The Slow Poisoning of Girls

I was walking through a terminal in O’Hare Airport when I saw her walking towards me with her mother. She couldn’t have been more than five. Her tiny chin was raised and each step she took made her sneakers light up like a Christmas tree. She wore a cape and a tutu, a crown and leggings with stripes. She was bathed in color, sparkles and wild, untamed confidence.

We met in the middle of the terminal and I found myself standing behind her mother in a small cafe ordering coffee. I looked down at this little girl and said, “Hi, how are you doing?”

“Good!” she boomed with a voice that no one told her was too loud.

When she walked away I bid her a good flight and she waved goodbye. I smiled. I didn’t take five steps before tears started falling. I breathed deeply to stop more from falling. That little girl was every woman before the world told her to be quiet, be still, speak softer, don’t wear so much pink or so much blue and put away your wand. That little girl, in that small body, didn’t know she was anything less than perfect.

I cried because I knew the confidence that radiated from that little girl would not last. And I didn’t know how long before she would start shrinking herself until she was so small she couldn’t hear her own voice. I didn’t know when someone would shame her for merely existing.

There are so many ways to poison a child and break her spirit. Her body, her clothing choices, her shyness or brashness. It’s all ripe for the taking.Eating a little bit of poison everyday doesn’t kill you; but it does make you sick.

I’ve spent well over a decade helping smart, accomplished women silence the noise that’s telling them that they simply aren’t good enough.These women are lawyers, executives, scientists and entrepreneurs. They’re educated, talented and experienced; but they struggle with worthiness. They’ve internalized the belief that if they work twice as hard and don’t make a fuss, they’ll be rewarded.The women I work with don’t know they have a right to ask for a raise or an opportunity.

The only strategy at their disposal has been tolerance. So they raise their tolerance because they’re grateful to have a seat at the table not because they’re stupid or weak, but because they’re so grateful. They don’t want to appear greedy and they’ve been told that tolerance breeds toughness. This is the result of a daily diet of poison.

We were all perfect once, like the little girl in the tutu and cape. And we knew it; and then that version of ourselves was murdered with shame, verbal violence and small acts of everyday terrorism.

The emotional and intellectual real estate that all this stress and anxiety creates limits women’s time for peace, leisure, and creativity. Coaching women sounds very trendy and small. Except it isn’t. It’s intimate as well as emotionally and intellectually rigorous. I help to make these people feel safer so they can be braver to simply ask for what they deserve and preserve their precious individuality.

But before any of that can be done we have to disrupt stories that have been written about them by others and rewrite their truth into existence and find their way back to that little girl who believed she was perfect and whole in the body and spirit she occupied.

I want to believe that little girl in the airport can be saved. She hasn’t swallowed any poison yet. That’s possible. It could be different. We could do better.

Ann marie Houghtailing is the co founder of Story Imprinting, a communications firm that teaches clients the art and science of storytelling.