ON BEING “BOSSY”.


For as long as I can remember, I have been described as being “bossy”.

It’s a word that I’ve heard countless times, it’s something I’ve got in trouble for, it’s something I’ve been disliked because of and as a result, it has always been a source of great shame and embarrassment for me.

I was always described as being bossy, and looking back I realise that that was only happening because I was a girl. It was sexist, and although that makes me sound utterly dramatic and risks me losing the attention, or at least sympathies, of many reading, it is, and I won’t apologise for pointing out the bloody obvious.

“Bossy”, even in the Cambridge English Dictionary, is a word used to describe women, as is evident by the examples they give of the word in context: “She’s strong without being bossy.” “My older sister was very bossy.”Girls of that age can get quite bossy.” Bloody scholars.

It was never a word applied to similar behaviour when exemplified by boys and it was never meant as a compliment, even when it served me, and those around me, well. It was always used as a demeaning term and talked about in a way that made me desperately ashamed of myself and it’s only been very recently (read: last weekend) that I was able to fully appreciate the injustice that this word, with it’s numerous connotations, was so often used to describe little girls with something to say.

This weekend just gone I found myself hanging out with with a couple of kids, both girls, one aged 10 and another aged 12. The older of the two was telling us over supper on Friday night how she had been the fastest girl in the whole school in this year’s beep test (yes, apparently enforcers of education are still thrusting this abject torture onto kids). She was, for lack of a better word, bragging (albeit in the most wonderful of ways) about her numerous sporting accolades when all of a sudden she came over all sheepish….

“I’m captain of hokey too! Yeh, actually well, I think I am the captain because I am bossy…”

Queue my little epiphany. As I often find myself doing when in the company of young girls, I launched into staunch-feminist-mode, quick to tell her that there was absolutely nothing wrong with being bossy whatsoever, least of all when it got her to captaincy.

I didn’t stop there though, as often happens when injustices arise, my mouth got away from my brain and I was soon telling her that, actually, she shouldn’t be using that word at all. She wasn’t bossy, what she was, was a good leader. Bossy implied that she was an irritant, a pain; pestering her team to victory, rather than leading them. The boys don’t think that they’re captains because they’re “bossy” do they? No. Because boys aren’t bossy. They’re just confident.

What the fuck is that about anyway?

I set off on a bit of a tangent, another thing I’m prone to doing, insisted that she no longer use that word to describe herself, made her dad nod in agreement with me that it was wholly unfair that his daughter was being made to feel ashamed of her leadership skills, shot a meaningful look at the younger girl as if to say “this applies to you too missy” and have been pondering the matter ever since.

How is it that I never before noticed how ridiculously shitty that word made me feel? And how, being the sniffer-dog for injustice that I am, did I not make the connection between society’s entrenched ways of keeping girls down and everyone’s obsession with describing me as bossy whenever I spoke up???

As it turns out I was not the first person to notice this; there was a campaign in 2014 that called for people to #banbossy, with women like Michelle Obama and Beyonce pledging their support, this campaign aimed to encourage little girls to lead. They recognised that by the time girls were entering middle school, they were already less likely to want to lead than their male counterparts and recognised the part that the word “bossy” played in that.

There have been subsequent conversations about vocabulary on a broader scale and how the connotations of so many other words applied to powerful women, are sexist. The fact that we can’t speak up or out without being described as “shrill”, “hysterical”, “whiney”, “pushy” or “emotional” is an injustice that many of us have been privy to for a while now and there is, finally, a conversation surrounding that.

But still, even as I took part in this conversation, I was unable to look back at the word that made up so much of my identity as a young girl and recognise the entrenched sexism that it was rooted in. I’ve only in the past few days made the connection between the feelings of shame that surrounded so much of who I was as a child and the excessive use of that word by the adults around me.

It’s often commented on that when young women get labelled as “bossy” it is because they are trying to exercise power without status; so much as to say, they are offering up thoughts or instructions on matters that they are unqualified to talk about. And whilst that makes sense, my issue lies in the fact that historically, young women haven’t had an awful lot of status at all, so any attempts at exercising power; appropriate or not, were batted down quickly with cries of “don’t be bossy!”, so as to discourage us from attempting it again.

In truth I still find it quite hard to look back at my wonderful childhood and think that I suffered at all, not least of all because I was extraordinarily privileged; a white, middle class girl born in London in the 1990s, I did not have to struggle in the way that my foremothers did, and in the way that so many of my sisters are still having to do now. But, I realise, that that doesn’t mean I was totally able to escape society’s misogynistic fist. On the contrary, so privileged was I in my upbringing, I think it lead me to feel so totally free and confident that unsuspecting adults, victims themselves of society’s warped sense of “appropriate” behaviour for young women, couldn’t help but to label me “bossy” as a reaction to my rather ridiculous confidence.

Specific examples don’t spring to mind, rather I’ve spent the last few days watching an odd slideshow of all the times I heard it, amalgamated. What strikes me in particular about this, though, is in how many of these instances the tone of voice used is not aggressive, or derogatory, or annoyed or frustrated. Rather it is affectionate, amused maybe, offered up with an accompanying eye roll as it to mean: “oh what is she like!?”

I think maybe my bossy nature might have made me rather endearing to surrounding adults; quite unused were they to seeing a girl with so much to say… Or maybe I’ve misread it and it wasn’t endearment in their eyes, rather, sadness for an all too familiar sight; something fleeting in most girls, and something to be enjoyed whilst it lasted, since it was soon to be replaced with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.

Or maybe I’m just reading way too much into all of it and I really was just an annoying little gobshite with ideas above her station.

I don’t know. But what I do know, with absolute certainty, is that I was talked about entirely differently to how my brother was.

I didn’t know why I was so ashamed of being “bossy” when I heard it as a child, but something in the way the word was used must have lead me to draw my own conclusions, because I never felt proud of it. And these were conclusions that I was right to draw, I realised, as I grew up and learned the synonyms for “bossy”, according to the dictionary: “domineering”, ” dominating”, “overbearing”, “imperious” – big words for such a little girl, eh? I say again, bloody scholars.

I don’t doubt that I was a “bossy” child, in that I thought I knew what was best, I liked things doing my way and I was proud of the opinions I formed on different things.

What I resent, entirely, is the shame that I have been made to feel about so many of these characteristics. I was passionate and smart and assertive and those were things that should have been nurtured so as to help me grow up into a person capable of utilising these skills and applying them to a career with confidence.

And whilst I’ve hardly grown up to be a shy little wallflower, my mind is in overdrive thinking of all the amazing women that I know that could have done so much more had they not had their natural flare for leadership stifled at such an early age.

Bit sad really isn’t it?

Personally, I’m putting bossy in the bin and it feels bloody good to do so. I feel as if I am lifting a weight from my stomach, a weight that has been there for lord knows how long, in the shape of shame and embarrassment surrounding my own confidence.

I realise that there was never a problem with me, rather the problem exists in a society that didn’t think assertiveness suited me and was intent therefore, in redirecting leadership skills to those better suited: those boggie-searching, bum-scratching nitwits at the back of the classroom, destined for a bigger pay check and a bigger office, by virtue of having a willy.

Times are changing, but we have to be careful to ensure that our language keeps up.

There’s nothing wrong with being bossy. But there is an awful lot wrong with the word in it’s current state; so let’s agree, to either use it for our sons, or not to use it all.

The latter sounds good to me… but I’m disinclined to boss you into an answer, all things considered, so I’ll leave you to it…

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