How I learned to love being a girly-girl
Unpacking the feminine urge to hate all things feminine
Bleep bleep. My phone was alerting me to a new notification. But it wasn’t one of those “here’s how you can earn 1,00,000 rupees in a month” spam texts. It was just Google aunty, sending me cringe-worthy memories of my high school days as if embarrassing me was her full-time job. While I was on one such (mis)adventure down digital memory lane a couple of days ago, I stumbled across pictures from my “as close to Goth as an Indian girl in a small town could be” era. I will not do you the disservice of having to look at photographic evidence, but believe me when I say I could easily pass as one of those kilvish ke pujaaris on Shaktimaan.
Only a few scrolls down showed me a different — and colourful — picture of myself, wearing a bright sun-hat here, an all-pink outfit there. I looked as ‘girly’ as they came, obsessed with frilly clothes and makeup, a devotee at the altar of One Direction. What had brought on this drastic change, my now-adult brain wondered.
Looking back, the first time I felt this shift had been in 8th grade when I started listening to Taylor Swift. My best friend and I would sing ‘You belong with me‘ at the top of our lungs as we walked to our after-school tuitions: “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers. She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.” The difference between a non-girly and a girly-girl seemed to be the fact that the former was much more liked, and accepted.
I was unknowingly telling myself if I wanted to be Lindsay Lohan’s smart and sensible Cady from Mean Girls, I couldn’t possibly reconcile that with the short skirts and pink crop tops of her high school nemesis, Regina George. The stark realisation my young brain had reached was that I could either be smart and worldly, or I could be bitchy and girly. I swapped my cheerful pinks and yellows for the more serious blacks, blues, and browns and decided I was “not like the other girls.”
I wasn’t alone in reaching this perception. A few thousand miles away, Garima Sadhwani in Lucknow was undergoing a similarly destructive awakening. “Growing up, I thought of girly-girls as being vain. I liked pink when I was a toddler but started making fun of it when I realised it was kind of looked down upon,” says the Delhi-based journalist.
Down south in Tamil Nadu, Sowmya Srinivasan, a 24-year-old law student, was on the same trip. “Everyone in my high school who wore makeup was considered pretty and I felt like pretty meant you were not smart. So I hated pink and thought that it was cringe to be pretty.”
How could we not despise girly-girls when most social messages associated traditional femininity with something inferior and lame, to be scorned?
Why do we hate ‘girly’ girls?
There is nothing inherently wrong with disliking pink clothes. The problem lies in our reasoning behind it. We’ve decided we hate pink, among other things that are traditionally viewed as the domain of girls, because they make us weak and unintelligent. The monster of internalised misogyny rears its head when telling people you used to be a One Direction fangirl is the recipe for social ostracisation.
But maligning girly girls is nothing new. Think Deepika Padukone’s Naina and Evelyn Sharma’s Lara in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Naina is tomboyish, intelligent, and rugged in her ways, while Lara is more stereotypically feminine and shown as someone with zero intellect and emotional intelligence. As much as Jane Austen has done to liberate women, her Pride and Prejudice still pits the spunky unladylike (hence, by default smart and worldly) Lizzy against the bitchy and manipulative Caroline Bingley, who — no points for guessing — is as girly as they come. No wonder I didn’t want to be the character everyone seemed to hate, even if that meant I was giving up a huge part of how I carried myself in front of others.
Deanne Singh*, a 36-year-old who works in the upper echelons of finance, was often thought of as dumb because of her polished appearance when she first started working as an analyst at an equity firm. “Just because I dressed smartly and got my nails done, I was considered airheaded. The marketing team head would often tell me to switch to his team because finance would be ‘too tough’ for me.”
According to clinical psychologist Aanchal Chatrath Alagh, this perception of girly girls is a product of our nurture. “The brain doesn’t understand what is good or what is bad. It only understands what is done in a repetitive manner. Women have traditionally been seen as submissive and meek, while men as dominant and strong. This behaviour has been repeated over generations in society, which is why being feminine is often looked down upon in both men and women.”
Clinical psychologist Tanushree Baikar-Talekar agrees that this dichotomy is so well established in the workplace that you have to toe a very thin line between hiding your femininity and owning it. So what happens when women give up their girliness in favour of being taken seriously? Some researchers assert that masculine women are at the bottom of the social totem pole because of their inability to live up to the impossible standards of beauty. Yet masculinity still holds repute and clout, while femininity carries the stench of oppression, irrespective of the actual gender of the person embodying these traits.
