The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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No More Puffy Pink Dresses
Challenging my grandmother’s definition of womanhood
Imani Doumbia

“Be every inch a lady,” my grandmother would whisper, not so quietly. Whether my legs were slightly spread or I slouched lazily in my chair at church on Sunday afternoons, my grandmother watched over me, correcting me. I tried to emulate the Disney princesses who were dainty and charming, and ended up needing a prince to save them.

“You have to be every inch a lady!” my older sister Kiana and I would joke whenever we did “unladylike” things like sprint wildly up and down the block to see who could run faster. She is three years older than I am and her legs are longer, so she would always win.

“Grandma would be proud, you run like such a lady!” I’d say. Then we would laugh and crack more jokes as we sat on our stoop slurping down Capri Suns.

My grandmother expected me to sit with my ankles crossed, back straight, and a dazzlingly polite smile etched on my face. Until I was 8, I had to wear puffy dresses that were pink, lavender, or yellow, never the blue or green ones I wanted. They all had big bows. My nails were clipped, every hair in place.

It didn’t matter that my dress was itchy or that my cheeks burned from smiling so hard. To my grandmother, this is what was expected, and none of us—me, my sister, or even my mother—questioned her. My mother is the youngest of six, so she rarely challenges my grandmother.

Shooting Hoops

But the summer when I was 9, I began to question my grandmother’s emphasis on being ladylike and realized how it affected me. One afternoon in our backyard, my sister, all my girl cousins, and I were playing jump rope and singing rhymes about “boys going to Jupiter to get more stupider and girls going to college to get more knowledge.”

After a while I began to get bored, so I ventured over to where my uncle and male cousins were playing basketball. I sat on the bench and watched them. I was fascinated by their agility and the connection they shared with the ball. I was discouraged from playing games that might get my clothes dirty, but I secretly wanted to.

When they took a break, my cousin Jared plopped down next to me. He was dripping with sweat and smelled awful. I wrinkled my nose and fanned my hand. We laughed and sat in silence for a while enjoying the sun beaming down on our faces. When the guys called out that they were about to start the next round, he asked, “Wanna play?”

I looked over at the rest of the boys and quickly shook my head no. I wanted to play so badly, but I knew nothing about basketball and I was certain the giant men would step on me.

“Next time,” he said.

Two weeks later, on a Saturday morning, I woke to a light rapping on my bedroom door. Jared poked his head in.

Secret Practices

“It’s next time,” he said simply. I glanced at the clock. It was 6:30 a.m. “Are you crazy? Do you see what time it is? And next time for what?”

“I’m going to teach you how to play ball.”

He refused to let me go back to sleep by belting out his rendition of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King. Giving in, I sighed and got out of bed.

image by YC-Art Dept

We ate breakfast, then headed out to the yard. I immediately went for the ball. But my cousin beat me to it and held it out of my reach. “Uh uh,” he shook his head. “We stretch first.” We ran across the yard.

When we were done, I wanted to take a break. I was so tired.

“That’s only the beginning,” he laughed.

He taught me how to dribble. Then we moved on to lay ups. Later we got to defensive and offensive plays. After hours of practicing, he said, “Show me what you’ve got.” And I played my first one-on-one game. I knew he was going easy on me and when I asked him if it was because I was a girl, he laughed and said, “No, it’s because you’re new.”

We continued to play every day and my love for basketball grew. I had to keep our practices a secret out of fear my grandmother would stop them.

Caught Sweating

One hot day in the middle of July, I entered the kitchen later than usual, sweaty from a game of ball. I’d been waking at dawn to sneak out to the yard to play before my grandmother woke up. That day she’d gone out early, so I thought I’d have extra time to practice. But I’d miscalculated and when I came home with my messy ponytail and sweaty gym shorts, I walked in on her. While I was washing my hands at the sink she eyed me suspiciously.

“Why are you so sweaty child? Go on and get you something to drink.” After retrieving apple juice from the fridge, I turned to face my grandmother.

“What were you doing in the yard?” she asked with curiosity.

