I’m Not Okay With “Girly” and You Shouldn’t Be Either

I’ve never been particularly good at the whole stereotypical “girly girl” thing. You know, the “femme-feminist”, the “delicate flower”, the “blonde bombshell” (mostly because I’m not blonde). I envy women in movies who can survive on islands and in haunted houses and still maintain a head of silky, flowing locks and eyelash extensions. I silently cry with jealousy over my fellow females’ waist-to-hip ratio and their seemingly flawless skin. While they giggle and gossip and charm strangers over pink cocktails and maraschino cherries, I sit bundled in front of my computer in an impenetrable five-layer atrocity of sweaters, tank tops and sports bras. “Girlishness” eludes me.

It’s not that I haven’t sampled it. Up until the age of 12, my only recollection of Christmas Past was an insurmountable crag of Barbie dolls, tulle dress-ups and plastic high heels. I lived in glitter and pink and butterfly hairclips. My Lisa Frank collection put the entire population of unicorns to shame. Hello Kitty and ChocoCat were my guardian angels. Then puberty happened. As with most awkward teens, my social skills plummeted. Rather than spending a weekend playing paper-dolls with my friends, I sank helplessly into patterns of Super Nintendo, Bioré pore strips and lying upside-down on my bed while pretending not to hear my mother yelling up the stairs about cleaning the basement. I avoided the burden of femininity by burying myself in my studies and vowed to become, instead, like the clever heroes of old, Sherlock Holmes, the Boxcar Children and Beverly Crusher. The only really “girly” thing I owned was a pair of cream-colored high heels which I wore mercilessly to every formal event.

It wasn’t until my college years that a decade long struggle to understand stereotypical “femininity” reached a tipping point. I had been flipping through my anthropology textbook on human sexuality when I noticed a photo of Mae West spouting off something typically sassy and wearing her iconic smart-aleck grin. She was gorgeous and voluptuous, platinum-haired and scarlet-lipped—everything I was not. I wondered how such a flawless beauty had achieved the impossible: to become a notorious fast-talker while still maintaining an unabashed air of femininity. She had it all.

It could have been a daunting, salutatory farewell to any hopes I had had of some sort of eventual duckling-to-swan moment. Instead, I scanned the page again and something else caught my attention: it was advice from the original and, arguably, the most iconic “girly-girl”, Marilyn Monroe, who said, “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.”

Here I had been thinking that I wasn’t undertaking my birthright as a woman because I didn’t like pink, didn’t own a pair of bow-trimmed pajamas and owned only one shade of lipstick (“Honey”). The answer to my woes had been there all along. The right shoes.

Who said those shoes had to be platform heels? Why not Chucks or beat-up running shoes? What about scuffed Dansko clogs or pointy-toed flats? Ballet shoes or flip flops or work pumps? And why not a pair of well-loved, worn down brown boots that have been glued at the soles more times than you can count? (I may be biased, but those boots have been through a hell of a lot with me, and I’ll be damned if anyone tries to stop me taking them to the summit of Mt. Doom if and when we find it.)

My point in all of this is that the term “girly”, in the outdated sense, is over. In recent history it was taken hostage and twisted to mean “weak” or “vain” or “fussy” or “vapid”. “Feminine” was re-worked to be something visually pleasing, physically alluring or too delicate to function without masculine aid. Now we question these definitions: What’s stopping women from being flirtatious and smart at the same time? Why can’t they be outdoorsy and swear like a sailor but still feel beautiful? Or quiet and introverted? Or why not all of these things? If a woman chooses to wear sparkling rosy blush, how does that make her any less or any better than the woman next to her wearing no makeup at all?

You see, I’m no “girly girl” in the traditional, patriarchal sense. And neither are you. Because none of us are weak or fragile or petty or vain. We are complex. We are enigmas. We are tough, professional or soft-spoken; we are curved or thin, gamers or shoppers. We sport perfectly shiny shellac manicures or chipping blue polish that’s been chewed out of nervousness. We own a drawer full of cute, heart-print underwear right above the drawer containing that old beat-up AC/DC tee. We wear pink and green and orange and fluorescent yellow. We have ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends. We have gal pals galore or, perhaps, feel more comfortable hanging with the guys. Sometimes we like to be swept off of our feet and held like a porcelain doll. Sometimes we just need a punching bag and a pair of gloves.

If we waste time worrying about whether people think of us as “too girly” or “too boyish” or “too tall” or “too blah blah blah”, we’ll miss out on the amazing opportunity to find out who we actually are. As founding HelloGiggler Zooey Deschanel says, “Women should be free to express who they are without thinking, ‘I need to act like a man, or I need to tone it down to be successful.’ That’s a very good way to keep [us] down.”

It’s time we reinvent the words that have held us back for so long. We can make “girly” mean more than anyone expected– we are doers and givers, charitable and kind. And we are certainly capable of being more than just a word in a dictionary.