Reclaiming "Like a Girl"

Collage by Judy Goldstein.

"Like a girl": a phrase that still tastes so vulgar in my mouth and is so frequently used in today's society. When, at ten years old, I first watched an ad titled "Run Like A Girl,” that the menstrual products company Always produced for the 2015 Super Bowl, I had not given much thought to pads or tampons, and my period or puberty still seemed far away. At that age, every year was a milestone, and waiting for a birthday was like waiting for an eternity. But now, eight years later, as I revisit these images, having discovered more of myself, especially my religious identity, I am struck by the continuing relevance of this ad’s message to both my secular and Jewish life.

In an effort to recall the powerful advertising from my younger years, I rewatch this ad. My mind suddenly fills with remembrances of my younger self. In moments of careful interaction, the phrase "like a girl" seeped slowly into my vocabulary. Feeling its presence, knowing it was always there, mere minutes away from being uttered by some annoying kid. I remember sprints on the soccer field, smiling as my ponytail sailed in the wind, strong in my girlishness, proud of acting like a girl. These memories are coupled with ignorant classmates reminding me not to act "like a girl" as we dissected owl pellets in science class. Reflecting on these moments of empowerment or degradation, I am frustrated yet hopeful. This ad contains truths that, throughout many circles of my life, especially religion, often feel eternal. The phrase "like a girl" is used as an insult and a means of putting women down, stopping them from pursuing their own ideas and callings. Teenagers throughout the country, across different ages, spanning all genders, hear, "don't run like a girl," "don't swim like a girl," and even "don't act like a girl."

My entire life, I have attended a non-denominational pluralistic Jewish day school. Starting in middle school, boys must wear tefillin while girls may choose to wear them. But almost no girls do. In seventh grade, I committed to wearing tefillin daily at services alongside the boys. At first, this seemed incredibly daunting. What would it mean to join the boys in this ancient ritual? How could I ignore the call and expectation to act "like a girl," behaving like all the other females in my grade who would never wear this ritual garment?

I had to ask the question the Always ad poses: "why would I let ‘like a girl’ stop me?" I came to the conclusion, shared by the video, that acting like a girl works, and is not something I need to be ashamed of. In this Jewish context, I spent so many years hating my gender and feeling frustrated by Jewish spaces that expected less of women and wanted me to act like all the other girls.

Empowering women and girls to appreciate and love their gender identity, thus releasing themselves from the negative connotations and stereotypes society place on women, is a critical part of the current mission and marketing strategy of the brand Always. Throughout the past decade, Always has produced many more ads addressing female empowerment, and this messaging holds real purpose in today's society.

The reclaiming of the phrase is important to me because "like a girl" is too often used as negative rhetoric in many Jewish communities, especially in ideas surrounding Jewish rituals and women’s participation. In my experience, being a girl in observant Jewish communities is often a bad thing. Strong prohibitions surround girls and ritual obligations, such as the ideas that women should not lead services, read from the Torah (leyning), wrap tefillin, or take on the mitzvot men are obligated to do. These are often very hurtful sentiments.

As a senior in high school, pondering my future is a daunting task. I deliberate about taking a gap year and going to yeshiva or participating in other intensive Jewish learning environments in Israel. Researching these opportunities has been an eye-opening experience because the vast majority of serious Torah learning programs in Israel are Orthodox and run for men. While women do have options, only a couple of places expect their female students to adhere to the same standards of serious learning as their male counterparts. Initially, I found this shocking, as I have had the immense privilege of growing up in a somewhat insular world that mostly regards women as equally capable and obligated as men. Besides the tefillin policy at my school, in all my academic or even athletic circles, the girls were always expected to attempt success to the same extent as the boys. My parents did not raise me, a daughter, differently from how they would have a son. Nobody expected less of me because I was a girl. That was an incredible gift, and I wish more women could live in that world. It saddens me that the first time I am truly confronted with such an incredibly unequal amount of opportunities is within the Jewish community.

The narrow choice of options feels suffocating, but instead of bending to the expectations many Jews have of women, which is that they are not meant to learn Torah seriously, I am forced to ignore them. I hate feeling trapped by the insult of needing to "act like a girl" in Jewish spaces. I shouldn’t, have to change my gender just to access better learning opportunities. “Like a girl” reminds me that gender should not hold me back from my love of Jewish learning and ritual. At first, the Always ad left me offended, but after so many years, I am grateful for its creation and message. Let's reclaim the phrase "like a girl," and remind everyone, especially young women, that we all deserve to feel equal and embraced by a welcoming society.  

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Gerwin, Adina. "Reclaiming "Like a Girl"." 6 March 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 16, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/reclaiming-girl>.