Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Where it all starts - identifying as female

When my sister was born, my brother (then 5) and I (3) were bought presents from our parents to mark the occasion. My brother got an Action Man and I got a red washing-up bowl with multi-coloured clothes pegs. Not kidding. My parents have since apologised for this atrocity. But I knew then I was different from my brother.

We went camping in Italy in the same year. My brother and his friend (10) dressed me up as Wonder Woman (I didn't mind - I liked Wonder Woman) and put apples on my chest and tin foil around my wrists before showing me off to mum and dad. Everyone thought it was wildly funny (something to do with the apples) and I remember feeling for the first time what felt like humiliation. My brother and his friend didn't dress each other up as anything for our parents to laught at.

At primary school, it was easy to identify the boys from the girls despite our bodies being similar shapes. Girls invariably had long hair and boys short. Girls had to wear dresses or skirts and boys trousers. In the playground, boys called each other "a girl" as an insult. I expect this must have come from a few of their fathers warning against "throwing like a girl" etc. Girls knew who they were and knew they were seen as inferior.

A tomboy at my primary school was the envy of all the other girls because the boys liked her. We believed the boys were somehow better than us and so we needed their approval, and she got it. She played football with them and they all raved about how great she was. This changed in the final year of primary school when the boys liked the girls with budding breasts - but it wasn't quite the same sort of "like". It was more a bra-pinging, teasing sort. The tomboy fell out of favour because as the boys' sexual interest in girls grew, she was found wanting. They dumped her basically, because she wasn't even a real boy and they didn't fancy her either. In their eyes she became nothing.

I've watched children playing in the park with their fathers and the sons are taught to throw completely differently to the daughters. I've seen a father demonstrate an overarm throw to his son, and an underarm throw to his daughter. She knew she was different from her brother.

As an adult, wanting to treat children of different genders the same, I find myself falling into traps all the time. A few months ago, I was playing chess in the garden of my local pub and a girl of about 8 years old was watching intently. She was wearing a very pretty dress. I nearly said, "what a pretty dress" and stopped myself. If she had been a boy, no matter what he was wearing (unless it was a spiderman costume or something) I would have said, "do you play chess?", which was what I ended up saying to the girl. If I had commented on her dress instead of her obvious interest in the game, I would be reinforcing her belief that her appearance matters more than what's in her head. (I am making an assumption by using the word "reinforcing", but I remember being 8, and I remember my friends being 8, and we always talked about being "pretty". It was important.)

I really wonder what the solution is for parents. At a recent wedding there were a number of toddlers; the girls sitting around in impractical frilly dresses and uncomfortable-looking shoes, the boys running around in trousers and trainers. The parents could have put all their children in comfortable clothes, but I would put money on some of the girls wanting to look frilly... like a princess. So, stop reading them fairy-tales? Don't let them watch adverts on TV? Never buy any child of either sex any type of doll at all? Let your son wear a dress if he wants to?

I am childless, but a friend of mine recently said about her 1-yr-old, "he's a real boy."
Whatever did she mean?


Blogger Bea said...

I catch myself thinking and saying the wrong things, as if by automation. It's difficult for any of us to get it right, but we can try hard as hell and that will make a difference - even if it's not perfect.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Askinstoo said...

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11:24 AM  

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