I’ve been professionally going for bike rides, making chalk drawings of the solar system, and writing novels with the next generation of young feminists since my early teens, first as a baby-sitter and now as a nanny. Armed with a certificate in teaching English to young learners, I moved to Barcelona last year, where I now take care of a four-year-old linguist three days a week. We count in English, Spanish, French and Catalan as I push her on the swing. She tells me she wants to speak six languages by the time she’s my age.
I’ve taken care of so many brilliant girls in the U.S. and in Spain. They’ve inspired me to play more, to fall down without fear, and to run through sprinklers even if it means I’ll be wet for the rest of the day.
Sarah and Joanna, looking out at the ocean.
But the difficulties of growing up a girl span time and oceans. Four-year-old Joana in Barcelona throws tantrums over the same struggles to navigate what it means to be feminine, or not, that I faced as a child and continue to deal with now.
I saw this play out when her parents cut her hair short this spring. “Wow, you got a haircut!” I exclaimed enthusiastically when I picked her up from school the next day.
Her tiny face screwed up in shame. “Déjame en paz!” (leave me alone) she screamed, forgetting her English, and marched away.
Later that week, on one of our daily walks, we wandered to the mall in her town’s center. What do you do with a four-year-old at a mall? To distract her from McDonald’s - which turned out to have been her planned destination all along - I dragged her into a store full of rainbows and glitter.
Super saturated shades of sparkly lip gloss, sequined animal-shaped purses, and neon hair extensions filled the place. She went right for the hair extensions. I felt the clerks’ eyeballs on her stained sweatpants and cropped hair, but she picked up each object with careful reverence, as if she had never had the privilege to touch such beautiful things and wouldn’t dare do them any harm.
I, meanwhile, was carrying both of our bulky jackets, our backpacks, and her tiny bicycle that seemed to have become exponentially more unwieldy in the tightly packed glam. And my feminist guilt had reared its head.
“Why am I reinforcing her perception that she needs long hair to be beautiful?” “Why am I torturing these sales associates with the unworthy sticky fingers of a tomboy-ish four-year-old?” “What am I, an independent grown-up woman, doing in pop princess land?”
But we were having so much fun. Being with this awestruck child gave me permission to love the glitz as much as she did. And it obligated me to own that love with joy rather than guilt. If Joana can embrace both her passions for languages and for lip gloss, maybe she’ll love herself with a little more ease than I did growing up.
I was the first born child. Internet wasn’t a household amenity when I was little and we never had cable TV, so it took me a while to piece together what was expected of me in terms of beauty and presentation. In the fourth grade when my best friend began carrying a mini-backpack that she called her “pocket book,” with a mature little Boston accent, I was awed and terrified. If I didn’t have a pocket book, what did it mean? Even worse, if I did have one, what would people think?
It wasn’t until I landed a scholarship at the nerdiest of private high schools that I came out on top in terms of conforming to expectations of femininity. I didn’t have vacation homes in France like the coolest of my classmates. I had no knowledge about computers like the smartest of my classmates. But I was good at clothes and make-up. My mom taught me to thrift and we spent hours in the Goodwill. I learned to love “High Fashion Fridays” at school where I’d pair my frothy sweet sixteen dress with cowboy boots, or a giant gold necklace with my grandfather’s army sweater.
Sarah ice skating in High School.
I realized though, that clothes and make-up were not cool in and of themselves. As we learn through playground insults and clichéd movie one liners, crying, running, or even just being ‘like a girl’ is one of the worst things you can be accused of. Nurturing and caring are feminine traits. If you ‘care too much,’ you’re a girl, and if you care too much about girly things, you must be utterly vapid.
Even after leaving the elite Boston prep school for an enormous public university, my peers were artistic, cool, urban, and above the sorority girls who thought Ugg boots and pink Northface were fashion.
Now in my mid-twenties, I’ve crafted an identity that maximizes my success at achieving feminine beauty ideals but minimizes the feminine traits associated with them. Without thinking, I put away my make-up when friends come over. I sneak foundation and mascara into the bathroom when I have someone in my bed in the morning. I cut my shower short so they won’t know how long I spend luxuriating in blending powdered glitter across my eyelids and cheekbones.
“I woke up like this,” I proclaim with perfectly tousled hair and carefully creased blouses. I wear a leather jacket and ride a bicycle so that everyone knows I can take care of myself. I do Pilates in my room alone only when no one else is home. Hopefully people think I grow muscle naturally or through rock climbing or boxing or anything else that implies strength, vigor, and ease, rather than femininity, insecurity and, worst of all, caring too much.
Back in pre-preteen paradise with the four-year-old, I tried to turn my nose up at tiaras and rhinestones. My hobbies are craft beer and mountain climbing; I don’t have time for nail polish! My nails just grow in with a French-manicure!
But the wide eyes begging me to lift her up to a mirror to admire the effect of faux pink pigtails hobbled my scorn. I don’t want the Joanas of the world to be ashamed of liking pink pigtails any more than I want them to be ashamed of short hair. I want the girls I love to love every part of themselves and to know that to be strong, smart and capable, they don’t have to snub femininity.
And the truth is I love my gold eyeshadow and the hours I spend shopping with my mom and crafting outfits out of my finds. I didn’t come to that love in a vacuum. I learned that love from the world’s expectations of me. But if I hide my love of make-up and fashion with shame, I am teaching the girls in my life that there is something shameful about femininity, and by extension, being female.
On the way home from the mall we saw “Feminism” graffitied across the side of a building. Her love of reading graffiti can be problematic at times, but I made sure she sounded this one out, helping her with the difficulty of putting the sounds of s and m together.
“What is feminism?” she asked, as she always does when she encounters a new word in English.
“It’s the idea that all people, no matter if they’re boys or girls or anything else, should be respected equally to make their own choices about who they are and what they like without worrying about bad things happening to them because of it.”
“Oh. It’s my favorite color,” she commented, touching the lilac paint.
“Me too,” I said, “feminism is my favorite color, too.”
by Sarah Stearns
Originally from Boston, Sarah studied theater, dance and art in Philadelphia. She now lives in Barcelona where she spends most of her time exploring labyrinths of bureaucratic red tape as well as of the more traditional topiary sort. When she's not having visa issues or climbing mountains, Sarah is studying mask and movement at clown school, teaching hairdressers how to say 'bangs' n English, and trying to be calm about it all at queeesarahhh.wordpress.com. You can find her on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sarahhh.sss/.