I vividly remember the first time I got the courage to ask my mom for a bit of independence. I asked to be allowed to walk the three or so blocks from my elementary to her workplace. She vehemently responded in the negative and when presented with the argument that my brothers were allowed to do that very thing at my age she countered with “Well, they were allowed to because they are boys.” Given hat I had already expended all my emotional energy on gathering the courage to make this request, I was unable to properly express (or process) the instant rage that filled me at hearing my mother imply that boys are more capable than girls. My mom always encouraged her daughters to be strong, independent women who can do anything they put their minds to and here she was basically telling me that 1) my brothers were more mature/capable at my age to walk 3 blocks (because assuming she gave us equal instructions on how to stay safe etc we SHOULD be equally capable right?) 2) it is perfectly ok to curtail an individual’s behaviors based solely on societal expectations and not individual merit and 3) the world is a dangerous place for women and you in particular are incapable of navigating it on your own. I would shortly learn that it was not only my mom who had these double standards.
Unbeknownst to me, these double standards were based on principles of heteronormativity and toxic masculinity. All I knew was, these rules are stupid and I refuse to follow them unless they make sense to me for logical reasons. It was in this fashion that I came to develop my sense of self as a girl who, though not “girly” was definitely NOT a boy. I loved to wear over sized t-shirt, shorts and pants, unless it was something that appealed to my color preferences/attitude/interests that I deemed super cute. Choosing to ignore gender roles when it came to expressing myself allowed me to steals my brothers’ clothes yet, I was always reminded that society will be there to shove you in the direction of conforming since my mom would only let me stray so far into the masculine side of thing. (No extra large demin jacket, her brother left in the garage for months for Mari but the medium t-shirts were ok to have)
In addition to stoking a rebellious fire in my belly this incident prompted me to reject the notion of gender roles as a whole because , if gender roles are bull (as evidenced by the treatment of women compared to men, all other things being equal) then genders themselves must be bull too. I mean think about it: people get mocked and/or bullied when they act outside of these roles so if the roles didn’t exist people could behave as they wish. At the same time I was rejecting all this though, I was also heavily buying into the contentious binary system we have set up in American society. I saw males as intellectual inferior (as evidenced by the social/emotional/multi-tasking incompetence) , emotionally stunted (because what else would explain their constant rude behavior?), and generally incapable of deeper levels of thinking/feeling.
Fast forward about a decade and I am a program leader in an after school program. Now, I had been with this particular group of kids for the last 1.5 school years so they knew: Ms. Maria don’t play. Ms. Maria knows a bunch and has super fun activities but there are structures in place we must follow for things to work smoothly. The two most important of Ms. Maria’s rules were: 1) all words have meaning, use them with care and 2) no gender stereotyping. It was the beginning of a new school year so I was doing my usual start of year refresher for the returning kids and intro for the new kids when one of the new kids pipes up “Are you a tomboy?” Now, my mind is going into overdrive with all the reasons this term is steeped with negativity for and my body is doing the auto-reject of something so offensive to your senses that my hands involuntarily clench. So, here I am completely aware that I can’t go on my usual gender rant in front of 20 or so 3rd graders over what they perceive as an innocent question. I remember that Ms. Maria’s job is to be the person that she wished was there for her in her childhood: a guide to help distinguish my own voice and opinions despite what I am told I “should be.” To that effect, I proceed to explain that “No, I’m not a tomboy because I am not any sort of boy I am a girl. When we say a person can or cannot so certain things solely because they are a boy or a girl, it is wrong. There is no reason some things are “only” for one set of people. Society, the people in the world we live in, decided they were okay with things being separated like this and Ms. Maria disagrees. So no, I’m not a tomboy I am a girl that does not like form fitting clothes or make-up. This doesn’t make me a boy but even if it DID, does that mean there is something wrong with being a boy?” The kids who were returning had this “There goes Ms. Maria, again” look on their faces while the new kids looked like they were making up their minds about this strange new “teacher” and I thought to myself “Good, Ms. Maria has succeeded in getting kids to think.”