Why We Need To Let Girls Take More Physical Risks

Happy child on a jungle gym

Conditioning girls to minimize themselves physically could be part of the underlying psychology that eventually casts women as victims.

I fell off my first horse when I was 1 year old. No, I don’t mean that metaphorically—I literally fell off a horse, or rather, I was thrown off, along with my grandmother, who held on to my 25-pound body and bore the brunt of the impact herself, suffering a minor concussion that briefly transported her back to JFK’s presidency. We rode together in the ambulance, and though I was screaming from the scare, I didn’t have a scratch on me.

It had been my mother’s idea to let my aunt and grandmother take me riding, and my father was livid. “She could’ve been killed!” I imagine him saying, chain-smoking cigarettes and pacing with the phone pressed to his ear. My mother, quick with sarcasm, advised him not to take me to the golf course anymore, in case a stray ball struck me.

For years, I laughed at my mother’s cavalier attitude toward letting a 20-month-old ride a horse, but now I think her parenting decision was pretty on point. As a mother myself of a physically active 18-month-old girl, I’m thinking a lot about risk-taking and the lessons we pass on to girls about their bodies through how we encourage them to see those bodies as fragile objects to be admired and kept safe, or as useful tools and vehicles of pleasure and strength.

Because parents often project themselves onto the humans they create, I had expected my daughter, Benna, to be a verbal child—prolifically talking our ears off by the time she reached 2, like I did. So I was surprised and a bit rattled when it became clear her ambitions lay primarily in mobility, not communication. She crawled at 6 months and walked at 10 months. Since then, she has been tearing up and down playground equipment, leaping into water fountains, and climbing household furniture in order to hurl herself from the greatest heights she can manage. Instead of hugs and kisses, she prefers wrestling with her dad and me. She loves to be flung around and dangled upside-down. Confining her to her car seat or stroller for longer than 20 minutes at a time usually results in a meltdown. She will happily walk—at her own toddler pace, of course—for a mile or more without stopping.

Feminist cultural critic Soraya Chemaly considers the messages of smallness girls are sent; not only should girls be small, they should also use less space by crossing their thigh-gapped legs at the ankles and folding their thin arms inward. Making oneself diminutive, according to Chemaly, reinforces other messages about male dominance in the form of displaced space. This may be a contributing factor in why girls stop playing sports at an alarming rate compared to boys, Chemaly says, and focus instead on whittling their bodies into weak, wispy husks of humanity.

Conditioning girls to minimize themselves physically could be part of the underlying psychology that eventually casts women as victims. Despite misogynistic violence so deep-seated we have the term “rape culture” to describe it, our society still cautions women from actively developing or taking too much pride in their physical strength, or consenting to healthy risks with their bodies that reinforce the value of agency.

In a podcast for the Society for the Psychology of Women, a division of the American Psychology Association, Aliya Khan discusses positive risk-taking as a crucial part of identity building for girls. Khan is concerned about ubiquitously casting risk as dangerous, which can lead to lower confidence throughout a girl’s life: “What if I raise my hand in class when the answer is really wrong? What if I apply for college and I do not get in? What if I get an interview for a job but it’s all the way across the country? Should I travel abroad? Should I stay in this relationship? These are some of the multitude of questions that girls ask themselves. And we want them to be able to make those choices—not out of fear, but out of a realistic understanding of the risks and the benefits, in keeping with their values and dreams.”

A life ruled by fear is a life already lived by too many women. And experience is lived, first and foremost, inside the body. After she had her second child, a friend of mine began lifting weights with the help of a trainer. Occasionally posting her progress in photos on Facebook, my friend’s biceps and triceps became sculpted rifts, her shoulders and back, on which she still carries her youngest son, a gorgeous topography of growing strength. She receives plenty of praise for her muscles, but also pleas—usually from other women, and specifically, her mother—not to get “too large.” The funny thing, she told me, is that lifting has actually liberated her from the goal of thinness she used to have. “I always wanted to be thin until I felt strong,” she wrote.

I wonder if teaching my daughter how to take healthy risks with her body—riding a horse, swimming in the ocean, donning clothes and hairstyles that make her feel self-possessed—may also lay a foundation for future conversations about other forms of consent. It takes strength and confidence to say no or yes. Once Benna starts saying these words, I want her to believe in their worth because, like her body, they are hers to give or withhold.

A few weeks after I fell off that horse, my mother brought me back to the farm. She and my aunt introduced me to another horse, a gentle chestnut mare named Annie. They scooped up kittens and put them on Annie’s back to help me cope with my fear, explaining that accidents do happen, yes, but that horses are wonderful, beautiful animals with special bonds to humans. Years later, I went on to ride competitively as a hunter-jumper, leaping with 1,200 pounds of horse over three-foot fences. I took extensive lessons that taught me how to fall so as to minimize the risk of injury, and wore a regulation helmet. During competitions, my mother stood at the sidelines of the arena. I remember the bright smile she wore when I entered the ring, and the way she cheered when I collected my ribbons. If she was nervous about my safety, she never showed it.

“Were you scared for me?” I asked her recently.

“Of course,” she said. “But I didn’t want you to be scared.”

This morning, I watched Benna climb the stairs to the big, winding slide at the playground. Sometimes her feet slip against the edge of the stairs, and she has to regain her balance, pulling herself back up using the railing. I noticed, as she hauled herself upright again, her skinned knees from yesterday’s fall on the concrete. Instead of feeling sad or even embarrassed, I looked at the small abrasions and felt proud. She fell because she’d been trying.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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