Illustration by Leanna

Illustration by Leanna

When I was 18, I was released from the confines of homeschool into the wide, exciting world of college. I quickly discovered that I was woefully unprepared—not for the academic part, which I knew would be rigorous, but for dealing with all those people. At that point I had never dated anyone. I had never had a beer. I had neither kissed nor been kissed. I had not, for the prior two or three years, spoken to anyone except when it was absolutely necessary. I’m not blaming home education for my dismal lack of socialization—I know that the normal homeschool experience includes a lot of interaction with the outside world via churches, field trips, volunteering, community theater, and the like. But such was not the case for me. I had used homeschool as an excuse not to interact with anyone outside of my immediate family. I entered college with a nervous desire to make friends, but zero understanding of how that process actually worked.

When you are severely socially stunted, other people can sense it. Not that I made it very hard—I provided lots of clues. There was the wild, deer-in-headlights look on my face when I found myself in a room with more than three other people, and the fact that I didn’t get 98% of people’s pop culture references, and my habit of, after someone told a joke, asking for clarification. At one point someone said they wanted to “take me out,” and I said, “You mean, like, with a gun?” You know: fun, sexy, cool stuff like that.

But despite all this scared, awkward, frankly off-putting behavior, dudes seemed to LOVE me. Let me be more precise: The worst dudes loved me. Everywhere I turned, there was a 28-year-old pot dealer who lived on his brother’s couch, or a senior who made it his business to nail as many freshman as possible, or, once, during my summer internship, an older man who taught my friend math at community college. They were just popping up like awful incubi every 30 seconds, all of them ready to yank the glasses off my face so they could remark on how “pretty” I was underneath them, or to gently brush my horrified face with their creepy pot hands, or to just lean in and purr, in “sexy” voices that made them sound like Midwestern Draculas, “You’re great. You’re so innocent.”

First of all: EW. Second: I was not “innocent.” I was a shut-in. Being attracted to me was like wanting to date E.T. And yet, somehow, the precise lack of social skills that made me…challenging, let’s say, to hang out with also apparently made me downright irresistible to a certain type of guy: that kind that is easily intimidated by women who can do scary, threatening things like make eye contact and converse with others out loud. One look at me and these guys may have thought that this E.T.-like creature (So unaccustomed to this modern world! So childlike in her ignorance of our earthly ways!) would be more open to their fumbling, grabby modes of seduction than a reasonably experienced and assertive young woman might be. Other girls would surely tell them to get lost. Me, you probably could have trapped by putting a line of Reese’s Pieces on the floor.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being innocent. With innocence comes the kind of trust that keeps you open to the world around you. Once you’ve been scuffed up a bit by life it’s hard not to close parts of yourself off as protection; as Danielle argued here, to remain playful and curious is an asset, as well as an act of bravery. There’s also nothing wrong with being called “innocent”—it can be a genuinely appreciative, respectful compliment, meaning someone likes your fresh perspective, and that you don’t have a lot of cynicism and aren’t too quick to insult or dismiss new things.In Zen, this admirable innocence is called “beginner’s mind”: coming at something without any assumptions about what it is or how it should work.

But it’s amazing how, in a patriarchy, anything—even a genuinely noble virtue—can be used to belittle women. Because when those guys in college leered at me and told me I was “so innocent,” they didn’t mean it as a compliment (I didn’t ask them, but you know it when you hear it). They weren’t attracted to my purity of spirit. My inexperience made me vulnerable, and that can be a siren’s song for anyone (not just guys) who needs to feel stronger than the person they are pursuing. They seemed to sense that they could get away with all sorts of BS with me because I wouldn’t know that I could (and SHOULD) call them out on any of it. For example: TOUCHING MY FACE. WITHOUT MY CONSENT. I must stress: This happened MORE THAN ONCE. Over a decade later, I am NOT DONE being creeped out by this.

There are other words like this: sweet, for example, and pretty. None of those are bad things to be, but somewhere along the line someone decided that these were girly qualities, and if they were associated with girls, they must somehow signify inferiority and weakness. Add to this mix the simultaneous but contradictory fear of women and girls that comes with sexism and you get a culture that fetishizes helplessness in women (because if we think we’re supposed to be weak and helpless, maybe we won’t figure out that we’re not). So “sweet, pretty, and innocent” isn’t just a description; it’s become an order. That’s what girls are supposed to be like.

Starting from the day we’re born, we’re trained to be a certain gender. Right there in the hospital, boy infants are dressed in blue, girls in pink. It’s how we’re identified before we even have an identity. And it only gets more intense from there, as Riley here explains:

Girls get dolls, which you dress up and look at and cuddle and tend to, boys get trucks and guns and other things that act upon the world around them.

The image of girlhood that we’re taught and sold is pink, it’s happy, and it’s nonthreatening. It involves canopy beds and no discernible desires excepting the endless one to please and appease others (especially men), and perhaps occasionally to roll around in a field of flowers, giggling. Now: If someone were to offer me a pink canopy bed I would take it, no questions asked. But actual girlhood (as any girl knows) isn’t really like that. There are sharp angles, corners, and shadows, and to erase those from the picture creates an unrealistic ideal that no real person can ever live up to—plus, it leaves a lot of the interesting stuff out.

So here’s what I propose. Let’s counter that verbal hocus-pocus that turned these strengths into weaknesses with some word-fu of our own. I’m not saying we should leave innocent behind. Or pretty, or sweet. I’m saying let’s add some of those shadows back in, and make those virtues powerful again. Here are some other ways to think of those words—feel free to replace sweet, pretty, and innocent with these alternatives in your head whenever you hear them, or just know that when someone says you seem “so innocent,” they mean you’re learning stuff and that means you’re awesome. Here we go:

Sweet → Compassionate

Again, there’s nothing wrong with being sweet. Like innocence, sweetness can be an admirable quality. When Jane Austen describes someone as having a “sweet disposition,” you like that girl—you get the sense that she’s generally open to life, that she has a generous spirit that isn’t likely to sour under adversity. She’s game. She’s brave. But then you have the diluted-by-patriarchy meaning, which is “nice all the time to everyone ever and everyone likes her the most because she’s never been angry or sad or stressed out or had even a mild headache.” From babyhood, girls are praised for being “sweet” and “pretty,” while boys are more likely to be called “big” or “smart.” (Do people still teach toddlers this nursery rhyme? Let’s get Riley on the case.) And so girls become women who haven’t learned how to do a lot of stuff that’s pretty important in life, because that stuff isn’t “sweet.” It’s not “sweet,” for instance, to tell somebody to back off, or to demand better treatment for yourself. It’s not “sweet” to tell a misinformed blowhard who’s dominating the conversation that he’s wrong. It’s not “sweet” to tell somebody you’re not interested in dating them, or to cut a toxic person out of your life. Later on, it won’t be “sweet” when you ask for a raise at work. It’s not “sweet” to campaign for political office, protest an injustice, or report a sexual assault.