Sugar and spice

Posted by rosanne on Oct 15, 2009 in Challenges, Educational |

Every single day, someone mistakes my daughter for a boy. Why? In part, because “boy” is the default category. In part, because she isn’t dressed in pink, doesn’t have pierced ears and is not sporting one of those lacy bands around her forehead (ugh). It happened again this week, at the pool, because she was wearing a lime green swimsuit that (shock, horror) only covered her bottom. All the other girls were in pink, either one-pieces or two-piece bikinis (for 8-month-old babies!!). It’s just part of a bigger story about gender, stereotypes, Caster Semenya and why she matters, girls’ toys and boys’ toys, and why it’s a big, big mess waiting to happen.

For those who are going to weigh in about how my daughter will rebel and that girls just like pink or that just wait, she’ll want it when she dresses herself… a) hmmm, funny, I never did and b) I’m not banning the colour from the house, just refusing this bizarre world in which pink is the only colour girls can wear. A few months ago, my little girl had grown into some clothing we’d been given and I reluctantly dressed her in it. Her first pink stuff. Stripey hot pink and orange pants (they look better than that sounds) and a hot pink jacket from someone else. Surprisingly, it looked good. And then I took her out into a world where every other little girl was wearing pink and remembered why I have a problem with it. Have you been into a mainstream clothing shop for babies recently?

It’s about limiting her options. Already. It’s about telling her she can’t have the rainbow. I want to raise a girl who believes she can do and be anything, just like the posters said on the trains when I was growing up. I fear that I’m living in a strange retro world where feminism didn’t happen, despite the fact that I’m working and my partner is not the only man at playgroup, so clearly it did. However, as the slogan goes, I’ll be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy and we ain’t there yet.

I’m not quite as intense as the Swedish couple who are concealing their child’s gender from anyone who isn’t changing the nappies. I do however understand where they’re coming from. I gave my child a gender-neutral name, partly because I had heard about a study where people were less likely to hire a person based solely on whether their name sounded male or female. I wanted my first interaction with my baby to be non-gendered (it didn’t turn out that way because of an anaesthetist who spilled the beans, but the intention was there!). If this sounds like overkill, then you might be someone who has never been uncomfortable with your gender.

I remember reading in Sandy Stone‘s book about her gender transition that some psychiatrist insisted she wasn’t serious about transitioning when she turned up to a session wearing pants. She had to point out the window at the vast majority of cisgendered women out there dressed exactly as she was. And yet today, we have exactly the same double standards about what “femininity” is. When Caster Semenya won a race by too great a margin for a “woman”, she was subjected to a raft of sex tests (and let’s not get confused: it was her sex and not her gender that was in question; her gender identity was clearly female or she wouldn’t have been entering a women’s race). That’s all odd and challenging but when it got offensive was when YOU magazine gave her a makeover: apparently, you’re “really” a woman when you wear make-up and a dress.

Some will say that the Semenya case demonstrates clearly that there are differences between “men” and “women”, that even the small amount of extra testosterone from internal testes gave Semenya an advantage. Well, sure. No one is denying that certain biological characteristics lead to certain practical outcomes on average but these tiny differences, in relative strength, speed, stamina, what-have-you are blown out of proportion through a lifetime of socialisation.

Recent studies have shown that when parents thought they were dealing with girls, they were more likely to describe the child as happy and socially engaged and more likely to underestimate the child’s physical abilities — even when the child was actually a boy they’d been told was a girl. As Sharon Begley explains, in her review of Lise Eliot’s book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It, “Dozens of such disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens.”

I can only imagine that such perceptions lead to a long-term distortion of minor differences, as girls are interacted with as if they are more social, thus becoming more social, and as their physical activity is limited for fear they will hurt themselves and they slowly internalise the message that they are not as competent. When we measure “innate” sex differences in adults, it is the result of this long-term conditioning we are measuring. Begley again: “How we perceive children — sociable or remote, physically bold or reticent—shapes how we treat them and therefore what experiences we give them. Since life leaves footprints on the very structure and function of the brain, these various experiences produce sex differences in adult behavior and brains.” (It’s worth reading the whole article; Begley succinctly summarises Eliot’s findings. There’s also an interview over at Salon with Eliot which isn’t as good as it could have been.)

