I only played team sports once in my life. Oh yes, in the summer before third grade, my calling to play soccer was pretty huge. My mother took me to the local YMCA to inquire about signing up, and we discovered that there were no girl soccer teams. One of the perks of having a non-traditional first name is that I was able to simply sign up for soccer, which was very much “boys soccer” and not have anyone realize it until I showed up.
The soccer coach was elated to discover I was a girl. She welcomed me enthusiastically, and I was excited about being part of the team. The boys on the team were not so thrilled. Oh, no — not at all.
During practice I was painfully aware of how the boys avoided playing with me. The coach would call out for them to kick the ball to me and nothing would happen. I would scream out, “I’m open! Here! Kick the ball to me!” The boys on the team shut me out and told the coach I was a bossy girl.
On the weekends when we had games, I tried to play just as aggressively as the boys, but that was not cool. Not on my team. “Stop bossing us around!” That is what was snapped at me during games when I pleaded to be included in plays.
I honestly didn’t understand what the problem was. I was playing just like the boys in skill and attitude, but for whatever reason my behavior was less than. I started to get teased and mocked. It happened so much that other teams would pick up on it during games and chime in. Kids I didn’t even know would tell me to shut up.
All because I was asking to play. Begging to play. When I played well — and since I only had a tiny window of sports achievement, allow me to admit that I did play pretty well — it was not celebrated.
My coach tried to help me. Her aim was to get me to be more aggressive, to play like “one of the boys,” but every step toward that backfired. The boys didn’t want a girl on their team, and they certainly didn’t want a girl who played hard. They didn’t want a girl they had labeled as bossy.
Being bossy is defined as someone who orders people around, is overly authoritative; domineering.
I thought I was being aggressive — that’s what I was coached to be. “Get in there!” “Get the ball!” “If you see an opportunity to advance — TAKE IT!”
Being aggressive is defined as someone who makes an “all-out effort to win or succeed; competitive.” Aggressive people are “vigorously energetic” and “boldly assertive and forward.”
In sports, athletes are encouraged to be aggressive. Remember that popular cheer: “Be Aggressive“? That’s not a cheer to be bossy.
After a handful of games, my enthusiasm for soccer completely left. I started to feel ill before practice, and going to a game felt like torture. Probably because it was torture. Looking back, I can see how my being assertive with the team caused me to be ostracized. I do wonder if I was a boy if that same assertive behavior would have made any waves.
When I look at the photos I have from the games, what hits me is not just that I am the only girl on the team, but also that I was the tallest player on the team. Two strikes in the “different” box. I think some of the kids on the team thought I was making a mockery of the sport by joining, and they took it as a personal attack. On more than one occasion I was asked, “Why are you even here?”
I was a strong girl. I was an athletic girl who was ready to be coached. I was excited to be a part of a team. Being labeled a bossy girl took the wind out of my sails. It made me question my enthusiasm. It made me feel like a freak. At the end of the season I was done with soccer. Sadly, I was also done with sports.
Of course, I have been called bossy many times since I was a kid. I am now aware of how my height can contribute to how people hear me. Tall women, I am told, are bossy before they even open their mouths. I wish that I had known more tall women when I was growing up or had friends who were tall girls.
The evolution of my love affair with my height has been a quirky one. I was bold and proud when I was very young. Then when I outgrew the boys, I was made fun off. I started to recognize that kids backed up when I had an opinion. Are opinionated tall girls bossy? Not any more than smaller opinionated girls, but you put two opinionated girls next to each other, and I know from experience that the tall girl will be told to be quiet first.
It wasn’t until I found the world of theater that I started to really own my height and own my ability to have opinions. I performed in my first play when I was in the 5th grade. I was cast as the Nurse in a kid’s musical production of Romeo and Juliet. I was over the moon when I found out I got the part, but the transformation happened the first week of rehearsals when I got stuck understanding a scene. I remember I asked the director what my lines meant, and he replied, “What do you think she means?” I blinked back at him, aware that he was asking for my opinion. I began with, “I think…” and he cut me off. “You get to decide!”
I was really lucky to have someone guide me to the realization that it is okay to have opinions. Not only is it okay, but encouraged. I know my soccer coach did what she was able to do at the time, but I wish she had pushed me harder to stay and play. When I hear someone remark about a kid being bossy today, I ask, “What do you mean by that?” Bossy doesn’t mean what people think it means. If your kid is being disrespectful, call it that. But if your kid is being aggressive on the playing field or opinionated about a project, call it aggressive and opinionated. Being aggressive and having opinions should be celebrated. Being “bossy” should be banned.
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