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.