The other book doing the rounds at the moment is Nurtureshock by sociologists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I’ll leave the bulk of my thoughts on this book for another post but one interesting idea from it relates to how we over-reward our children for underachievement and how that actually undermines self-esteem. I question the phrases we use: how often in a day do you say “good girl” or “good boy” when what you really mean is “brave girl” or “clever boy”? And how often are we, through this, disguising the different things we praise boys and girls for? One alternative approach is Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. Another book I haven’t actually had time to read, I understand the concept to be that you eschew all criticism and praise and instead just reflect back to the child what they did: “hey, you rolled over by yourself — now you can reach your toy. Hey, you knocked over the milk — now, we’ll have to clean it up.”

While we had trouble doing this consistently, we have done our best to switch to describing our daughter’s actions and affects. It’s amazing how often I now think hard to work out why I think something is praiseworthy — was she adventurous? canny? strong? Would I think those things were praiseworthy in a boy or would I expect them?

I care about this because I want my daughter to grow up confident and capable. I want her to be free from the debilitating disease of self-doubt that seems to afflict almost every woman I know, no matter how competent or high-powered. I worry that she will be one of the few girls in her generation to have those attributes and once again, I worry that my efforts to help her be a strong individual will mark her out as different in a society that colour-codes every toy, every item of clothing and even the pages of the catalogs, just in case we were to mistake a practical toy that encouraged spatial play as suitable for our girl, when obviously, she should be playing with the pink cleaning cart clearly marked “girls only” on the packaging.

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Oct 15, 2009 at 4:15 am

Hurrah say I.

Oct 15, 2009 at 5:35 am

I don’t dress my boys in pink. There’s a lot of gender-neutral-for-girls fashion which I studiously avoid. And I think that these days, I even tend to build gender-hints into my outfit choices for them.

I’m not sure what I think about gender and babies. I’m clearly a feminist when looking at gender in society. But when I pick up my own precious baby boy, and want to do the best thing for him, the individual, there aren’t a lot of clear rules.

Oct 15, 2009 at 3:11 pm

But Paula, society is made up of individuals! I can’t help but think that lack of resistance is simply reinforcement. Mothers are often complicit in the continuation of patriarchy and gender difference whether it’s as mild as your discomfort with dressing your boys in pink or as severe as mothers performing genital mutilation on their daughters. In both cases, I see it as a perception that the individual benefits more from the social acceptance of conforming than from the resistance to those societal expectations. To me, the decision is clear. I understand that for others, that’s murky water.

In the case of boys in our society, I think we limit them in different ways — perhaps I need to write a different post on it, or perhaps you do! As feminists we have started to tell girls they can do anything (although as I say, I think that’s rolling back) but as girls expand to embrace strength and mechanical aptitude, we still deny boys nurturing and emotional skills. I know you are trying to encourage your boys to handle conflict through discussion and diplomacy, not violence. Perhaps you think this issue of clothing colours is trivial by comparison and perhaps you’re right. On the other hand, progressive men in our society are “allowed” to wear pink shirts and pink ties, but somehow a touch of pink on a baby boy undermines his entire sense of masculinity? I think unless we deliberately resist these arbitrary gender rules and codes, we confirm the gender dichotomy we are trying to fight.

Danny Yee
Oct 15, 2009 at 5:45 am

This is a really excellent piece, which deserves a wide audience!

I don’t know how I’m going to approach these issues if I end up becoming a father.

Oct 15, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Thanks, Danny! Feel free to send the link around!

Oct 15, 2009 at 8:59 am

So well said. I have 7.5 months old twins, boy and girl. The differences in what is available to them and how they are treated by others based on their sex are already full force. My work is cut out and I’m grateful to know you are out there cheering for their well–rounded success, as well as your daughter’s.
Be well!

