiest and most self-reliant toddler on the whole freakin’ planet.)
I wanted to know what saying these words would say about me, about girls, about women, about boys, about men, and about our world. So I set off to find out. I knew it would be hard — maybe the hardest thing I'd willingly done so far as a parent and her mom — and to be honest, there were moments I dreaded doing.
But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious.
When And Why I Used The Phrase, And What Exactly I Said
Over the course of the week I used the actual phrase “man up” several times. I used it when my daughter hurt herself, lost a toy, or didn’t get her way. I used it when my daughter became anxious in social situations or uncomfortable and shy amongst large groups (namely on Halloween, when she was the only girl on the block not begging strangers for Butterfingers and peanut butter cups). She seemed unfazed — at least no more so than she was when I consoled her or kissed her boo-boos — and her tears took just as long to stop, but each and every time I used the expression I felt sicker.
What this experiment taught me about myself went far beyond a simple phrase.
So I tried to switch things up: When she would fall, I'd tell her to “brush it off. You’re OK. No tears.” When a group of older children were hogging the slide, I encouraged her to fight back (figuratively, not literally), and when I wouldn’t let her watch TV, I told her “tough. Stop being a baby” — all variations on the “man up” ideal. However, for me, the problem remained, as they were all still variations on the "male norm" (she had to stoic and tough, cold and hard.) By telling her to "man up", I was essentially asking her to swallow each and every emotion. She had no choice but to self-soothe, because I let her kick and scream and cry without intervention.
On a few occasions, my daughter got angry, not because of what I was saying per se, but instead because of what I wasn't. When I wouldn't let her have a lollipop or watch Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse or Sophia the First, she'd scream and shake, chucking whatever toy or object was within her reach.
I would walk away and cry because this all felt wrong. The words, her reaction, my own: everything about this experiment felt wrong. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to speak to her in a low, understanding voice, like I always do, and explain why she couldn't have these things. I wanted to encourage her to use her words and not her anger, but I couldn't. It sucked. It f*cking sucked.
What Words Like "Man Up" Mean — For Men & For Women
The problem with the phrase “man up” is that it creates gender expectations on both sides. It reinforces the belief that there is a masculine ideal, and that ideal is one unflappable, unwavering, and emotionless dude. It reinforces that certain behaviors because c’mon, don’t be a pussy. Man up! And inversely, the phrase “man up” implies that women are the opposite; emotional, delicate, fragile, and weak.
This language perpetuates the idea that there are male behaviors and female behaviors, and if the two intersect, you're “abnormal” or weird. For example, men don't cry, and sure as sh*t don't talk about their emotions, while women wear their hearts on their sleeve ... or bury them in a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine. (And while I have been known to drink down my feelings, it is with a beer — or tequila.) The point is male exceptions and female expectations are absurd, and while many of us say we believe in gender equality, we do not realize the words we use — the way we speak to our children, ourselves, and our peers — actually promotes discrimination
This language actually perpetuates gender inequality.
What I Learned About The Phrase And Myself
For me, the phrase proved even more precarious. Why? Well since I was the one determining when to say man up (and why), I became a part of the problem. What’s more, I realized I was part of the problem all along. What this experiment taught me about myself went far beyond a simple phrase. It ran deep. It taught me about stereotypes, about gender misconceptions I consciously — and unconsciously — held, and it taught me that I see certain things as weaknesses (mainly crying and asking for help) and others as symbols of strength (like bucking up and standing strong).
Hell, it taught more more than therapy session. (Kidding. OK, I'm half-kidding.)
Instead of teaching me about my daughter or about what it means to be the mom of a little girl in today’s society — which I what I thought I would get out of this experiment — I learned about gender neutrality. I learned what it means to be a boy (or a man) in the modern world and, most importantly, I learned what it means to be a person — regardless of your sex, gender, or personal identity.
Images Courtesy of Kimberly Zapata (4)