We are disabling our girls

I found the last few months of each of my pregnancies frustrating because I couldn’t pick up a box of groceries on my own, or carry my three year old very far, or even pull on my own shoes naturally.

Pregnancy has been the closest I’ve come to being disabled, and it was obviously temporary and ended in a pretty terrific way. But I was thinking about disability, and self inflicted disability this morning as I walked with Callie and her friend to the store.

The two were a magnificent sight – they had each tied ratty-haired dolls on to their fronts with scarves to mimic baby carriers. Callie was also wearing a pink tiered dress that used to belong to her older brother.

Callie tried to put on her shoes, but couldn’t see over the tulle. She tried to balance on the kerb, and couldn’t see over the tiers to put one foot in front of the other –  temporarily disabled by the dress.

We live in rapidly changing times for women. Thanks to Google’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google headquarters has priority parking for pregnant employees [but what about the rest of the world?]. I have friends who tell me that Disney has come a long way since my brief forays into its media in the early 90’s. I’m sure it has, and yet –

Callie’s friend brought over a favorite toy to play with today, a pony called Princess Cadence. Princess Cadence has a recording that says “today is my wedding day,” and “my dress is SO pretty.”

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I’m looking at this bloody pony [and no, it is not wearing a dress, so it’s a lying pony too] now and wondering how I’m going to stop Callie from consuming too much of this girly crap.

Over lunch, I told Haakon about the pony.

“It could say anything, any neutral statement, like ‘I can fly so fast,” I said.

“Yeah, or it could say ‘I have wings but no cloaca,” he answered.

The pony also giggles. This reminds me that a few weeks ago, Atticus’ best friend, a six year old girl, was at our house for a sleepover. In the morning, over pancakes and a conversation about water vapor, she turned to him and said to him in an unnaturally high voice “you’re so smart, I will NEVER be as smart as you!”

The bombshell was followed by a high giggle which ended in a question.

Kids are always testing out new ways of being. So I tried not to over react [but I probably did] and explained to her that there are different kinds of smart and to never let anyone tell her she wasn’t smart. 

I told my friend about what her daughter had said, and she commented that no one at the school had ever told her that her daughter was smart.

“What do they say?” I asked.

Staff apparently tell my friend that her daughter is cute, and distracted.

It’s not that I believe that schools are ultimately responsible for how a child sees themselves, but they are a place for equalizing. In our small, rural community, not every kid goes home to food in the fridge, but at school, all kids qualify for free lunch.

Atticus and his friend have an advantage when it comes to gender equalizing – a strong and positive female principal, and a kindergarten teacher who, in her mid twenties, has already partially lost nine toes to frostbite after a grueling ascent in Nepal.

And yet – when my husband and I go in on alternating Wednesday to help with math groups in the kinder classroom, I can’t help but notice that the girls are distracted.

They are distracted by silky blue sashes, scratchy lace shoulders and ribbons in braids.

Are we really here already, in kindergarten?

At 14, I picked up a copy of Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ and read it in one sitting. 

A recent re reading showed Atty’s friend in new light – shivering in leggings, pretty in red velvet, stopping to cry and dump snow out of her boots while Atticus, snug in snow pants, clambered happily over snow banks on the way to school. 

“The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance,” Wolf writes.

After reading Wolf’s book the first time as a teenager, I went right back to rubbing weird smelling fake tan on my legs and being concerned about looking hot at school. I occasionally took detentions instead of wearing our school uniform, and convinced my parents to write me notes excusing me from wearing it.

But I was a teenager.

My parents had already gifted me a childhood with very little emphasis on looks. Until I went to school I wore track pants and dirty ugh boots and skirts with no undies so I could easily pee outside.

I had a heart to heart with my friend in which she argued that dictating her daughters clothing choices would stifle her creativity, and I argued there was a time and place for creative dressing and it was not school or physical activity.

Or – dress as creatively as you like, as long as it’s weather appropriate and won’t stop you from joining in on an activity. So long as you can still embody the ditty the kids sing on the way home from school: “a verb is a word, it’s an action word!”

Soon after our discussion,  I watched both kids one afternoon after school. It was cold out, because we live in Montana and the school year fits neatly into the nine months of  cold. 

Atty suggested climbing a big tree in the neighborhood they had never climbed before.

His friend, wearing stretchy jeans, a sweater and a warm hat, agreed and as I glimpsed them out the window, I saw her – a glorious pink and blue monkey, climbing higher and higher and leaving Atticus far behind.

So next time she asks I will tell Callie she can not wear fluffy dresses to the store. She might cry, and I will explain that I want her to be able to move her body naturally and climb on stuff if she wants to.

There can be times in a woman’s life when femininity presents some form of disability, but there is no reason for that to happen during childhood.

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1 Comment

  1. Gender is another interesting conversation in our liberal/conservative split home. And gender is just one of the many things that already fills my mind as a mom—is it ok to tell Luke he’s such a precious “boy”? Can I balance that by telling him he’s (the traditionally female word) beautiful? Will Mark be ok if Luke wants to wear a dress or have a doll toy? (Yep, probably.) But even beyond Luke’s gender identity and whatever Mark and I end up helping him cultivate (whether we mean to or not) is Luke’s understanding of gender within the world—respect, equality, love, and how to kindly and with an open mind navigate all of that with an compassionate heart. He’s five months so perhaps I’m overthinking this too much already. But it’s gender and men and women and intelligence and femininity are all things that have fascinated me for years, especially because I think (fear?) I tend to be more traditional (conventional) than I’d like to admit.

    Like

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