Oct 15, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Hmmm, it disturbs me that a baby boy is seen to have a sense of masculinity – but dressing boys in pink seems to disturb the sense of masculinity of the adults in the room. (For the record, it was my nephew T’s favourite colour when he was three, and he wore it all the time.)

My nephew A’s daycare worker flipped out after I painted his toenails silver.

Oct 15, 2009 at 4:39 pm

A little info from an ex-high performance athlete. The sex test is a standard test that you undergo as part of high performance female athletics/sport, especially one in which power is a major factor (it is pretty common in my chosen field, shot put, or in any power lifting circles or sprint athletics. I have a couple of power lifting friends who have had it done). You agree to submit to all and any tests when you start competing, and this one generally not administered unless there are other indicators suggesting there could be issues (ie abnormally high testosterone levels, significant win margins or smashing world records by a huge amount qualify as indicators). Caster had previously tested with high testosterone levels, and then freaking SMASHED everyone. She was a text book case for being sex tested. What SHOULD have happened is that the previous high testosterone tests should have been flagged and she should have been tested before she hit the limelight. So their drug testing body screwed up there.

If a guy had presented the same way (high testosterone levels then winning by a large margin), he would have been tested for HGH, all kinds of maskers, blood doping and other things that could have altered his performance (the tour de france is a good example of that kind of thing). They dont get a sex test because a female is physically not as strong as a male (fact) and it would not enhance a male performance to be XYY (or whatever the male displaying version is).

She didn’t win the race by a large amount for a “woman” she BROKE THE WORLD RECORD by an ALARMINGLY large amount for ANYONE, regardless of male or female. That kind of margin is highly suspicious and is treated that way. So, I guess I am a bit upset by your use of terminology there.

But honestly, I don’t think that was where you were going with this piece, so I am wondering why you brought it up other than the fact it is a current (ish) topic that kinda sorta fits in with what you were actually trying to say (which I agree with wholeheartedly).

Crap fire alarm! posting now 😛

Oct 15, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Gail: fair call on most of that. I brought it up not because of the sex tests (which I understand, if you’re going to have gender-based competitions in the first place) but, as I said, because of how YOU magazine did a “makeover” of her as if putting her in a dress and make-up solved the problem… because a “man” would never consent to be dressed up like that? Because if she looked “pretty” she would automatically be a “real” woman? It was the magazine makeover that offended me, not the sex tests in the athletic world (although how they handled the privacy issues were pretty appalling). And I thought the make-over was pretty in-line with everything else I was saying about gender and clothing.

Oct 15, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Great article, Rosanne. I get so frustrated by the way I see language continually used to reinforce gender stereotypes.

Mitzi G Burger
Oct 15, 2009 at 6:41 pm

What a great blog post, I have sent it to my sister and mini-niece for discussion. There are many shopping alternatives to the retail giants which stock variously coloured clothes for babies and toddlers with far less gender-specific restrictiveness. Supporting these little shops, where clothes are hand-made to last longer and look great in plentiful hues from the full spectrum, is one way of diverting consumer inerest away from the socialising power of retail chains and their limited clothing lines.

Oct 15, 2009 at 6:58 pm

I noticed my difficulty in putting my eldest son in pink and forced myself to buy just one item of pink – a skivvy or a t-shirt.

Mostly he wore gender neutral colours, ie not blue, but also regularly wore the pink item, particularly when there was nothing else clean :). I got used to it and then started dressing him in more second hand clothing where I was more worried about finding natural fibres in decent condition than about the colour choice.

My second son, third child, wore his sisters cast offs and I was certainly more concerned with finding something clean and presentable than what colour!

Recently Rose was described as a boy at the playground (as in “don’t play with that boy”). She was wearing a pink t-shirt and jeans. We think it was her behaviour that prejudiced the observer.

Oct 15, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Also, I’ve always ignored other people’s gender gaffs.

My response to “what a handsome boy” is “Yes, she is.”