This prejudice is significantly worse for those who work in traditionally male-dominated fields. Suzanne S, who is now a 34-year-old nurse, had been a gym trainer who specialised in strength training. “A part of our job was to walk around and help others be safe with exercises and form. When I went to correct a male gym user, he told me I was too girly, too tiny to understand muscles. I was training to go into the police academy.” She added that the sales staff would not refer her clients who wanted to do strength training, although it was her speciality, as they thought “she was too bubbly, smiley, girly.”
At this point, all of us know about the elaborate scam Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes ran but there’s something else about her that bugs me too — her uniform of black turtlenecks, paired with an unnaturally deep, masculine voice. She told Glamour in 2015, “Black turtlenecks make it easy because every day you put on the same thing and don’t have to think about it — one less thing in your life. All my focus is on the work.” She felt the need to adopt a style so different from her original “frumpy, colourful Christmas-sweater” wearing self — a style associated with the uber-famous man behind Apple — to be taken seriously. Almost as if her feminine style and voice would mark her as an impostor. Ironically, she was able to hide her actual fraud behind the deep voice and turtlenecks.
These stereotypes are further worsened because women are not allowed to be who they want to be, by both themselves and the people around them. And that’s exactly what Sadhwani felt when she stopped playing sports in favour of her education. “After that everyone saw me as one of the girly girls because you could either be studious and love dancing, or be the tomboy who loved sports and was a rebel.”
How women are reclaiming their girliness
We may have internalised a sexism that makes us want to block off several strains of experiences — to avoid pink, lipsticks, or romance novels — and to equate the stereotypically feminine with the negative in our quest to liberate ourselves from the history of women’s subjugation. (Love romance novels? Here’s our argument for why they’re more than just ‘trashy mommy porn’.)
After undergoing a severe identity crisis regarding her “soft and girly personality”, Tanya Naidu* now knows she can “waltz to Taylor Swift in my little pink dress and be considered badass.” The 24-year-old journalist recalls when a close female friend shamed her sensitivity as being “weak”. “It was very painful because I truly felt I was doing something wrong in being so ‘weak’. I am very soft and girly as a person and I was trying very hard to change that because I thought it was not right to be so. I thought I had to be drier, more detached and ruthless.”
She was dumbfounded when her therapist asked her why she thought she couldn’t be strong and sensitive? Emotional and powerful? Compassionate and no-nonsense? “She told me ‘Why are you depriving everything that’s socially considered feminine to not be worthy of respect and thus depriving yourself of respect as well?’ and I was short of words.”
Although on paper my ‘I’m not like other girls’ era only lasted two years of high school, owing to extensive reading of feminist theories and discourses, I would be lying if I said it was a phase that came and went like a breeze. In college, my wardrobe was back to resembling the business end of a rainbow — and my hair even more so — yet I felt like a glossy new iPhone 12 running outdated iPhone 5s software.
I was rejoicing being a loud and proud feminist — flaunting my pink hair and pink clothes like it was nobody’s business, which it wasn’t. But I had yet to find out that internalised misogyny had grown roots so far into my psyche, evolving to wedge itself right under that pink hair and into my head. I had always known I wanted to write about fashion, culture, romance and love, qualities that made people who they were — all traditionally looked down upon as women’s interests and derided as silly and frivolous. I spent years running away from this instinct, and even when I found my way back to it at journalism school, I could rarely tell people, scared of ridicule for writing about ‘trivial’ things — as they’re often described by ‘serious’ journalists.
Speaking with intention is a radical act when sexism is so firmly woven into the fabric of our communication. That is why my chosen weapon against my own misogyny — and others’ — is to be cognisant of my thoughts and words. I’m reteaching my brain by slowly yet surely letting go of the idea of the person, the journalist, the woman I thought I should be. Because there is no one way of being a woman. We all inhabit the spaces between our sexual orientation, colour, class, gender identity, age, ability, and other identities. Check all that may apply.
I don’t owe a single ounce of femininity to the world and neither do I have to forego my interests, feminine or not. So, the first order of business on my road to enlightenment? Telling the world I was once a simp for One Direction — so much so I had taken their conjoined last name ‘Stypayhorlikson’ as my own on Facebook. Do what you will about it. I could not care less.