I was 5 years old when my Mum took me to the premiere of one of Disney’s films. It was the 1st of June, which in Poland is celebrated as the Children’s Day, and the film screening was accompanied by special attractions. One of them was some sort of improvisation-based competition which involved going up on stage and putting on a costume. When the compere asked through the microphone if there were any volunteers, I was among the first to raise my hand, and enthusiastically ran from the back of the auditorium to climb the stage, with everyone looking at me.
That was me at the age of 5.
I was not “sugar and spice and all things nice”.
I was brave, bold and confident. I felt at ease among the friends of my 11-year older sister and my parents’ friends, whom I called aunts and uncles. I didn’t care about what I was wearing as long as it wasn’t itchy and enabled me to comfortably climb trees and break into people’s gardens. I was a tomboy, had legs covered in bruises, lived off sweets, and generally didn’t give a F@$%.
And then at some point a change started to happen. I began to soften my edge.
I remember one particular incident at an after-school English course when I was about 11. As the only girl in a class of approximately 12 boys, a girl who wore glasses and had a lot of issues with the way she looked, I didn’t feel particularly confident. Still, I was eager to learn and tried to be active in the class until one of those boys told me to shut up. We were put in groups and I was sharing an idea with my peers, when he suddenly interrupted me: “Shut up, you stupid woman!”. I can’t remember what I was saying, or what the exercise was about, but I clearly remember the way he looked at me, the sound of his voice, and how mortified I felt.
So I did shut up. Not necessarily straight away, but I was gradually turning into this poised, polite, self-controlled and considerate girl who was scared of raising her hand at Q&A sessions, and wouldn’t open her mouth unless she felt certain she had something genuinely meaningful to say. Years later, as an MA student at Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, I had six months of art criticism faculty with the excellent Professor Wojciech Włodarczyk, during which we were reading and discussing Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde, chapter by chapter. I read the book with great interest, and spent a lot of time thinking about it but I never expressed my ideas with the rest of the group, while many of the students would indulge in lengthy monologues of questionable quality.
This “gentle” me would worry about a lot of things from personal interactions (being offensive or intrusive) to petty things (making punctuation mistakes in emails). And it was only recently, when I was reading Marisa Bate’s article on Marion Kelly’s big entree into the room where her dad, Professor Robert Kelly, was giving an interview for the BBC on South Korea, that I was reminded of how different I used to be as a child:
Small in stature, but mighty in swag, Marion Kelly burst into our lives when she burst into her father’s office during what is possibly now the most famous BBC interview of all time. Charming the world with her half-walk-half-dance hybrid, those glasses and the quite literal spring in her step, in that moment Marion had arrived.
Marion, as Bate beautifully describes it, walked into that room as if “she was off to see the wizard, or off to London to make her fortune, or off to collect her Academy Award for Best Walk”. And then the journalist asks the question that doesn’t cease ringing in my head: “When did we – and by “we”, I mean women – stop walking into rooms like that?”
Photos of Marion “sitting facing the world’s press with a lollipop in her mouth and all the attitude of Rihanna on a super-yacht in the Bahamas” have clearly struck a chord with lots of people around the globe, both women and men. The Telegraph journalists have even gone as far as writing a piece titled 7 jobs the BBC interview girl could do when she grows up. One of them is Head of the UN – “because at just four years old, she already has a commanding presence. Marion is clearly a born leader”. The thing is, Marion is not alone in her disarming confidence. There a lot of girls aged 4 or 5 who could easily parade into any room with the same cockiness. Unfortunately, most of them will grow into women who are often afraid of knocking on the door, let alone opening them.
And then I began wondering about all the areas where we, grown up women with a lot to offer, are constantly double-guessing ourselves.
Chemmie Squier admits to asking friends to like a particular picture before she posts it in order to bump it up and closely monitoring the popularity of her Facebook posts. According to The Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report 2016, only 20 per cent of women in the UK have high body esteem. In a recent study from UFMG in Belo Horizonte on public speaking 68.6% of women surveyed said they had a fear of public speaking, compared to 53% of men. In Voice Hacker we can read that:
68% of those who reported a fear of speaking had a negative perception of their voice. They thought it was too high-pitched (47%)*, too quiet (29%)*, too nasal or hoarse. … The researchers say that “limited loudness—ie, lack of voice volume— suggests insecurity, fear, and introversion when speaking.” Nobody wants to be the one who no-one takes seriously. And the study shows that most women feel like their voices let them down.
A study in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences showed that women have a higher level of anxiety than men when it comes to being criticized or embarrassed and speaking in public or talking to people with authority. The fact that I remember so vividly being told to “shut up” by a young boy, says it all.
But if it had been my 5-year old me, I wouldn’t have blushed, wishing I could disappear from the earth. I would have told that boy “No, YOU shut up, you arrogant brat, and listen to what I’m saying!”. Just like Eva, a disarming little feminist from one of the episodes of Channel 4 show The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds who was not the least phased when a boy told her that girls can’t be scientists because “they make silly potions”, to which she responded in the coolest manner: “I extracted the DNA from a banana once.” In that episode, she is also teaching the boy some karate moves, which dramatically changes his ideas about what girls are really made of, and he compares Eva to Hulk.
I often catch myself thinking that if I ever have a daughter, I would like her to be exactly like Marion, Eva or me — at the age of 5. But most importantly, I’d want to help her preserve that confidence as she grows up to be a woman.
Meanwhile, what I can do for myself, is to try rediscover the 5-year old me, because she is still there inside me. Sarah from Saudi Arabia, who was recently featured on one of my favourite blogs, Women With Tattoos, says: “The more I go back to being myself as I was when I was five, the happier I am. Because that was my authentic personality before upbringing and society comes and changes you. It was almost like I was subconsciously telling myself: remember when you were kickass when you were a kid? Yeah, be like these characters.” The characters, which she has tattooed on her arms, are kickass gals from the art of Yoshitaka Amano and the Final Fantasy video game series.
“In the video games I played,” Sarah says, women were going on adventures and using weapons and fighting side by side with men. They were still not masculine, they still were very feminine in how they were represented but they were kickass, they were themselves, and as a child I liked that very much, I related to it. There was some kind of comfort in them.”
When a little girl like Sarah has no female role models in her family or the environment she is growing up in, characters like Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI can become an important inspiration. The problem is that although things are slowly changing, and for 25 years little girls have been playing with Barbie President (since last year they’ve also had Vice President Barbie), the message they constantly get is to sit quietly and be nice.
Earlier this year, Nike Russia has launched Made of… campaign to debunk these sorts of stereotypes surrounding women. In the film, a young girl is singing the popular song What are little girls made of? but at some point, encouraged by the appearance of sportswomen, she changes the lyrics. No longer are girls made of “flowers and bells, of glances and jellies”, but of: iron, striving, self-dedication, battles, grace, bruises, punches, bravery, clenched fists, independence, skill, passion and heart, dignity, will that’s harder than stone, strength, fire, freedom from other people’s opinions, accomplishments and of achievements.
So ladies, let us all rediscover these feisty kickass girls inside us, and have the confidence to kick open any doors we want. And, when faced with Big Boys who tell us to shut up, let us have the strength to talk back and make them wish they had never been born.
Ps. Below is another kickass 5-year old girl, Eduarda Henklein, playing drums to System of a Down’s Toxicity.