If you don’t care about gender stereotypes, it doesn’t matter if people label your child “wrongly”, in fact it’s almost a good thing – it’s recognition that you’re achieving your goal.

Oct 15, 2009 at 10:06 pm

what a beautiful blog, it’s amazing how many people were actually frustrated that i didn’t find out the sex of my baby while i was pregnant, becuase with out knowing if the life inside my womb was male or female they had no idea what gifts to buy….

Oct 16, 2009 at 1:34 am

much of what you’ve said echoes my own experience with gender, and with people’s expectations about sex. It’s reassuring to hear it coming from you, and really interesting to hear how it plays differently with a newborn. best luck and love to you.

Oct 16, 2009 at 1:56 am

I remember a two year old whose reply to a neighbour’s comment about her twin sisters (“What lovely boys”) was: ‘They’re not boys. You don’t dress boys in red spotted dresses, do you?’

I also remember an older girl who wanted both a train set and a kitchen set as presents and 3 girls whose mum deliberately did not buy them dolls, but they eventually bought their own Barbies.

I admire your attempt to use alternatives to “good girl” – a great idea. Recently I was at a group art session for women where the female presenter began by saying she was as nervous as we were. Firstly, I was offended by her assumption that all of us were nervous about doing art work and secondly I was offended by her putting herself down. When I commented to her that too many women put themselves down when a male presenter would not, her comment was: “In my field, they do” (Apparent end of discussion)

Oct 17, 2009 at 8:17 pm

[…continuing from above]

Yes, society *is* made up of individuals, and symbols *are* important. I might have given the wrong impression above – still very tired, bare with me. What I mean to say is that I’m not so quick to judge others, as I’m still working through my own feelings about pink and blue.

The choices for girls and boys, and what they mean, are (as usual) quite different. Dressing a boy in pink is NOT the same thing as dressing a girl in blue. “Tom-boy” (girl) has positive connotations while “sissy” or “pansy” (boy) are purely negative.

The fashion industry is a player here too. They really, really don’t want true gender-neutral, because it adds to the re-usability of clothing, which threatens their profits. Mothers’ desire to give daughters a less gendered approach is met by a proliferation of gender-neutral-for-girls. There’s plenty of denim and non-pink to be had, with just a small ruffle, or a cleverly cut pants leg to add a hint of adult-femenine shape to your toddler-girl’s hips and legs. (Toddler-girls who don’t wear pants with this styling stand out in kinder because of it.)

Yes, I will agree that some mothers are complicit in the gendering of our littlest babies, beyond just trying to survive within the poor offerings of the fashion industry. These mothers see the gender-neutral-for-girls, and feel the need to DIFFERENTIATE their boys by purchasing ultra-boy. Ultra-boy is black, navy, murky, boring crap. There is as much ultra-boy as there is gender-neutral-for-girls out there.

My own choices are for bright colours. But it often seems like the only way to get bright clothes without girl-cues (pink or styling) is to get Bob the Builder stuff! In saying “I don’t dress my boys in pink” or that I avoid “gender-neutral-for-girls” I’m talking about the fact that I avoid the FAKE gender neutral clothing, which is designed to placate feminists while subtly gendering our baby girls. My boys wear true gender-neutral (to the extent I can get it). When I pass on my boys’ clothing as hand-me-downs, it will be just as bright and appealing to a baby girl as to a baby boy. But I’m not a flag-waver on this issue. I’m definitely still struggling with it.

Oct 20, 2009 at 9:13 am

Excellent article, Rosanne; bookmarked and linked on Facebook.

Yes, the Caster Semenya makeover struck me as a spectacularly revealing example of missing the point.

The image of the moment of cognitive dissonance that you and your daughter provide at the local pool brings a smile to my face. Little ripples of thought opening up the frozen sea of assumptions.

Every child should be so lucky as to be blessed with a Modern Mama (and Papa, where applicable).

Oct 20, 2009 at 9:40 am

And Oh Lordy, the pink cleaning trolley~ You too can fantasize about minimum wage shift work in the service industry!



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