Several weeks after I started 7th grade at Amherst Regional Junior High School, one of my friends tapped me suddenly on the shoulder and whispered urgently if kindly, “You’re carrying your books wrong.” I glanced down at the books nestled securely in the crook of my arm, and wondered what he meant. “Look!” he said, pointing ahead of us. I looked. Every single boy was carrying his books held against his hip, while every single girl was carrying them in the crook of her arm. I wondered how I had missed the “boys vs. girls” memo that clearly everyone else had received, and transferred my books to my hip. As my muscles tightened in an effort to stabilize the rickety load, I understood what this was all about. “I’ll do it,” I said to myself, “but the girls’ way is still better.”
On a recent Thursday, in reaction to an online flap over a J. Crew ad depicting a mother playing with her five-year-old son who had his toenails painted pink, in response to a blog posting I wrote on that topic, and in support of those of our students who show a range of gender expression, many faculty and staff members painted their own toenails pink for the day. Students certainly picked up on it, and in my experience were uniformly (and in the case of my Humanities 7 class, vociferously) supportive. I had had a similar reaction several years ago on a “Dress Like a Student” day when, following my advisees’ advice on how best to look like Lenna, the randomly-chosen advisee like whom I was dressing, I wore blue fingernail polish.
On the face of it, I thought at the time, wearing nail polish should not really be that big a deal. So what was going on? Oddly enough, a long-ago youth baseball game provided insight. My son’s 11-12-year-old summer ball team had suffered several consecutive frustrating losses, and as the players put increasing pressure on themselves to perform, some began leaking tears if they struck out or dropped a fly ball. One day, a parent showed up with a dress belonging to his son’s sister, and informed the entire dugout that the next player to cry would be made to put on the dress. “If you’re going to act like a girl, you might as well look like a girl.”
For all the progress we have made in many ways, our society still does not value the feminine. There’s the ongoing and widening gender-based wage gap that flies in the face of the increasing number of women enrolled in and graduating from college with topnotch records. Furthermore, from both sides of the political fence, one of the predominant criticisms of Barack Obama has been his leadership style. People call on him to take a stand and bend people to his will. People lament that he spends too much time listening, taking in information, and working to bring people together. People, in short, criticize him for adopting what has been termed a “female” model of leadership rather than the more traditional “male” model.
Meanwhile, Sally (our Head of School) is praised for many of the same leadership qualities for which President Obama is being criticized. Of course, she is a woman. But beyond that, our school, in elevating girls’ voices and in encouraging our students to become their own best selves, does by its very nature value the feminine.
What exactly is meant by “feminine,” of course, is another question altogether. Earlier this year, I asked the Humanities 7 class to brainstorm words associated with “woman” and with “feminine.” Only, unbeknownst to them, I had switched the order on half the sheets. The results were striking. Every single word but one associated with “feminine” had a negative connotation when students thought about that word first, but when the word came second, the students’ brainstorming brought forth positive and negative connotations in approximately equal proportion. Similarly, the overall view of women was more positive if not preceded by thinking about the word “feminine.”
These are girls whose grandmothers brought forth awareness of the feminine mystique, whose mothers grew up in the Title IX, who take it as a given that women and men are and should be equals. Ask them point blank if there’s anything wrong with being a girl and see how they react. I would strongly suggest posing the question over your shoulder with your back to them, wearing a good pair of running shoes, having already stretched and warmed up. And yet, deep within them, without their even knowing, is some level of mistrust of that which characterizes their own gender.
Need a tissue? I did (good thing I’m not a player on my son’s youth baseball team).
What can we as a society do to create the context these girls need in order to truly, fully and completely become their own best selves? I think it has to begin with valuing the feminine. There’s nothing wrong with listening, collaborating, and bringing people together, or with liking pink and wearing make-up. I myself do four of those things regularly. Note too that by valuing specific behaviors rather than “a woman’s leadership style” or “girly girl fashion” we also open them up to anyone. Valuing the feminine, ideally, will eventually lead to valuing a range of behaviors regardless of the gender of the person exhibiting them.
So when their teachers wear nail polish, the students instinctively know that in order to make this statement protesting pointless gender stereotyping, we first have to be willing to be perceived as “feminine” by the majority of society. I think that’s one of the reasons why it means so much to them – solidarity not just in breaking down barriers but also in joining them on their side of the barrier.
However you carry your books.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean