Run Like a Girl

It's not just about the running.

I've been a runner since the days when women were prohibited from running marathons on the excuse that too much exercise might hurt us. I attended the first women's Olympic marathon and, in one of the highlights of my career as a writer, got to have breakfast decades later with Joan Benoit Samuelson, who'd taken home that first Olympic long run gold.

I was never fast, although I could thrown a ball pretty well, and occasionally, when I stepped up to bat at a friendly softball game, male friends who'd seen me hit before would direct their fielders to back up, saying, "She doesn't hit like a girl."

But it's not about the running or even about sports for me or, I suspect, for most of the almost 50 million viewers, and counting.

It's not about girls, either. Let's be honest here: we're talking about an advertisement for feminine products. Its target audience is women of childbearing age.

And yet it has gone viral.

If you haven't seen it, "Run Like a Girl" is a nifty little video, produced and directed by Lauren Greenfield, about the very subtle ways we as a society shape gender presumptions. Older girls and women, and even boys and men, when asked to run or throw or fight "like a girl," do so in silly, noncompetitive ways. Very young girls just run or throw or fight their little hearts out, in ways that look very like boys their age might do.

"Like a girl" is still thrown around as an insult, and yet if you look at the facts you have to start to wonder why. Women, who have long earned more than half of all undergraduate degrees, now earn more than half of all post-graduate degrees as well--and do it with, on average, higher grades than male students. On average, women's IQs are now higher than men's.

Yet we remain a society riddled with subtle and not-so-subtle gender presumptions that suggest females are something less than males, and we perpetuate those stereotypes in ways we often don't realize.

Girls play sports in increasing numbers in high school--3.4 million girls and rising year after year, compared to 4.5 million boys, a number that has been fairly static--but sports coverage on television skews 96% male. Is there a surer way to let girls know that female sports are unimportant?

In film and on prime time programming, women not only have far fewer speaking roles, but are far more likely than male characters to be hypersexualized, and far less likely to have identified careers.

We routinely scrutinize the clothing and hair choices and body flaws of prominent women--political candidates and actresses and heads of corporations--in ways it simply would never occur to most of us to scrutinize their male counterparts. We show male heads of industry in their offices, female ones at their homes. We stack panels on "career-life balance" with women, leaving the implication that balance is something only women ought to worry about. We talk of childcare in terms of "helping working mothers," when surely working fathers share concern for their children's care. Fathers increasingly stay home to raise children, and yet we talk of "mommy tracks" rather than "parent tracks." Is there a reason we use the term "women's issues" when what we mean is family ones?

Just a year out of college and despite more degrees and higher grades, women across all professions take home just 80% of what their male colleagues do. The percentage of women in American politics hovers under 20%. The numbers of women at the top echelons of most businesses and professions remains similarly low, or lower.

The question is whether that will ever change, and how we might make that change happen.

Run like a girl. Study like a girl. Work like a girl. Dream like a girl. Achieve like a girl. That's what the viral spread of "Run Like a Girl" is about--the appetite for a world in which "like a girl" isn't an insult, but rather something about which we all might be as justifiably proud as Joan Benoit Samuelson must have been when she took home that first Olympic gold medal for the marathon thirty years ago, on August 5, 1984.

Meg Waite Clayton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of four novels, including The Wednesday Sisters, (which includes a look at the history of women's running), and The Wednesday Daughters, which People Magazine calls "enchanting."

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