How Very Stereotypical
“I don’t like that dress, Mommy, it’s too girly!” my second-grade self exclaimed as my mother struggled to find an outfit for her daughter to wear to her school’s Winter Concert. Elementary school concerts and formal events were always a struggle for my “tomboy-ish” self, struggling to feel comfortable in my gender expression but conform to my school’s rigid dress code as well. My gender and gender expression were never my choice. While I felt like my gender expression was an integral part of me, I have since learned that gender was never something I had; it was given to me.
My parents, both having grown up in patriarchal households where girls were told what they could and could not do, tried to instill a sense of freedom in me, telling me that “just because [I was a] girl” didn’t mean I had to be “girly.” Unintentionally, in an effort to tell me that I could be anything I wanted in spite of my gender, I was trained to fear and look down on femininity, viewing it as weak. I was trained to divorce myself from my femininity and feel immense shame for the feminine aspects of my behavior. I was taught not to want to wear anything sparkly or frilly and to never paint my nails. I never wore dresses or skirts, listened to pop music, and, when I received a phone late in middle school, could never imagine even looking at it in the sight of anyone else. My best friends for all of elementary school were boys. While I still love and appreciate them for their characters, I realize now that the only reason we came to be friends was that I didn’t want to be seen with girls in fear of being too feminine. When I entered middle school, I was faced with people whose opinions on my gender expression contradicted those fed to me by my parents. They told me I wasn’t pretty enough and that I needed to wear more dresses. I was forced to choose between what I had felt to be my “place” in society for so long and what my new community was telling me I should be. Wanting to fit in but not wanting to fall into a stereotype, I was in a constant state of internal conflict. I balanced my more feminine attire with a hyper-masculine personality. I was expected to be strong in the face of struggle. I didn’t talk about my emotions in fear of changing how my family perceived me and being “girly.” And so, when I finally fell into a female stereotype, I was met with rejection, not the support I so desperately needed.
Women are often called “hysterical” when they show any sign of emotion. “Hysterical” is a term used to take meaning away from women’s emotions, labeling them as trivial and unimportant. The word is distinctly feminine, coming from the Latin root “hystera,” meaning uterus. It literally translates to “womb on the brain.” The etymology of this word speaks to how my gender has affected how people perceive me. Girls are often seen as emotional and, in my experience, attention craving. As such, girls are often not taken seriously when they have serious emotional issues. They are told that they are being “dramatic.” I saw this in how the people around me addressed female struggle. I never wanted to fall into the stereotype of the troubled and emotional teenage girl. I was afraid that if I told anyone about what was going on in my head, they would call me crazy, emotional, or hysterical. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
In the past, I have struggled with my mental health. For several years, I lived with thoughts of self-harm and suicide. When these ideations intensified, I got scared. Logically, I knew that I needed help, but the social ramifications of saying anything terrified me. In spite of this fear, I told an adult. Of course, the internalized misogyny that had been growing inside of me since the age of five led me to choose the least “feminine” woman near me, one who showed less emotion than both of my parents. After years of fearing and distrusting emotion, I learned to trust someone who I felt I could tell things I wished I could tell my “emotional” parents.
After controlling my behavior and communication for so long, it took me months to get the full truth out. When I finally did, I was sent to the ER for suicidal ideation. The first thing my dad said to me when he found out was, “You know, kiddo, this isn’t you. This is what seriously messed up girls do to get attention.” That was the first thing I heard from my father. It had taken me months. That was the support I got. That’s not something I think would have ever happened had I not been a daughter to my father. Because of my gender, I was seen as just another teen falling into the attention-seeking trap of self-harm, something that the weak girls do. Something that the stereotypical girls do.
When I arrived at the emergency room after a painful car ride, I got shockingly similar responses from several of the doctors there. The first nurse who talked to me in the admitting process didn’t take me seriously. She talked to me like I had no agency in my actions; treating me the way society treats my gender. After waiting in the hallway for five hours, a trauma surgeon came to talk to me. I thought he was the psychiatric doctor who would evaluate me and hopefully clear me to go back to school the next day, but I was wrong. He didn’t correct me. That conversation was one that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget, no matter how hard I try. After talking to me for a few minutes, he told me that I didn’t seem like the type to kill myself. “Teenage girls don’t really kill themselves,” he said, “just old white guys like [him].” He told me that I didn’t belong there. “Look, kid,” he went on, “you don’t want to cut. You’ll have scars for the rest of your life and you won’t be able to wear evening gowns.” Needless to say, my ER visit was not incredibly helpful.
After seven hours of waiting and conversing with people who saw me as a stereotype, none of whom were psychiatrists or psychologists, I was discharged and promptly driven to “Aurora,” a mental institution. While I have very few memories of that visit, I remember watching a girl bang on the door to the lobby and scream, “Let me out! Let. Me. Out!” How very stereotypical, I thought. Again, I was determined not to be that stereotype. I was back in school a few hours later, after my gender allowed me to slip quietly through the hands of the people trained to learn me. After all, rich white girls don’t kill themselves, right?
I wish I could say that I was outraged by the narrative forced on me by so many of the ER staff that night. I wish I could say that I set the record straight and demanded the help I needed, but I didn’t. I didn’t overcome it. I was all too happy to pretend to be the attention-seeking girl who couldn’t handle her trivial emotions and simply made a mistake. I let them tell themselves that my issues weren’t serious, and I was back in school the very next day.
I think a danger in how society treats young women is how we are taught to be submissive to higher authority. Coupled with the fear of how my family and my community would see me, I was socially forced to stay silent. After my night in the emergency room, I was called manipulative by the people I had poured so much effort into trusting. I was called an attention seeker. Even after I got help, hearing what the people around me said about me was devastating. In the months following the emergency room incident, I never thought of any of the events of that night as having anything to do with my gender. I never thought about how a stereotype could profoundly influence part of my life. When we think about how society views girls, we often think of the harms as minor inconveniences, failing to realize the significance of what it does to people. This stereotype harms. This stereotype kills.
While I cannot blame societal expectations for any of my mental illnesses or my failure to speak my mind, I don’t know that many of the additional obstacles I faced that day would have occurred had the societal expectations on girls not been placed on me in various ways throughout my life. I don’t know if that night would have become one I am forced to live in fear of. However, I would betray full accuracy to leave out the net-benefits of everything that happened. The words I said before that night from the floor of that room, regardless of their terror and immediate impacts, were lifesaving, or rather, the person sitting across from me was. I never would have been in that moment with that person had five-year-old Zoe not been exposed to the stereotypes of female emotion that ultimately caused so many of the problems that night. I guess it still needs some more work in my stereotypical journal where I stereotypically write about my stereotypical thoughts and my stereotypical feelings. Maybe it’s not so bad to be stereotypical, after all.
Zoe Price is an emerging writer with a passion for crafting authentic narratives.