girls who look like boys: gender policing in the preteen set.

in the wake of the Santa Barbara shooting and #YesAllWomen, there has been a resurgence of interest in feminism and women’s issues, and as you might expect, i was up on my soapbox loudly and frequently all over the teh facebook. it’s really good that these things are being talked about, of course, but i’m not so naive to think that this interest won’t eventually fade as everyone and Twitterverse moves on to the next outrage of the moment.

but i am going to offer up an example that i experienced today as to why this dialogue has to continue.

i should preface this story with the fact that i live and work in one of the most liberal and diverse areas of Pennsylvania. the Main Line is very white, of course, but it is a place that generally values egalitarianism and generally frowns on any kind of homophobia or racism. that is to say: i run into this sort of problem very infrequently.

one of my favorite and long time students is a tomboy. she’s probably a lesbian, but me speculating on an 11 year old’s sexual orientation is immaterial and not the point. what does matter is that she is one of those kids who is just so completely herself, without artifice, who is passionate about what she’s passionate about and doesn’t care if it’s nerdy or weird or uncool. She isn’t afraid to stand up for what she’s interested in and clearly takes pride in who she is and what she can do. at an age where girls are starting to internalize the more destructive aspects of performative femininity, she is more interested in simply being a person, a friend and an artist. i love her mostly because she is what i wish i was when i was 11. when i was 11, i was a bit tortured, depressed and overly worried about what others thought of me and in the process of losing a sense of self that would take another decade and a half to relocate.

i was briefly out of the room, so i missed part of the conversation in question, but i did hear another student call her “he” and state definitively that she couldn’t possibly be a girl because she had short hair, and girls didn’t have short hair (this was a result of either obliviousness or balls because he made this statement right in front of his teacher, whose head is partially shaved).

i am loathe to overly police conversations between students in the classroom (outside of profanity, bullying, sex and violence, of course), but i verbally slapped him down immediately and made him apologize. he did, half heartedly, but kept sort of insisting that he was right.

and i looked over at her, and i saw her that she was hunched over her drawing, and i knew she was hurting from his words. i wanted to say something to her but didn’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it already was. i think she’s completely amazing and fabulous and SO talented, but it’s weird for your camp teacher who you only see in the summer to say these things.

so yeah. i was surprised how much this shook me up, and how much it made me think.

it made me think about how she and i and many women fall short of the expectations of femininity, and how it’s hard in so many small ways and that it should not be.

how people called me a lesbian (and in the mid-1990s in Central Pennsylvania, this was a hateful slur) because i didn’t date in high school and didn’t wear make up and refused to fall all over all the boys i was supposed to.

about all the money i spend that men don’t to make this female body attractive.

about how i’ve been called ugly on online dating sites because my hair was apparently too short.

about all the men i’ve casually dating who suggested if i lost a little weight, put on some make up and grew out my hair i might really look nice.

about how when i look at myself in the mirror the first thing i think is “person” and “artist”. how when other people look at me the first thing they think is “woman”.

this cuts deep. too deep.


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