The Cross-Cultural Feminine

Recently, I took a trip to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico. While I was there, I took a little break from working on the ABC Girls book. But, as with any project I get into, I couldn’t get it out of my brain. I thought about it a lot while I was there. I like to talk to people while I’m on vacation, even if I don’t speak the language perfectly, and I ended up in conversations with lots of people. Many of them asked what I did in the US. I told them I write and illustrate children’s books. Often, this would lead to more questions. What kind of pictures? What kind of children’s books?

I spoke with one woman, on a bus, who was older. Probably old enough to be my grandma. She spoke excellent English, and she and I got to talking about my books. I told her the books I was currently working on was an alphabet book, and all the words were different jobs or different kinds of personalities and qualities girls could have. I said, lots of times girls are told they can only be one kind of way. I was told that when I was growing up. But I want little girls now to know they can be whatever kind of person they choose. She got very quiet, and got tears in her eyes. She told me when she was a little girl, she had brothers, and they wore jeans. They would run around outside and play. She wanted to wear jeans and run and play with her brothers. But when she tried to wear some of her brother’s clothes, her parents got angry and hit her. Every time she tried to wear pants. So she wore only dresses and skirts for a long time. When she got older she had daughters. One of her daughters was married now, and she had daughters. The woman I was speaking to, said one of her granddaughters was a princessa, she liked only skirts and sparkles. The other, she was not like that. She always tried to cut her hair off when no one was looking, and she wanted to wear pants, and she only would play with Hotwheels cars. The granddaughter’s dad, who was married to the woman’s daughter, would get angry at the granddaughter who played with cars, and hit her sometimes because she wasn’t “girly” enough. The woman looked at me and said “I like your book. I get it for her and her sister. Girls can be whatever they want. When they come to abuela’s house, they can be what they want, but not at home. Maybe when they grow up. But I’ll get your book for my house when they come.” She paused for a little while, and then she said “Now, I wear pants.” And she was.

The day before I left, I went on a whale-watching tour. It involved bouncing through the chop and the swell of the ocean for about 45 minutes in a Zodiac at full speed before we got close to finding any whales. It was very hard to stay in one place, and I am very used to boats. Our photographer for the trip, was a young woman, who was so used to this that she didn’t even bother sitting down or holding on to anything. She got perfect shots of the whales, even bouncing and using long bulky lens. When we got back to the marina, I told her that I thought she was pretty amazing, and she did a good job. She smiled, and told me thank you. She said many times, men would come on the tours and would refuse to pay for the photos she had taken, no matter how good, because “she was just a girl” and “they wanted a real photographer”. So they would rather go home with no pictures than pay her for her work. I shook my head at the ridiculousness of that. It’s what my mom calls cutting your nose off to spite your face.

I was able to talk to lots of women on my trip, in the neighborhood where I was staying, on the bus, in my hostel, from all over the world. The all had similar stories. I told them about the book I was working on, and they loved it. But more than that, I was inspired by them all. How much our misogynistic culture throws at them, and they fight it back. The women that I illustrate are based on real women. Women I met once, women I read about, women I know well. I want these real women to inspire the women of tomorrow. I want those girls to know that “like a girl” and “girly” and “feminine” are not and never were insults. They are amazing and inspiring words to be proud of. So to the ladies of Mexico, to the traveling ladies of the world, and to the future women out there, let’s do this together. Because no matter where we are, it’s something we all end up facing, and we can do it together.

Ariel Shultz

artist, educator, environmentalist, sailor