When we examine the standards by which we compare ourselves and fall short we quickly find that the idealized “standard of beauty” is only one example of how we, as women, allow sources outside of ourselves to define who we are. There are many more areas where we would be wise to ask ourselves some very searching questions.
For example, who determined that women make better nurses and men make better doctors? Why are more boys aspiring to becoming dentists than girls? When did we come to believe that boys are good at math and girls cannot learn math as easily as boys? Who decided that a woman should earn less money than a man who has a compatible job and similar training? Who says trucks and sports cars are for boys (little or grown up) and not for girls? It is true that the organization of societal norms like these helps to shape our culture and provide structure with which to define personal roles.
But the question is: Do we allow those roles to limit us by allowing them to prevent us from following our authentic interests and talents?
I learned first-hand that some of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to boys rather than girls are not true. In the beginning, however, I believed the myth that boys are smarter, stronger, more even-tempered and more logical than girls. That belief prevented me from excelling in math although I was an otherwise very bright student. In beginning algebra, as a freshman in high school, my first quarter grade was an “A.” But each quarter, my math grade would fall one letter grade from the previous quarter. The second quarter, my grade dropped to a “B”. By the third quarter my grade was a “C”. And the struggle for the entire fourth quarter was to keep my grade at a “C” and not let it drop any further, which I was able to do, but not without considerable anxiety and effort. During my sophomore year, geometry was a bit easier, and my final grade was a “C” for the class without as much struggle. Next, my junior year in high school included an Algebra 2 class, which I approached with great fear, having remembered my struggle in Algebra 1. My first quarter grade in Algebra 2 was a “B.” My second quarter grade was a “C.” By the middle of the third quarter, it was clear that my grade was continuing to drop.
I still vividly remember receiving a test graded with a “D” at the top of the page. Devastated and panicked, I approached my teacher, Mr. Turner, after class. I did not have to say anything; I simply stood in front of him with tears in my eyes. Mr. Turner was a very wise man. He seemed to understand more than I understood about myself at that moment in time. With a smile on his face, he told me that as long as I took good notes in class, turned in all of my homework, and tried my best on all of the exams, he would not give me a grade lower than a “B” in his class. With the absence of fear, and no longer being plagued by the idea that I could not handle math, I earned a “B” in the class. Mr. Turner recognized that I was smart enough to do math and he taught me a very valuable lesson. He began to challenge the myth that I held that “girls can not handle math.” I went on, in my college career, to study calculus, earning a relatively effortless “A” in each math course I took. My experience with Mr. Turner gave me the confidence that I needed to know that I could tackle calculus and succeed. The idea that I, a girl, was not good at math was banished by a very insightful teacher. Thank you, Mr. Turner!
Through the whole process, I gained some very valuable insights that I use every time I encounter a girl who is struggling with the same myth about not being good at math. When I see that familiar anxiety regarding math failure (it happens quite often), I invite the child to write a math problem on the white-erase board similar to the problems she is struggling with at school. We look at the problem together and I ask: “What are you supposed to do with this?” The usual answer is that the assignment is to “solve for x” or “plot a line,” but that she does not know how to do it, even though the process has been explained in class. Now, I ask the magic question: “What do you know?” Usually, although the answer to the problem or how to derive it is not immediately evident, there is always information about the problem that she does know! So that is how it starts, and how the problem is solved. I just keep asking: “What do you know?” Eventually, the girl realizes that she knows enough to figure out how to do a problem that seemed daunting at first.
The point to this story is that anyone can ask the question: “What do I know?” It applies to so much more than math! It might be an amazing experiment to try asking yourself that question any time you come up against a “rule” that tells you that you cannot do something by virtue of being female. Imagine what a powerful tool you have when facing intimidating situations. Instead of withdrawing, take a deep breath and say, “Ok. What do I know?” At that moment in time, the only thing you might know is that you do not know how to proceed and that you are feeling intimidated or afraid. Asking the question “What do I know?” can ultimately lead you to some very surprising and satisfying answers if you have the courage just keep asking yourself the question.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.
In cooperation with 2bsisters, Tamara is in the process of making her recovery curriculum for domestic violence survivors available via a protected online format. This curriculum is for victims who have not yet been able to escape, those who have recently escaped and those who have been independent for a time but still need to strengthen themselves as survivors.