Thursday, August 20, 2015

"What's up with people today, Mama?"

The other day my younger daughter happily and carefully picked out an outfit and accessories. She even snuck on a little make-up. I let the make-up slide even though normally it is only allowed for dress-up at home because it was just a bit of peach eye shadow and some lip gloss. She was feeling proud, fierce, beautiful. Her older sister barely brushed her hair and threw on soccer shorts, a Puma tee, and some running shoes. The younger sister was definitely winning the effort award for the day. Then we went out.

The exact outfit she wore: white shirt, pink blazer, silver necklace and broach, metallic silver fedora with pink bow, skinny jeans, black patent leather booties with metallic silver laces. She was so proud of this combo!

She walked into the doctor's office with confidence and was discouraged almost instantly. The nurse came out and looked at my two kids saying, "A girl and a boy? Yeah, boy. Right?" I corrected her calmly saying, "No, I have two daughters."  "Oh, I couldn't tell because of the hat."

Three more people, including the doctor, called her a boy before we left that office prompting her to sigh, roll her eyes, and whisper to me, "what's up with people today, Mama?" I don't know. I was baffled and tired of politely saying, "she's a girl," repeatedly. I had watched my little girl start the day with glee and confidence then watch it get chipped away. I saw her shrink back inside herself a little more with every comment until even the compliments she got at the end of her time at the doctor's, as we were riding the elevator down to the lobby and multiple people raved about her hat and her outfit in general, didn't bring a smile. So what can I do? What can she do? We joked about people now being open minded enough to assume boys wear pink blazers with silver necklaces and then got on with our day.

My daughter has had short hair since preschool, so she has had to deal with people mistaking her for a boy for the last four years (half of her life at this point). In the past, at her old school in a different state, the children who were confused about her gender acted on it with violence - shoving her, jabbing her with a pencil, knocking her to the ground. At her new school, and in Maryland in general, people tend to simply ask her, "are you a girl or a boy?" then they move on with their lives. She complains a bit about it being annoying to constantly tell people she is a girl (she gets called a boy or has someone ask her what she is almost daily), but she says she prefers them asking to making assumptions. Most importantly, she feels safe now going to school. A couple (literally just two) kids give her a hard time, but that is manageable and the good far out number the cranky. She works hard to shift her focus away from the negative people and onto the positive ones. She works hard to shake off the "what are you?" comments and focus on the "I like your style" comments instead. She works hard at staying true to herself and drawing on her inner strength every single day as she goes out into a world full of people who seem unable to look past the length of her hair. As her mom, I work hard to not go into mama-bear mode and yell at people or completely cocoon my baby to protect her from weird stares and random strangers in restrooms glaring at her saying, "why is that boy using the girls' room? Ugh!" She works hard and it gets understandably tiring and draining.

I am not telling her story because I want people to feel sorry for her or view her as a victim. She is a strong, tough cookie. She doesn't view herself as a victim. Plus, honestly, life is so much better for her now. The day at the doctor's office was annoying, but she no longer worries about her physical safety every day. She was able to leave her bullies behind when she moved out of Illinois, and she tries now to keep them in the past. When people talk about people who are being bullied or tell stories of others who were attacked on a regular basis for not conforming, for not being a Stepford wife, they aren't asking for pity.
Here, girls. Be like this and everyone will be nice to you. *eyeroll*
The request is that, as civilized people living on a planet full of people from many different cultures, religions, traditions, etc., we treat each other politely. This is not a matter of political correctness gone to the extreme. It is about common decency. It is about being honest about how people treat each other. Bullying in schools now is NOT the same as it was in the 1950s or even the 1980s. Adults struggle with shaking off negativity yet expect children to "shake it off" constantly - 24/7 (the internet makes sure no one can escape their tormentor even after they retreat home to their bedrooms). People put the guilt on the targets of the bullies. I have been told over and over and over again, "well if she just acted/looked more normal, they wouldn't pick on her. What do you expect?" Seriously? I should tell my daughters to ignore their personal tastes and just be clones of the people harassing them? And when the tastes of the harassers change, my daughters must change, too? Does that sound healthy? "If someone bullied my kid, I'd tell my kid to just punch them. That's how you stop a bully!" Seriously? So my kid will then get expelled from school? Violence is the first and only answer? Why don't we try the, "hey, everyone, let's stop being jerks to each other." I think that would be better. "Forcing me to be so PC all the time is like bullying. I'm sick of being told to not hurt other people's feelings." Seriously? Um, no. Someone asking to not be beaten up or have people tell them they are worthless on a daily basis is not bullying. Someone asking to be treated like a fellow human being with feelings and value is fair. This is not about political correctness; it is about loving our neighbors as ourselves . . .  or at least not trying to make them think their lives are worth less than ours.

My point in writing this is to ask people to think about two things.

  • First, let's think about how we are defining genders and how we pass those gender expectations on to our kids. The kids who were harassing my daughter had picked up on strict gender norms from their parents, the adults they interacted with, and the subtle messages they picked up from the world around them (like gender defining signs in toy stores). Are we accepting gender as a minor defining feature of ourselves and others or is it a limiting factor? Are we viewing gender as a spectrum or polar opposites with no flexibility? And what the heck does hair length have to do with any of it anyway? 
  • Secondly, let's think about how we talk about other people, to their faces or behind their backs. Are we talking about physically hurting people just because they are different? Are we saying people who disagree with us are losers or idiots or stupid? And are we supporting or cheering for people who are mean, insulting, or use violence as a first option? Kids pick up on that and bring those attitudes to school. Between the 1980s and now, the level of snarkiness in schools spiked and the extremes people are now willing to go to in order to prove another person is less than them is astounding. Blaming the targets, calling them weak, is wrong. We need to nip our snark in the bud and raise children who choose kindness over insults. Let's raise children who know that their value does not depend on others being below them. Let's raise children who know that diversity strengthens a society.
 Let's raise children who can ask, "what's your gender?" then follow it up with, "wanna play?" That's my point.

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