June 24, 2017
I was once a little girl… I grew up in the African rain forest, I loved sharks and Caterpillar trucks but I also wanted a swirly skirt and to look like Scarlet in Gone with the Wind. It might have not been perfect for climbing trees and swimming in the ocean as much as I did but I would have worn it every evening for dinner.
I grew up fortunate enough to be able to follow my heart and dreams; Mom and Dad didn’t differentiate between being a boy or a girl. What I wanted to do and learn was there for me to grab. But for the rest of the world being a girl meant I should not dream of certain adventures and possibilities.
I learned to speak five languages and how to work in the tourism business, especially hotels, but one fateful spring I landed in the Bahamas on a vacation to learn how to scuba dive and I never left.
Twenty-three years later I work with sharks, dive and explore new underground and underwater caves, I drive boats, I manage a team of fifteen people and teach as much as I can about my passion and love for the ocean, sharks, and the environment.
They were not twenty-three easy years. Many times I was the only woman on a boat full of male divers and crew. People would applaud when I docked the boat smoothly into the dock, something I noticed they never did with a guy as they took it for granted that a man could do that. They also reminded me that their bags were too heavy for a girl to carry - never noticing that I carried two air tanks per trip on the same vessel they were trying to board.
So I adapted to the environment and after a year my closet went from being colorful to full of blue, black, and gray. Although I was strong and capable, to appear strong I wore men’s T-shirts and knee-length board shorts on the island, and jeans and hoodies when traveling. Sarongs, dresses, and skirts left my closet and I reduced the amount of jewelry I was wearing to a shark thumb ring and a wristwatch.
I moved forward in the industry thanks to my passion but also convinced that the best way to be a woman was to be less girly, because everybody “knew” that a girl could not have possibly been able to carry tanks through the forest and go exploring new caves. Then one day I realized that this “girl” was doing exactly that - and that it was perfectly ok to wear pink and to like dresses and heels, or not.
The turning point in recognizing this made me even more determined to inspire young women to be what they wanted to be.
Princess Awesome struck me with its story because it really brings to light an issue I have noticed for a long time - and not only for children.
I am not a mom, but I still notice items in the stores, most likely because I am looking for things for myself that I can’t find. I was once in a very popular clothing chain in the US and the boys’ and even men’s sections were full of dinosaurs, sharks - many sharks everywhere - and marine life themes, but when I looked in the girls’ and women’s sections I could not find any of those things, but rather glittery mermaids. Don’t get me wrong: I love mermaids, but I wanted to be able to wear shark PJs and flip flops like the ones offered to the men.
It’s time we tell girls that we can all do what we love and that makes us passionate, that girls can - they can drive boats and airplanes, explore oceans and space, they can be engineers and use their clever math brains, and of course that they can work with sharks and any other animal they want to work with.
What they wear is important because it’s the first step towards how they feel about themselves and how they perceive the world - but also how the world perceives them. We need a wider approach to the word “girl.” We need to eliminate the negative connotation to the expression “like a girl”.
I am a girl and I will act and dress like one, but that won’t make me weaker or less smart, that will make me who I am: perfect, strong, beautiful, smart, generous and able to achieve anything I put my mind to.
Cristina Zenato is an active shark behaviorist, passionate underwater cave explorer and a champion for ocean conservation and how to reduce plastic pollution. She is known for her work and interaction with sharks in the wild and her capability to put sharks to sleep. Cristina’s passion can be summarized in her three favorite words: Exploration, we all need to be explorers of our world wherever it’s a remote cave or to find out how something works; Education, we need to learn about what we have explored and also be willing to share that knowledge to many more; Conservation because we need to understand and protect what we love the most, especially our beautiful planet and our oceans.
She believes in the power of education and is the training director at the Underwater Explorers Society where she has developed a non-profit educational program for local students.