One of the coolest birthday gifts I ever received as a child was a Build-a-Bear stuffed animal I got from my brother right when they first came out. The bear was dressed as a pilot, but it came with several other outfits that had the power to instantly transform it into a teacher, a doctor, a scientist -- or whatever else my little 9-year-old heart desired. That stuffed animal (affectionately called Amelia Bearhart) could be anything at all, which was a great lesson for a young girl who previously played almost exclusively with dolls and thought a career path was just the steps you needed to take to get to motherhood.
I was probably too young to realize it at the time, but that bear taught me everything I needed to know about feminism. And while there might not be a workshop where you can go to build a young female feminist -- no plush heart you can make a wish on that she never has to experience the often harsh and universal struggles faced by women -- what if it was possible to build one?
It would be similar to the Build-a-Bear process, where the first step is choosing the shell of the animal -- deciding whether you want a bear or a dog or any of the other members of the plush animal kingdom. But the first step in building your female feminist would be creating a strong exterior, something that can withstand self-consciousness, bullying, gender assumptions. Then, you would have to show that exterior it could be anything it wanted, from pilot to president. You'd give it a variety of outfit choices and let it select what to wear with an understanding that those outfits are just that -- outfits -- not a permission slip to treat it a certain way. You would tell your new build-a-feminist that it is strong, smart and successful and that these are not things to be ashamed of. You would teach it not to be afraid of the words female, woman, feminist.
Then -- and this is a critical step -- once your feminist was almost complete, you would get too old for it and put it back in the box. You'd blame it for collecting dust even though you put it there. You would take away its favorite outfits, its ability to make decisions for itself. You'd make it feel defeated and incapable of truly being anything it wants.
Why? Because that's what it's like to go from being a young, proud feminist who didn't even know she was one to a grown woman who timidly calls herself a feminist today. That is what it's like when in 2014, a female president still seems like a reality completely out of reach. That is what it's like when a Supreme Court overpowered by men makes decisions that place our progress in reverse, disregarding the voices of outnumbered female justices.
That's what it's like, but it doesn't have to be. The final step in building your own feminist is taking it back out of the box and dusting it off. Dress it in a presidential pant suit or leggings and a crop top -- it doesn't matter, just let it decide. Remind it that it is strong, smart and successful and that these are not things to be ashamed of. Teach it again to be proud of the words female, woman, feminist. And then, you did it -- you built your very own Simone de Bearvoir.