On Sunday, Caroline Paul wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, asking a question whose importance has been exponentially growing on me lately. “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared?” she asks, opening the piece:

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I WAS one of the first women in the San Francisco Fire Department. For more than a dozen years, I worked on a busy rig in a tough neighborhood where rundown houses caught fire easily and gangs fought with machetes and .22s. I’ve pulled a bloated body from the bay, performed CPR on a baby and crawled down countless smoky hallways.

I expected people to question whether I had the physical ability to do the job (even though I was a 5-foot-10, 150-pound ex-college athlete). What I didn’t expect was the question I heard more than any other: “Aren’t you scared?”

It was strange — and insulting — to have my courage doubted. I never heard my male colleagues asked this. Apparently, fear is expected of women.

Paul writes about how early this conditioning begins: how, although physical activity has been repeatedly proven to be tied to self-esteem, girls are still warned away from anything that could possibly hurt them—including objects as benign as a fire pole on a playground, which was the subject of a study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology in 1999:

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Parents cautioned their daughters about the dangers of the fire pole significantly more than they did their sons and were much more likely to assist them. But both moms and dads directed their sons to face their fears, with instruction on how to complete the task on their own.

And, parents don’t just coddle their daughters preemptively, but after the fact, too:

According to a study in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology last year, parents are “four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful” after mishaps that are not life-threatening but do entail a trip to the emergency room.

It’s reasonable to be cautious with kids—I suppose it’s reasonable also to (misguidedly, counterproductively) draw on the fact that a girl will become more of a physical target as she gets older; how wonderful, that sexual crime is always hovering over our heads!—but Paul quotes the researchers in the above study, on the effects of all this caution: “Girls may be less likely than boys to try challenging physical activities, which are important for developing new skills.”

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In other words, what starts out as an ankle brace turns into a shackle. I can’t think of anything better for a girl than to teach her how to use her body exactly the way she wants, particularly in a high-pressure situation. And as we’ve seen over and over in so many woman-centric arenas—sexual assault prevention foremost among them—the impulse to protect is very different from the impulse to ensure equity, and the two things, worked out in practice, are often exactly at odds.

Gender equity in risk-taking has a snowball effect: I suspect that everything good I’ve ever done in my life has been related to the fact that no one ever suggested I should be cautious when I was little, or at least no more cautious than my brother was. I learned to be careful later, in adolescence (or, if we are being real, in adulthood)—and I think that’s the way it should be. It’s harder to train essential bravery into an adult than basic good sense. Paul writes:

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When girls become women, this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making. We try to counter this conditioning by urging ourselves to “lean in.” Books on female empowerment proliferate on our shelves. I admire what these writers are trying to do — but they come far too late.

We must chuck the insidious language of fear (Be careful! That’s too scary!) and instead use the same terms we offer boys, of bravery and resilience. We need to embolden girls to master skills that at first appear difficult, even dangerous. And it’s not cute when a 10-year-old girl screeches, “I’m too scared.”

Read the whole thing here.


Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.

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Image via New Line