Why Our Shirts Do Not Empower Girls November 01 2018

My nine year old daughter ran her first 5k race last weekend in hard rain and strong winds and came in third place out of twelve kids in the coed 11 and under age category.  She came home cold and wet but bursting with excitement and thoroughly proud of herself.  Next month our town is hosting another holiday themed race with both a one mile fun run option for kids and a 5k option. She decided she’s going to run the 5k again because in her words, “I already know that I can come in second place running a mile but next time maybe I can come in second place running a 5k.” 

She is not a girl that needs to be empowered.

Marley Dias was 11 years old when a simple question from her mother set her on a whole new path. Her mom asked, "If you could change one thing, what would it be?” Marley had just finished reading "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson, and felt embraced by a book where "black girls' stories mattered." So her answer to her mom was that she wanted more kids to read books with black girls as the main characters. From there she launched #1000BlackGirlBooks, a campaign to collect and donate 1,000 books with black girl protagonists. Today she has donated over 9,000 books and authored one of her own.

She is not a girl that needs to be empowered.

Mari Copeny was only eight years old when she wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to meet with her and others regarding the Flint water crisis. At that time she was already known as Little Miss Flint because of work she had already done advocating for the children of Flint. Now, by the ripe old age of 11, she has raised $10,000 to provide a thousand Flint students with backpacks and school supplies then and raised an additional $16,000 so that 750 underprivileged children could imagine themselves as superheroes while watching Black Panther. She has spoken at the UN, is a Women’s March Youth Ambassador, and has not once stopped fighting for the children of Flint.

She is not a girl that needs to be empowered.

My point? There is no inherent deficit in girls that requires an extra boost of empowerment to help them reach their full potential. Is there an imbalance of power between men and women in this country? Absolutely! Is it something that needs to be rectified? Without a doubt. Does giving a girl a pink microscope empower her? Um, no. Really, it doesn’t.

It also doesn’t help girls to perpetuate a myth that they need empowerment from material things to be successful in life.

I understand that for some people, it’s just semantics. (Personally, I like semantics. I guess that tells you how much fun I am at parties!) But words matter. If handing that same microscope to a boy would not empower him, then it doesn’t empower a girl either. 

What girls do need is to stop being underestimated. That and equal treatment please.

My daughter participates in an after-school class called Sporting Spectacular. While she mostly enjoys it, there's one aspect of the class she finds less then spectacular. As all parents know, children often pick inopportune times to tell you about things that are most important to them. My daughter picked 7am on a Monday morning while I was trying to get dressed, to first tell me about her frustration with this class.

She explained that sometimes the teacher will divide the class by gender. The teacher will call just the boys, or just the girls, to stand up and perform a physical exercise while the other group watches. According to my daughter, the teacher consistently assigns easier tasks to the girls and harder tasks to the boys. For example, she’ll tell the girls to hop around the gym on two feet and then she’ll tell the boys to hop on one foot and not to step on lines on the gym floor while hopping. Or she’ll tell the girls to skip around the gym and then she’ll tell the boys to do an energetic high knees cardio-style exercise. A move which my daughter vigorously demonstrates around my bedroom to show me the difference between  ordinary skipping and the high knees move.

She has my full attention now because she is so passionate about this and I hear how important it is to her. She says things like, “if the goal of the class is to make ALL kids stronger, then why are the girls told to do something so EASY and the boys get to do the harder stuff? It’s just making the BOYS get better.” (I've capitalized the words she emphasized which had dramatic hand motions as well.) When I ask her how it makes her feel she says, “it makes me feel discouraged and upset because I know I can do the things the boys can do.”

I understand that she's also  embarrased to have to perform these easy tasks in front of the boys, the majority of which are her friends. She's worried that they will think she can't do anything harder. She ends by expressing frustration and betrayal that the teacher assigning these tasks is a woman. That an adult authority figure, who is even "a girl" like her, but still thinks girls can't do the same activities as boys.

That morning she didn’t need more than an empathetic listening ear, a hug and a kiss, and she was off to have breakfast and start the day. Her frustrations faded rapidly as she left my room but they stayed with me for a while longer. This was not the first time she'd been underestimated, but it was the first time I'd heard her describe so passionately how it made her feel. The difference seemed to be that this time it was not being done by peers, but by someone she thought would know better. 

When I watch my daughter, their classmates and friends, I see young girls full of endless possibility and bursting with energy, determination, passion and courage. Hopefully they too, like Marley and Mari, will change the world for the better.

That's why I started Sunrise Girl. To create shirt designs which reflect what girls can do. To give them an opportunity to showcase their talents and feel proud of their abilities. It would be so easy, for marketing purposes, to say that Sunrise Girl makes empowering shirts for girls.  People would then instantly have a framework for understanding what the type of designs we offer. 

But our shirts do not empower girls. 

Not one bit.  

They don't need it.