I. It is the first thing they say when we come blinking into the world. Before we smell our mothers and before we are given a name. A midwife makes the first definition. “It’s a girl!” she says, or “it’s not.” It is the earliest, most primitive definition. It is derived from nothing more than what lies between a baby’s legs. From there, the parents sigh, or laugh, or sob with happiness, as if this was the news they’d been dreaming of, as if it had to be a girl, of course, and they forget that they would’ve been thrilled with a boy too, for hadn’t they told all their friends just days before that they didn’t care, that all they wanted was a healthy baby? The hospital is glad to have given this new life its first definition. The baby is whisked away and cleaned and then put in a clear plastic box with a soft pink hat and a soft pink blanket, and rolled into a row of other pink babies. “It’s a girl!” read the signs that hang on the fronts of their boxes. The babies are born nearly blind, and they cannot see the color of their blankets, nor would they care if they could. Pink has no meaning for them; it is the inside of their mothers, it is the tips of their fingers. It is for the comfort of the rest of the world that they are assigned a color. A soft, innocent, well-behaved color.
II. It is not something to think about. It is less important and less changeable than the color of your hair. The midwife makes just the first definition, but don’t worry, the world will fill in the rest before you know it.
III. There is girl clothing. If you are a girl, you are allowed to wear dresses and skirts. If you wear pants, your shirt had better have a flower or a pony on it, or maybe some hearts and a kitten. This clothing is exclusive to and required for girls. One time, a little boy wore a dress to school. He was four years old, and it was an accepting school, so nobody laughed, but everybody stared. “It’s because he has two moms,” people said. “A dad would never let his son out in public looking like that.” Some kids asked (as little kids tend to do) why he wore girls’ clothing. He said it was because flower hair clips were beautiful and fluffy, and bright skirts made him feel free. “I’m not a girl,” he said. “I’m a person. I’m just me.”
IV. There are girl colors. Girls can wear pink and purple, and yellow, too. They can wear blue jeans sometimes, especially if there is something decidedly feminine—like a heart or a butterfly—stitched onto them. Before I was born, my parents refused to learn my gender. Family members and friends were desperate to know. “How do we know what color clothing to buy?” they asked. “You are not letting us define your baby.” My mothers were proud that they had held off the world for just a few months longer. All they wanted was a healthy baby, and it irritated them that the societal gender craze had already slipped through the cracks of their home, reaching for an unborn life. My mothers told their family and friends to get over it, or to buy yellow and green if putting a girl in blue was such an atrocity. “It’s because the baby has two moms,” they’d say. “A straight woman would put her daughter in pink.”
V. There are particular ways that girls should act. One time, a little girl went to summer camp. Everybody thought she was a boy, because she wore shirts with trucks and little cargo shorts every day, even into the pool. She had short hair and crooked teeth and brilliant blue eyes, and she would growl at anyone who looked her way. She was six years old, and it was an accepting camp in a progressive neighborhood, so nobody laughed, but some kids pointed. When the children lined up to get on the buses to the swimming pool, people wondered why she was in line to get on the girls’ bus (I wonder now why they even had a girls’ bus). Two children teased her one day. “You’re a boy,” they said. “NO!” she shouted. “I’m a girl.” I’m a girl because I say so.
VI. Girls grow into women. The world does not like this. Women have brains and hips, and they don’t need protection. The world prefers girls. Girls are sweet and innocent and powerless. When they are born, they are dressed in soft pink, because biologically, pink softens the temper of enemies. Girls are well behaved and always kind. It is easier to not hate a girl than it is to not hate a woman. So the world pushes its women back in time. “Be hairless,” it says. “Be coveted, be untouchable.” A girl is a symbol of beauty that grown women wax and pluck and burn and dumb themselves down into. A girl is a vessel that must be prepared to someday hold a baby. Give her dolls and toy houses and pretend veils for pretend weddings; she needs to practice now. Get it through her head that this is what she wants to be.
VII. Some months ago, a girl almost watched herself take a powerful country in hand, in the highest seat of power. For one second, the definitions that the world had placed around her neck began to lighten. Ha, said the world, just kidding. Try again later. Maybe next time it will be different. Maybe next time, I will take a girl as she is, nasty or ugly or smart or bold. Try again later, says the world. Maybe tomorrow, I will define a girl as whoever she wants to be.