Here I am speaking out against strict gender roles for children at our International Day of the Girl assembly in early October (photo credit: Steve Neiman).
Have you ever asked a young girl if she likes a boy in her class at school? Or teased her about wearing a boy’s shirt?’
Without thinking about it, have you ever just assumed something about her because you expect a girl to be a certain way? Have you told a girl to close her legs? Or not to be a slut? Have you told her she is “fat”?
These kinds of messages and questions teach girls that they need to conform to certain gender roles and can be destructive to her development.
Now, have you ever told a little boy to toughen up? Or told him that he “throws like a girl,” as if it is negative to “throw like a girl”? Have you ever told him to “stop being a pussy”? Have you thought a man was lame if they didn’t “get girls”? Would you think, “Oh, that’s odd,” if a boy loved princesses or had a pink room? If you have, you are teaching boys that to be a man is not to be a girl or a woman, and these messages are sexist at best and misogynist and violent at worst.
Please don’t be ashamed. It is natural, everyone has done it. These messages are integrated into our society in such a way that gender roles must be followed in a specific way. However, these messages immediately force children to perform their gender in confining ways.
To change these ways of thinking, we must raise new generations of children in a different way. The way to develop a new thinking pattern is to start when children are young. In a TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Adichie explains that we “define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity becomes this hard small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability.”
She goes on the explain that this leaves men with weak egos and turns them “hard” or stern and aggressive. Men also have to prove their masculinity by doing things such as paying for dates and not showing their emotions. She goes on to explain how girls and women then feel like they should shrink themselves down and pretend like they aren’t that successful or smart to prevent the man from feeling emasculated. The key to stop this, she explains, is that we should focus on cultivating children’s interests rather than focusing on teaching them gender roles.
But how do we do this is the question.“Girls’ empowerment initiatives must keep their eyes, first and foremost, on girls,” explains Chernor Bah, who is an advocate and activist for global education. If you educate girls, boys will then in turn see more educated girls and women. Chernor believes it will be easier for boys to eradicate their old views on women staying at home and as sexual objects.
I have been very fortunate in the way I was raised. I was raised with a mom who talked a great deal about breaking barriers for women. This was unlike bell hooks’s mother who said on panel at the New School in early October titled “This Ain’t No Pussy Shit,” that her mother didn’t want her to “go against the grain.”
In contrast, my mother wanted me to challenge norms and was from an older generation of women that worked hard to make a new place in the world for women. So when she became a stay-at-home mother and had three girls to raise, she tried to teach us things that weren’t typically girlie. We played electrical engineering games building circuit boards. We used tools. She thought it was especially important to have me play sports like soccer to show me that my body can be enjoyed for its power and agility, and not valued for being looked at and judged.
However, I still grew up in a world that is sexist which made it almost impossible to be confident about my body image. My sisters and I were like most children, instinctively wanting to explore our bodies. And like all children, we did so by playing doctor and nurse. But one day, instead of playing doctor, I am embarrassed to admit that we played plastic surgeon instead. My mother saw this. Instead of removing appendices and fixing broken legs, we were doing boob and nose jobs and liposuction. This illustrates the powerful and detrimental effects that society and the media can have on children, even at a young age.
Indeed, even bell hooks’s mother was also influenced by the media and told hooks to “try harder to look better.” She went on to tell hooks, “you have good skin,” and in particular, “lighter skin and good hair.” She told her that she had an opportunity to “be making it in the dominant script” with these traits. hooks was up against being a woman and being of color but because of her light skin privilege, her mother thought she had a chance to be seen as more valuable.
This is the kind of attitude that needs to change from an early age. Girls everywhere are taught that the ideal is a thin, white girl with blue eyes. This is the subtext in social media and in kids’ TV and movies, too. Disney movies show women as weak and portray men that have to save them. Although these films have gotten better, such as in Disney’s movie Frozen, where Anna saves Elsa instead of a man. This film also highlights the love between sisters instead love in a romantic relationship. But there is still so much work to be done in changing how children think about gender. The first step towards changing sexism in our world is to start sharing healthy and inclusive messages about gender when kids are young. If everyone could change what is taught to children, we could minimize damaging gender roles in our society and one day, eliminate sexism altogether.