The girl had come to win. Her dark straight hair lay in a loose ponytail, her serious face was make-up free. She was possibly 17 years old. Her dark eyes focused on the green table in front of her as she gripped the ping pong racket in her right hand. Her flat, tight abs flashed between a white crop top and gray sweatpants.
My husband and I happened into this room, seeking a place for our card game. We settled at a small round table, pulling out our weathered pack of “Five Crowns.” As Doug dealt the first hand, I glanced over at the activity on our cruise ship, a ping pong tournament in action.
There were about 30 players, competing with a friendly vibe. Some of them played awkwardly, gamely hitting the ball a few times before missing, chuckling with good humor. Some were more serious, volleying back and forth with intensity. The young woman was my instant favorite.
She was called into a match with a young man, as handsome as she was beautiful. Their names were announced, Jess and Jason. They glided around the table like gazelles, back and forth, evenly matched. One point to Jess. One point to Jason. One point to Jess. One point to Jason. My body tensed, rooting for Jess, to whom I had never spoken.
It was down to the wire, match point. Jess scored. To cheers, she was declared the winner of the match. I grinned, happy to see this young woman announced the victor in a sea of men. But as Jess put down her paddle, she murmured, “He played a really good game. I was just lucky.”
Oh no, I thought. “I was just lucky.” With these four words, this young woman abandoned her victory, minimized her skill and strength, and shrunk herself. What pressure was she feeling, in her moment of triumph, looking into the face of her handsome male opponent? Why had she uttered these words, which denigrated her success? Was she feeling too strong, too capable, too skilled in the presence of this man? Did she worry that her strength would be a turn-off?
Did she even notice what she had just said?
Women walk this path. We perceive, sometime around middle school, that our precious skills paradoxically make us less attractive to the boys. Sometime in middle school, girls raise their hands less, absorbing the message that, even if they know the answer, it is more attractive to pretend that they don’t. It isn’t sexy to get the highest score on the biology test. It isn’t sexy to earn the top SAT scores. It definitely isn’t sexy to beat the boys.
The recent Barbie movie hilariously comment on this issue. “Barbie Land,” formerly a haven for girls, has been taken over by the Kens, who seek to establish the patriarchy they discovered in the “Real World.” The Barbies figure out how to fight back. When the Barbies seek to infiltrate the Ken rebellion, they do so by feigning ignorance and weakness. One Barbie asks for a Ken’s help with her computer. Another listens rapturously as a Ken explains the plot of a movie. The Barbie’s feigned unknowing is adopted to lure the Kens into complacency. Once they convince the Kens they are weak and inferior, (and the Kens fight about it amongst themselves), the Barbies are able to recapture control of their world.
Although this is just a movie plot, in our Real World, we struggle to know how to help our own real-life girls. I have many moms in my psychology practice who are raising spirited daughters. Perhaps they don’t want to go to bed, or take a nap, or eat their peas, or wear their winter coat. They argue with their mothers about boyfriends, cell phones, homework, piano lessons… you name it. Still, when I work with these moms, I always point out that their spirited daughter has confidence and strength, and the world needs more girls with confidence. We work together to shape their daughter’s behavior while embracing and nurturing their spirit.
I thought for a long time, as the tournament continued. I wondered if I should say something to Jess. If I did, what would I say? Should I mention that I am a psychologist? It might give me credibility, but it might also make her feel more judged. No, I thought.
Ten minutes passed. She sat near me, together with her father. They were watching the tournament.
“Excuse me,” I said, and they both turned to look at me.
“I have been having fun watching you play. You are such a wonderful ping-pong player! I really hope you win the tournament, and I am routing for you.”
Jess smiled, a polite, shy smile.
I chose my next words carefully. “I heard you say, after you won your last match, that it was a “good game” and you were “just lucky.” But actually, you weren’t just lucky. You are a really a great player, highly skilled. I bet you practice a lot. And you know, girls do this all the time. Instead of owning their talents, they say they were “just lucky” when they win. But you are actually super-talented.”
Jess looked at me intently. She did not say a word, and I couldn’t read her face. I had no idea what she was thinking.
Her father answered, “I think she was just being humble. But… you know… now that you mention it, you have a point.”
“I don’t get it though.” Her father looked quizzical. “She beats me all the time when we play. But when she beats me, she never says she was just lucky. Never.”
“Right. But you are her dad. So, it’s different. I bet she feels safe to compete at home with you. And, with all respect, I guess possibly you aren’t as handsome as Jason.”
We all laughed. Jess smiled, looking down at the ground. I still couldn’t read her reaction.
“Good luck, Jess. I am rooting for you.”
I returned to my card game, watching the tournament as it progressed. One by one, players were eliminated. The room began to empty, until there were just a few people left. It came down to the final match. “Jess and Jason, you are up again.”
Jess strode over to the ping pong table, smiling at her handsome opponent. Back and forth they began to volley, white ball flying, making its faint knocking sound against the two paddles.
Just like before, the game advanced evenly. One point to Jess. One point to Jason. One point to Jess again. I rose from my seat to watch, standing behind Jess’s father.
It was game point again. Jess hit the ball expertly, and it jumped off the tip of the table. Jason swung and missed. Jess had won. A cheer went up throughout the room as her name was announced the victor. I leaned forward, and waited to hear what she would say.
Her voice was quiet but clear. “Thank you!” And with that, she placed her paddle down and walked out. I was beside myself with happiness.
I had one more vivid exchange with Jess the last night of the cruise. I was walking downstairs, heading toward dinner. Jess was sprinting up the stairs, effortlessly. She saw me and smiled broadly. “We had another ping pong tournament today. And I WON!” She declared her victory with such joy and confidence, I could have wept.
“GOOD FOR YOU!” I yelled, a little too loudly in the stairway.
“Thank you,” she grinned, and we paused briefly, sharing joy in her accomplishment. “OK, see you later,” and she was off.
I never did see Jess again, but I thought about her many times. I hope that my words stay with her. Perhaps she will feel more comfortable embracing her excellence. Perhaps she will see the Barbie movie, and think, “I don’t need to make myself small to make a boy feel big.” Perhaps she will be confident, strong, unapologetic, and forthright.
Yes, there is luck in this world. Some of us are born smarter, or prettier, or richer, or advantaged. Privilege exists, and that is indeed luck. However, let’s not sell ourselves short. Our diligence, politeness, and education matter. More to the point, I struggle to think of any time that I heard a boy or man win an award, earn a promotion, or ace a test who then said, “I was just lucky.”
Girls and women, you are not “just lucky.” If you know the answer, then you did the homework, paid attention in class and studied. If you hit the tennis ball, it’s because you took lessons, practiced, and worked hard. If you get the promotion, you earned it by showing up on time, getting along with people, and doing your job well.
Will you still be liked? Maybe not by some. There are still Kens in this world, and plenty of them. But yes, by the people who are not threatened by you. Yes, by the people who will admire you. Yes, by all the girls you will inspire. Yes, by the girl you will someday advise in a cruise ship lounge. Yes, yes, yes.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.