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She Will Define Herself

By Patrick Maguire

I hope that my daughter will achieve her dreams.

I hope that she will be fierce, motivated, and driven to succeed.

I hope that she will live a happy life, surrounded by people who she loves – and who love her back.

She will. 

What I am learning, though, is that her road will sometimes be treacherous, with pitfalls and barriers.

She will be subject to gender discrimination and bullying.

She will navigate through a world that far-too-often puts more emphasis on her outer appearance than what she says and does.

I’m learning that being the father of a daughter presents certain challenges. It shouldn’t. But it does.

At just 8 months old, my daughter Lucy has learned so much. She’s crawling and nearly furniture walking. She knows how to pick up food with her hands. She’s figured out that when mom or dad hide behind a towel, they haven’t vanished forever.

If she hasn’t learned about gender, she will.

Even before she was born, she was showered with gifts. As the first grandchild on both sides of the family, she has no shortage of love and attention – and no shortage of clothes. Her wardrobe is filled with dresses, pink onesies, skirts, bloomers, and headbands.

She’s a girl – and her clothes are girly. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But still, my wife and I do our best – when we can – to purchase gender-neutral clothing and accessories. We do this because we want to be practical should we have a boy someday - but also because we don’t want Lucy to be defined by her gender.

Just because she is a girl doesn’t mean she has to act a certain way. When she’s old enough to decide, she doesn’t need to wear a dress if she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t need to wear headbands or high heeled shoes.

Chances are she will, though.

She’ll probably want to look “pretty,” wear makeup, and wear a prom dress someday. All of her friends will, and so will she. That is just the world we live in. From the time we are born, we are immediately defined and labeled.

For me, the influx of dresses and “bloomers” (my wife had to explain to me what those were) into my home was symbolic. I was the father of a daughter. I’d have to – as people have joked to me – “fend off the boys” and be “extra protective.”

But really, it was an introduction into a whole new world.  I want my daughter to live in a world where she makes her own choices and isn’t discriminated against because of her gender. Inevitably, at certain points in her life, discrimination and judgment may prevail.

This is a new mentality for me. I didn’t grow up with sisters and I didn’t spend much time thinking about the challenges that girls – and women – face each and every day. Now it is right in front of my face.

What my wife and I really need to do, above all else, is make sure Lucy knows how valuable she is – not just because of what she wears, or what she looks like, or because she said what we wanted her to say. She is unique because of how she thinks independently, what she has to say on her own, and her actions.

Every girl should feel this way: valuable.

We’re not always doing this, though. In America, we don’t pay women equally, and our paid family leave policy makes it exponentially more difficult for women to get ahead in their career while also starting a family. In other parts of the world, the value of girls often centers on who they will marry (often against their will), or how well they perform household chores.

Girls in many countries are – far too often – not seen to have the same value as boys.

The pitfalls of this type of mentality are as practical as they are moral. When a country or a society struggles, gender equality is a common denominator. Think about it: How can a society truly get ahead and shed the shackles of poverty if half of the population is not welcome to participate?

An educated and empowered girl will bring positive change to her family and her community. Research shows she will marry later, and have fewer, healthier children. She will earn 10 percent more for each additional year she is in school. She will help her society – and even her economy – grow.

Lucy’s reality is far different from the girls where Plan International USA works. Despite the aforementioned challenges, she will go to school and she will participate.

But for many girls, empowerment and participation is simply not the norm.

So let’s start changing how we think. Let’s stop talking about what girls can achieve, and start thinking about what they will achieve.

When I look at Lucy I see a person who will have a positive impact on this world. She will achieve her dreams, and she will be valued for who she is.

We should see every girl through this lens, no matter her background or where she’s from. No matter who she is, she has the right to learn, lead, decide, and thrive. She will have a positive impact on her society. She will make a difference.

And, she will define herself.

Share your own #SheWill message before International Day of the Girl.

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