In a world where women are often told no, or subtly told they can’t accomplish their goals, CoverGirl’s latest campaign #GirlsCan is a reminder of the power of women. The brand has partnered with documentarian and anchor Soledad O’Brien to tell the stories of four women who are rising above the challenges that they face because of their gender. You may recognize one of those women – Geena Rocero, the model who came out as transgender in a powerful TED Talk after over ten years in the business. Rocero went on to launch Gender Proud, a transgender rights advocacy campaign. We sat down with Rocero and O’Brien to learn more about their vision for how girls can change the world.

YouBeauty: Earlier today you mentioned “gender expectations.” You both are such high-powered women…have you been expected to act a certain way because of your gender?

Soledad: It’s like having cold water splashed on you. I remember a boss that I had in San Francisco on one of my first jobs said to me, “You’re very aggressive aren’t you?”. I had grown up in a family with five brothers and sisters. Aggressive means you’re going to get the last pork chop on the plate. It really dawned on me that I wasn’t supposed to be aggressive. This is unflattering in a woman. For a guy that was fine. We don’t like you because of this. For my dad, being aggressive was great. We were told to play sports, be aggressive in school. I was a very aggressive person.

That’s something that would never be said to a man.

Soledad: It had never occurred to me. It had never been said to me before 1993 when I was in San Francisco. The only other time I can think about is when I was pregnant with my second daughter and people would tell me what stories you couldn’t go cover. They would say, “As a mom, how do you feel about this?” And you’re like, “I’m a human being. People dying around me in the aftermath of a tsunami is bad.” There’s this judgment on what’s appropriate for the gender. You’re a girl, you’re a woman, you’re a mom, this is how you should be acting and feeling. All things that I work hard to knock my 13 and 14-year-old daughters out of. Certainly that’s not how I grew up. I think it’s important to undermine those expectations.

Geena: I posted something on my Instagram, I think from a DJ who posted it: “The most dangerous language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” The truth is, that means we’ve always done it with a man. I was assigned boy at birth, so that was my gender expectation. But the truth was, I was a girl. How do I grapple with that? How do I exist in a society that had no space at that time for that? I’m a model and I talk about policy. When I launched my organization GenderProud, people told me “You have no background in policy. How can you be in front of the decisionmakers.” When it comes to talking about policy and statistics, you need a human person. We’re not just statistics. There’s an expectation that I can’t be at the table when it comes to policy that will affect not just my community but us as a culture and society.

So often we’re told we need to act like men to get ahead – to toughen up, to demand attention. How can women be ourselves in corporate environments?

Geena: Feeling sexy and sensual is part of my power. I don’t put a label or limit on that. Owning and understanding that is what makes you you. I always think of my mom. She was the breadwinner, in a culture that was very machismo. She had a job selling oranges and apples and Kikoman soy sauce. She was so busy, but she always said ‘You just need to get it done.” She did what she had to for our family.

Soledad: There’s some interesting evidence that shows that women are actually penalized far more than men when they ask for a raise. So it’s not just “boy, if those women would just get up some guts and ask,” but they understand that people get mad when you ask for a raise. That’s where the mentoring and advice getting come in. Women understand the impact if they’re wrong. A guy will say “My bad, I was wrong.” A woman will be severely penalized.

We’re here thanks to CoverGirl. How can young girls think of beauty and standards of beauty as empowering?

Geena: My experience of redefining beauty is totally from a global perspective. In the Philippines, to be considered beautiful you have to have lighter skin. When I did transgender beauty pageants, my manager would bleach my skin. When I moved to the US, it was completely different – think of tanning salons. It’s truly unique. I love makeup as much as anybody. It’s my creative expression.

Soledad: I’ve found makeup very empowering. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup at all. My daughters who are now 13 and 14 love makeup. They love experimenting with it. They’re not putting on makeup to feel beautiful, they’re trying to figure out a cat eye, or create fun looks. My daughter is now into contouring. It’s much more creative and artistic. It doesn’t have to be defined within limiting beauty ideals. There are a lot of great opportunities to experiment with who you are and what you want to be. 

There are 846 chess masters in the US. 50 are female. None are black. Here’s the story of Rochelle Ballantyne wants to be the first, who wants to be the first. Find the rest of the documentaries on the #GirlsCan website.

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