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What's In A Name? The Obligation to be a "Sweet" Girl

Mitali Desai.

I did not choose to be sweet. Sweet was assigned to me at birth: my name, Mitali, literally translates from Hindi to “sweetness.” For most of my life, I was called “sweet” almost incessantly; praised for being generous, nurturing and selfless. I would blush, stare at the floor demurely, and giggle a “thank you” in return. In reality though, this made me feel more like a well-behaved puppy than it felt like a testament to my character.

I called my father the other night to ask him about my name, and ended up discussing this article and unleashing a barrage of anti-sweet vitriol upon him: he considered for a moment, and then responded, “maybe that’s because you really were a very sweet girl—maybe the reason you feel such a strong reaction to the word is because you always felt like you had to be one way.”

The more I thought about this, the more I remembered the amount of pressure I felt to be consistently “good” and “nice” as a child in a way my brothers certainly did not. Obviously, these are traits we try to foster in children so that they grow up to be kind, well-socialized people; however, in a less than moral world, extolling these incredibly ambiguous virtues above all else can be dangerous.

When we teach children, and particularly girls, to be good, we are essentially teaching them to be obedient. Being nice means not causing conflict. Meanwhile, sweetness is often conflated with selflessness. There is a time and place for these traits, but as one grows up obedience, passivity and self-sacrifice can create more problems than they resolve. Furthermore, when it comes to girls, the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” continues into adulthood and manifests in a harmful and inherently sexist way. While “good” girls grow up to be well liked, “bad” girls grow up to later be labeled as sluts, spinsters, and ball-busters.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where women are still treated as lesser in a multitude of ways; from alarming rates of domestic abuse, rape, and sexual harassment, to pay inequality and workplace discrimination. The horrible truth is that girls grow up and enter a world where they will sometimes need to fight twice as hard to have their voice heard and have to combat belittling and outright offensive assumptions attached to their gender. Women who report rape and domestic abuse are too often turned away and labeled as “attention-seeking” or accused of bringing about their own predicament. Women who ask for raises or are assertive in the office are too often labeled as “bitchy” or “domineering.”

While these injustices stem from an insufferably long history of systematic oppression and there is no easy way to remedy them overnight, one way we can prepare our girls for these situations, should they occur, is by affirming girls’ agency from an early age. They need to be told that, yes, it’s okay to stand up for yourself, take what you need, and put yourself first. If being obedient means doing something or being a bystander to something you know is wrong, then it isn’t worth it. You decide who touches your body and when—it doesn’t matter if saying no isn’t “nice.” If you’re being treated unfairly, say something, do something, tell someone—sweetness takes a backseat to protecting yourself.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean we should condition little girls to be cold or selfish. Instead, we must teach them about kindness and generosity in a ways that empower them. For example, while “sweet” connotes passivity, “compassionate” is a word that confirms one’s agency and compliments her character. For example, while standing up and condemning injustice may not be “sweet,” it is certainly compassionate. If we do praise “sweetness,” we must be equally ready to praise bravery and intellect.

What I did not know for a long time—actually, until I asked my mother last night—is that “Mitali” can also be translated as “friendship.” I prefer this definition because ultimately, I want to be a friend to many: someone who is compassionate and trustworthy. I am not particularly religious, but to me Rosh Hashanah symbolizes a time for self-reflection, to quiet the clamor of everyday life and reexamine whether I am living my life in a way that aligns with my goals and values. As a teenager about to embark upon a new chapter in the “real world,” being a “nice girl” is no longer one of those goals. The work that I hope to do one day—all related to social justice, from taking on the prison system to income inequality to sexism—requires grit, conflict, and sometimes yelling to get my voice—and more importantly, the voices of others—heard. While I no longer feel an obligation to be sweet, I do feel a new sense of responsibility: to bring sweetness into the lives of others, in whatever way I can.

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Wonderfully written article. Thoughtful and insightful.

Great article, Mitali. I completely agree with you and it's inspiring that you've come to this understanding about yourself and your name already. It's a common issue and I'm pleased you've brought it up and raised awareness.

How to cite this page

Desai, Mitali. "What's In A Name? The Obligation to be a "Sweet" Girl." 24 September 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/whats-in-name-obligation-to-be-sweet-girl>.

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