Monday, January 6, 2020

Yet Another Post on How We Conflate Conformity and Maturity (in Girls)

Names changed to protect the privacy... you know the drill...

I was really upset when I opened the present that Mrs. Z. got me for my fourteenth birthday.

Inside the neatly-wrapped box was an ornate, silver brush-and-comb set. As I stared incredulously at the present, I wondered how Mrs. Z. would think that this is something that I would like. In fact, she knew that this was something I would vehemently dislike. Mrs. Z. was a friend of my mother's; she and Mom once taught at the same school together. I often called Mrs. Z. on the phone to tell her about ridiculous things that my mother did, such as accidentally driving away from Pizza Hut with a salad sitting on the roof of the car. In addition to telling Mrs. Z. stories like this, I also complained to her about my mother, specifically about Mom trying to make me more feminine in dress and behavior, traditionally-gendered expectations that I felt deeply uncomfortable with. I would often comment that my mother was stuck in the 1950s. Mrs. Z. would act like she agreed with me and would laugh with me about it.

By the time my fourteenth birthday rolled around, I was still complaining to Mrs. Z about my mother. So why in the world would she buy this gift for me? She knew I strongly identified as a tomboy, and she knew that I had a variety of interests: drawing and animation, acting, woodworking, ceramics, books, writing, animals, and computers... And yet she spent $15.00 -- about $25 today, after adjusting for inflation-- on something she knew I wouldn't like.  I wasn't upset merely because she got me something I disliked. This wasn't like the time when I was seven or eight and a babysitter, who barely knew me, saw the dolls that my mother had put in my room, assumed that I loved them, and got me a new doll as a present. Mrs. Z. was someone who explicitly knew what my likes and dislikes were. I was even a little insulted by this present, but more than anything, what I was upset about was what this present seemed to represent: a strong statement that Mrs. Z. felt that my mother was right, and that it was time for me to "outgrow" that "tomboy stage" and become a "young woman". The implication was clearly that being a tomboy was considered a sign of immaturity. 

When I was visiting my parents this past Christmas, Mom said, "Look what I found" and handed me the box with the brush and comb. I muttered, "Oh, God," and we both laughed. Just like a quarter of a century ago, I was incredulous that Mrs. Z. thought I would like this, and I said so to my mother. Mom commented, "But she saw that you were growing up and thought that you might change." Change? Change from what? Change to what? That I might outgrow my interests in drawing and animation, acting, woodworking, ceramics, books, writing, animals, and computers in favor of becoming a "mature young lady" who spends copious amounts of time in front of the mirror? Yes, I know that this is a false dichotomy, but when someone spends money on something that they know you won't like, it speaks volumes about what their expectations are.

Recently, I was telling this story to my friend, Meg, whom I've known for about twenty years. She commented that she would not have liked getting an ornate brush and comb set for her fourteenth birthday, and we both felt that it was common sense that many girls wouldn't either. She agreed with my observations about the standards set for girls, and even commented that girls-- whether they are tomboys or not-- seem to be expected to give up their childhood interests in favor of fashion, makeup, and attracting boys. She also said that there seems to be an expectation that girls put everyone else before themselves, whereas boys don't have that expectation. She also told me that on the first day of seventh grade, a number of friends seemed to have drastically changed over the summer. These friends were not even recognizable from their previous incarnations. Gone-- or at least deprioritized-- were their childhood interests, only to be replaced with constant talk about boys, clothes, and makeup. Meg suddenly had nothing in common with these girls, and their friendships were over. I saw a similar drastic change in one of my (very few) friends in the middle of eighth grade, and our friendship ended. 

Right now I can imagine many parents reading this saying, "Well, that's just peer pressure! Of course I wouldn't want my daughter to lose her childhood interests!" That may be true, but it seems people still expect girls to undergo a drastic change between childhood and adolescence that people don't expect for boys. If Caleb is still playing with Legos when he's thirteen, then so what? But if Emma is still playing with Legos-- or even playing with dolls-- when she's thirteen, then it's seen as immature. Additionally, there seems to be an expected rite-of-passage passed from mothers to daughters that emphasizes learning to look pretty. Yes, there are some fathers-- often homophobic fathers-- who relentlessly pressure their sons into sports even if the boy hates sports. But aside from them, there doesn't seem to be an equivalent between fathers and sons. In fact, sports are at least something a kid can be active in, that's good for their body and their brain, something that requires talent. It's not something they're expected to do to please society at large. 

The equivalent to getting me a brush-and-comb set for my fourteenth birthday might be getting a boy a set of weights so that he can work on building muscle to impress the girls. But even that, like sports, has a physiological benefit for the boy and involves developing a skillset. And I think the reason that there really isn't this equivalent in boys is because all of my aforementioned, gender-neutral interests would be considered "masculine enough" for all but the most homophobic fathers. Unless blatantly stereotypically feminine-- such as ballet-- it seems that interests, by default, are a boy thing. For girls, it has to be something explicitly stereotypically feminine to be considered a mark of a "mature young lady", as if feminine gender expression and interests make a girl more mature, just because it involves conformity. 

But the problem is, as I've said, that a lot of the things that girls are expected to do-- such as spending a lot of time on their hair and putting on makeup-- involve pleasing others. In fact, if Mrs. Z. had even gotten me a pair of ballet shoes instead of a brush and comb set, I would've felt differently. I would've been disappointed and perplexed, as I wasn't interested in ballet-- or any kind of dancing-- but I don't think I would've been insulted. Ballet at least is an active activity, a hobby, an interest, and something that involves talent. But when Mrs. Z. got me the brush-and-comb set, I was more than just insulted: I was utterly horrified. In short, this present was a big "fuck you" to me, and it spoke volumes about what people expected of me-- even people who I thought understood and supported me. If I didn't eventually conform to these expectations, then what would it mean? What would become of me?

It's 2020, and a different world than it was in 1994. I think the expectations of girls that I mentioned in this post are not nearly as narrow as they were twenty-five years ago. I think there has been a lot of positive and rapid change in that regard in the 21st century, particularly in the past ten years or so, but there is still definitely some work to do on this front. 

Notice that I didn't mention Asperger's Syndrome even once in this post. But I think that the connection to it is clear. 

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