I averted my eyes and focused on the black and white vine-like design on the curtains. I decided to go with a portion of the truth and said, “I was playing.” She fanned herself elegantly. The gems in her rings caught the sunlight, casting an iridescent glow across her features.

“Oh, I thought the girls were playing inside today,” she said.

Playing With Boys

I couldn’t lie so I said meekly, “They are. I was playing with the boys.”

“Boys?” Her fanning ceased and she took a sip of water. “What on earth are you doing playing with boys?” Her voice was sweet but menacing. I could tell that she was angry but curious.

I lifted my eyes to meet hers as I said, “We were playing ball.”

“Playing ball?” The words sounded wrong rolling off of her tongue.

image by YC-Art Dept

“Y-yes ma’am” I stuttered.

Her eyes drifted pointedly to the Bible that rested heavily atop the table. “In my day, girls didn’t play ball with boys.” She eyed me with an unwavering, disapproving stare. I left the kitchen in a hurry.

Later that night, my mother came into my room and asked, “Is everything OK?” I knew my grandmother must have talked to her.

I shrugged and said, “I like playing basketball, it’s harmless.”

My mother was more understanding than my grandmother. We continued to talk about basketball and how it made me happy as she tucked me into bed. The last thing she said was, “Do what makes you happy Imani. Just be careful.”

I continued playing basketball and eventually made the girls’ team in my elementary school. Sometimes, my grandmother would even take me to the games and stay to cheer me on. I understood that her love for me surpassed her disapproval. During one game, I had a nasty fall and skinned my knee on the shiny floor. My teammates helped me up and over to the bleachers where I sat out for the remainder of the game. After my knee felt better I walked over to my grandmother. “You OK, baby?” she asked. I nodded and she said, “Good, let’s get you home and put something on that knee. Nasty scars don’t belong on girls.”

I played basketball for the next three years.

Learning About Feminism

In middle school, I joined a club in school called HER, where girls met and talked about feminist issues. Guest speakers came in and held group discussions. The group challenged my grandmother’s definition of what it means to be a female. I learned that some women do the same jobs as men but get paid less, and that women can speak up in a conversation without having to wait to be spoken to by a man. I learned that girls shouldn’t have to sit with their ankles crossed if they don’t want to and that you’re no less of a girl if you play basketball.

I began having conversations with my grandmother about feminism. One day after I got home from school, I found her in her bedroom reading her Bible. I knocked on the door as I poked my head in. “Come in, baby,” she said.

I sat down on her bed. “Why don’t you think girls and boys can do the same things?”

She paused for a moment then replied “Because it’s in the Word.” I glanced at her thick Bible.

“But that was a long time ago, things have changed. Women don’t just stay home to take care of their kids. Some women have to work to provide for their entire family. You did.” She proceeded to tell me that it was wrong and that it’s not permitted in the Bible. After debating for an hour, we agreed to disagree.

I’ll Save Myself

I became more resistant to wearing dresses all the time. One night I was getting ready to go to a family dinner. I picked out dress pants and a button down shirt. I was so proud of my outfit as I waltzed down the stairs.

As soon as my grandmother saw me, she stopped her conversation mid-sentence and said, “Sweetie, go put on a dress. You look too boyish.” My face felt hot as I looked down at my outfit again. I didn’t want to change. I said, “I thought this looked nice.” I looked down at the floor when Jared chimed in, “She looks great. Let the girl be.” She muttered something to Jesus, but let me wear my pants.

The older I get, the more my definition of feminism develops. I understand that feminism is a movement that stands for equality between the two sexes. I shouldn’t be criticized—by my grandmother or anyone else—for not fitting into society’s definition of what it means to be a woman or a lady. Now, I dress and talk in ways that make me feel comfortable.

In my grandmother’s view, being ladylike means being docile and overly polite. But I think being a woman is about feeling confident in who I am. For instance, I am an athlete and I like to sweat. I think it’s wrong to rob girls of their say in how they wish to be perceived. I don’t live in a fairytale; I live in the real world. I don’t need a knight in shining armor to save me. This girl is capable of getting her hands dirty and saving herself.

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