"You act like a man.”
I was 12 years old when I heard this for the first time.
I grew up in a large family of five girls and three boys, and my dad was delighted when my mom finally had their first son.
My dad is a motorcycle enthusiast, with a special talent for dirt biking. As soon as my younger brother could walk, my dad was putting him on tiny dirt bikes and teaching him how to ride around the large backyard of our childhood home.
All the while, I begged my parents to let me try it. My mom said it was too dangerous, and that injury could threaten my fertility. I have always been a wild child, with curly blonde hair that could not be tamed any more than my temper. When my mom finally conceded to my stubborn pleas, it was quickly realized that my dad had passed his gift of dirt biking to me.
I made friends with a group of kids that also rode dirt bikes, and they developed an endearing hatred for my ability to always get the hole-shot when we raced. I felt that my competitive nature finally found a place that it could thrive in dirt biking. I felt free when I rode, and I was hooked on the rush.
As my skills and height grew, my dad and I would ride dirt bikes together most weekends. One particular weekend, we were at a large recreational area called Brown’s Camp, which still has the best trails for riding in my opinion. After a long day on the dirt, my dad and I raced back to the truck, per usual, as we were always competitive with each other. I, of course, won, and settled in to wait for him at the parking lot.
I started to clean my bike and unload my gear. A voice to my right said, “Need a hand?” It was a father and son duo, in shiny new gear and bikes, parked next to my dad’s 1980 Ford.
“No thanks!” I said warmly, as I used a shop towel to wipe the mud off my face and neck, “I’m just waiting for my dad to make it back to the truck so we can load up.”
After a pause, the son said, “You act like a dude,” with a wry smile on his prepubescent face.
I didn’t know what to say, so I stupidly said “Thank you,” in the form of a question before my dad showed up to break the tension.
The whole way home, my young brain tried to make sense of what that kid had said to me.
How was I acting like a dude? Why did he sound impressed that I was acting like a dude? Why did I feel angry when he said it? Why does it matter if I act like a dude, anyway?
This interaction triggered an awakening that day. I felt as if my anatomy was something that should define my personality, or hobbies, or interests, or talents. Maybe I shouldn’t act like a dude.
These doubts would creep into my head when the fighter in me came out, and my desire to be first place was overshadowed by the risk of being unlikeable because I was not the typical definition of a young woman. I started to stifle my talents to fit inside other people’s comfort zones so they would not accuse me of acting like a man.
Over the years and into adulthood, more people have said this to me in various forms, both men and women.
“You act like a man.”
“You sound like a man.”
And the always adorable, “You’re more of a bro to me than my bros!”
Whether it’s said in a tone of pleasant surprise, or resentful incredulousness, the message remains the same:
A woman that lives her life out loud is thought to be an imposter of her gender. She is acting like a man.
Being stubborn and competitive is an ideal breeding ground for achieving goals, and my resentment fueled the fighter in me. I would prove them all wrong and command my position, all while wearing heels, and they would regret telling me that I act like a dude. I felt as if I had to prove my feminine worth to the haters.
As the years passed, I built a career and found myself in a leadership role with 19 direct reports. I was doing all the manager things; going on business trips and drinking martinis with pantsuits that wanted my business card. I was acting like a man, to prove to people that I do not act like a man.
Those martinis hit me after a long day of networking, while I assessed the bags under my eyes in my hotel bathroom.
Who am I doing this all for? What does success mean to me, and do I feel successful right now? Or am I doing all this to prove a point to people whose opinion of me does not matter?
If it sounds cliché, it’s because it is.
Self-reflection takes effort, and in my case, a literal reflection in a gilded hotel mirror is what did the trick. Pausing to view yourself objectively will allow your inner voice to speak out, man or woman.
Are you the person you want to see? Or are you mirroring what someone else told you they see? Are you stopping yourself from greatness to fit into someone else’s comfort zone?
I know who I am.
I am a beautiful frenzied mess of bony hips and thin lips and I am one hell of a lover. I always put my friends first and I love strong coffee and quiet mornings.
My gender is female, yes. My soul? My soul is a wide world of opinions and revelations and grief and experience. My soul knows no gender.
I will dirt bike circles around you, and I will always get the holeshot.
I will be bold and outspoken and hold myself accountable for my actions.
I know my place and I will assert myself if you cannot recognize my greatness.
I’m not a confused 12 year old anymore. I do not search for a reply any longer. When you try to tell me I act like a man, today? Well, don’t flatter yourself. I’m owning my woman.