The first time I ever got called a “beast,” a few years ago, I was at a gym and had just finished a tough workout.
Sweaty and hair in disarray, I blushed a little with pride when my coach described my work on the mat. He had clearly meant it as a compliment, but I also felt a strange knot in my stomach. Like lots of women, I have struggled with body-image issues for years and, as an athlete, with concepts of masculinity and femininity.
For nearly a decade, I had sought approval under different names, ones much less badass than “beast.” I reveled in being called “cute,” “small” or “too pretty” to do something. When that same coach had, earlier that month, described me as a “110-pound girl,” I basked in the glory of that diminutive for days. I would see myself in the mirror and secretly smile at having been mistaken for someone so much smaller than I actually was.
And isn’t that a problem?
The Rio Olympics, then, were a mixed bag of emotions for me. As an athlete (and a person), the Olympics are often a thrilling show of what the human body is capable of. On the one hand, there were triumphant “firsts” for women—especially women of color. On the other, it was a reminder of mindsets about women that, frankly, are antiquated and sad.
Some sports writers and commentators made infuriating choices in their coverage of female athletes this year. Teaching Tolerance covered a few: from credit given to men for the performance of female athletes to lack of coverage altogether to ridiculous stereotypes about women in malls (because that’s original).
Still, the coverage of women at the Olympics was only a very visible symptom of a much larger issue. Female athletes consistently get less coverage, and when women are portrayed at all, the language used to do so reinforces stereotypes, not to mention the extra layer of sexualization that happens to female athletes of color.
Watching this summer’s Olympic coverage pushed me to ask myself this: Knowing that I, as a teacher and the “adult in the room,” inherently have power, how can I use my words to create a space that is equally celebratory of the beasts and badasses I teach each day—regardless of gender?
Here’s the thing: We know that words matter and that girls and women tend to compare themselves to unrealistic models of physical beauty. And I’m not advocating for some alternate extreme, in which teachers refrain from telling a student that something they’ve done or the way they are is “cute” or “sweet.” I don’t want my students to think there is something inherently wrong or weak about femininity either.
Women of the world take an international platform at the Olympics and prove that women are not just “sugar and spice” but can also be tours de force of physical strength, who move not necessarily against but rather beyond the stereotypes placed on us. In a world where some people still attempt to break women—athletes or not—into piecemeal parts, we must view ourselves and all our students as unique, whole individuals.
When we congratulate students on their athletic or academic accomplishments, we need to be sure it isn’t tied to “othering” concepts (for example, “You run fast for a girl”). Likewise, each time we speak to our students, we should create a space where we phase out language that teaches girls to be diminutive: “Get a boy to help you carry that,” and “Act like a lady” come to mind.
The more we move away from this type of language, the better we teach young people to call out stereotypes of women. When we use language to create empowering spaces, we show all our students, especially our girls, they are capable of being the beasts and badasses we’ve known they are all along.
Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.