I went to the Barbie movie mostly for Greta Gerwig. I could watch her 2019 adaptation of Little Women seven thousand times and not get sick of it (I think I watched the trailer at least seven hundred times in the months leading up to its release). There were many remarkable things about this film, but as I watched Barbie in her fluorescent green roller skates and hot pink dream house, I realized that I have lived most of my life embarrassed by the culture of being a girl. It was the first time I had ever seen girlhood depicted as something to respect and take seriously. I mean, Barbie literally leaves her dream world in order to save a girl who has become disillusioned by her Barbie toys. It is that facet of the movie that has haunted me the longest: the realization that our culture makes a mockery of girlhood.
I have to admit that I clung to childhood longer than most. I spent much of elementary school collecting Care Bears and Cabbage Patch Kid dolls and tending to their every need. I used to make Christmas gifts for my Cabbage Patch Dolls so they wouldn’t “feel left out” when the rest of the family was opening gifts. But through it all, I knew that my interests were embarrassing and not to be shared at school at all costs. To make up for it, I refused to be associated with wearing pink or sparkles or pink, sparkly nail polish. Because I already knew that childhood, especially childhood associated with girls, was not something to be proud of.
I was in another teacher’s classroom the other day as she led her sixth graders in their daily mindfulness. She asked them to close their eyes and imagine something that brought them joy when they were five years old.
What kind of world are we living in where sixth graders have already lost sight of the things that bring them joy? Sixth graders have already been asked to shed the aspects of childhood that don’t fit the model of adult seriousness. Sixth graders are already too embarrassed to share what brings them joy.
It’s not somewhere I want to be. I don’t want to be embarrassed by the color pink because it is “too girly.” It’s almost absurd that the category of “too girly” even exists in my mind.
Being a girl is an important era of many peoples lives. It encourages them to explore their feelings and emphasize friendships and explore the articles of clothing that make them feel good.
I don’t know how to reclaim this lost girlhood for everyone. But here is my best confession: five “girly” things that I would have given life and limb for.
American Girl dolls. My mom refused to buy any of their products on sheer economic principle. But I pored over those catalogs for hours, just dreaming of owning a Kit doll with a pink sweater cardigan to match my own.
Church dresses. My mom used to dress me in these dresses for church that were gathered at the waist and pooped out at the bottom. When I spun around in that dress in the colorless basement of Covenant CRC, I felt like a floating fairy.
Zendaya. Not the cool, badass Zendaya of modern times. I am talking child Zendaya in the Disney Channel original series Shake It Up. Her outfits were so 2011 it would make you vomit.
Friendship necklaces. When I was in fifth grade, I went shopping at the mall in Ames, Iowa. This was the trip of a lifetime for a small town punk like me: my best friend Leah bought us matching yin and yang friendship necklaces. I was too afraid to wear mine to school because I thought I had already grown out of the “girly girl” category. But I used to take it out every afternoon and wish I was able to wear this necklace proudly.
Playing house. I was a staunch supporter of recess games of house. For someone who spent a lot of time considering how to navigate social situations, playing a game where you practiced those situations made all my dreams come true. As middle school started and my friends gradually aged out, I mourned the loss of this social haven.
May the experience of girlhood live on in its many forms, for anyone who longs to call it their own.
Susannah currently lives in New Jersey and works as a 7th grade ELA teacher in East Harlem. When she is not teaching or writing, she can be found exploring independent bookstores, going backpacking, and trying to roller-skate on all the cool trails in the city. She is also recently experienced in the art of citrus skunk repellent (I know you’re impressed).