The other B-word

I'll take the flak for asymmetrical haircuts. But not for being 'bossy.' Photo courtesy of Jerry Qiao.
I’ll take the flak for asymmetrical haircuts. But not for being “bossy.” Photo courtesy of Jerry Qiao.

My first summer at sleep away camp, I found myself with a group of girls on the beach competing against a group of boys in a sandcastle building contest.

In the heat of the race, I smelled victory but sensed the girls were behind. We needed turrets, a moat, a drawbridge! In my eagerness, I spoke up, pointing out structural weaknesses and design flaws. I wanted to turn our heap of wet sand into a seashore fortress. I trusted my eye and knew I could lead; this is where I felt comfortable.

In the middle of my efforts, Grace, a “nice” girl, a popular girl, turned her head sharply to me.

“Stop being so bossy,” she snapped.

My stomach sank. Was I being bossy? I stepped back blinking away tears. I said nothing while the other girls finished our submission.

When time was up, our camp counselors said the teams had tied.

“You’re all winners!” they cheered. I realized there was never really a contest.

I suppressed my irritation. Mostly, I was embarrassed. Was I annoying for wanting to build the best sand castle? I realized that wanting to win and vocalizing that wouldn’t make me any friends. I apologized to Grace afterwards.

This isn’t an isolated incident.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Girls Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez recently relayed their experiences as “bossy little girls” to the Wall Street Journal.

“Nobody likes a bossy girl,” Sandberg’s teacher warned her childhood best friend. “You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.”

“You are really bossy,” Chávez’s boy neighbors told her when she tried to play like them as a kid.

Sandberg’s take on feminism may not jibe with all women, but she’s got a point in her contentious feminist manifesto “Lean In”:

“When a girl tries to lead, she is often labeled bossy,” she wrote. “Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend.”

Musician Janelle Monáe has partnered with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez in a campaign to Ban Bossy. Photo courtesy of BanBossy.com
Musician Janelle Monáe has partnered with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez in a campaign to Ban Bossy. Photo courtesy of BanBossy.com

From the outside, being called bossy on the beach seems nothing more than a childhood embarrassment. Yes, it’s possible being called bossy wasn’t a gendered insult at age 8. Maybe it was just one little girl getting another little girl to stop telling her what to do. In any case, I internalized this message: Your goals aren’t shared by others. Go it on your own.

From then on, I competed alone. I wasn’t a team player because I felt that if I tried to lead, wrestling with the desire to do well and be liked would result in failure.

Being bossy didn’t keep me from trying to win. It didn’t stop me from running for student council or competing in debate tournaments with mostly boys. But being bossy did keep me from winning with others.

I often wonder what I could have learned if I hadn’t competed alone or if I had had a mentor to teach me how to participate within a team. To lead and not rule. Direct instead of dictate.

Too often, I think young leaders are told to quiet down instead of educated on how to work with others. Embracing bossiness is not about justifying negative leadership qualities. It’s about using your leadership to inspire the best qualities of others.

I’ve already started to see the effects of being called bossy before I was commended for even speaking up. Not only am I still learning how to work in groups but it puts me in competition with others who struggle similarly.

Recently, a friend was describing a girl she knew.

“She has to be in charge of everything. Nothing happens unless it’s her idea,” she said. “She must be socially awkward.”

Outwardly, I agreed. Neither of us said it but the message was understood: “That girl is bossy.”

How did I go from being ashamed of my own bossiness, to seeing how it can be positive, to judging others for the same behavior?

I applaud Beyoncé for feminizing ‘hustler’ and the Internet loves the idea of ‘bad bitch’ Hillary. We like our public women unapologetic but we hold women we know to a different standard.

They’re bossy, not bosses.

And nobody likes a bossy girl.

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.
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