Monday, April 25, 2011

Pretty Is as Pretty Does

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend, Jamie, at a birthday party. (I have to set the stage a bit for this story to make sense.) The party was a mix of people -- around 10 queer women and the birthday girl's family, including her sister, cousins, parents, nieces and nephews, and others. Jamie and I were sitting on a swing in the back yard, overseeing a game of beer pong and shooting the shit over some beers. Jamie is thin, about 5'4, and more androgynous than me. I don't know if she identifies as butch, but she'd definitely be masculine-of-center. That day she had on jeans and a t-shirt, nothing fancy. I was dressed up for the St. Patrick's parade that morning, wearing a low-cut pastel green cotton dress and green eyeshadow, and I had beads from the parade around my neck and a green silk flower in my hair.

We were talking about having children and our own families when a young girl, around six-years-old or so, walked up to us. She had a t-shirt and shorts on, and her long hair pulled into a side pony tail. She sat down between us, looked at Jamie, then looked at me. She turned back to Jamie and asked, "Are you a boy or a girl?"

Jamie didn't hesitate. She replied quickly, "I'm a girl."

"But you look like a boy," the child insisted.

I don't remember Jamie's response, but I don't think she had one. The child got up, ran off, and found someone else more interesting to play with. Jamie turned back to me and began to talk about how much she hated when children asked her that question. "Can't they see that I have breasts?" she asked me, and then she got up to find another beer.

A minute or two later, the child returned. I invited her to sit down next to me on the swing, which she did. I gifted her some of the beads I wore from the parade, and she reached out to touch the flower in my hair.

"You're really pretty," she said.

I found myself choking. I wanted to say a thousand things. I wanted to rewind her gender education. I wanted to offer her an answer that didn't replicate the binary she had so succinctly recognized between her interactions with Jamie and I. I wanted to show her that I appreciated the compliment, but at the same time, offer her a space that didn't equate beauty with femininity. I wanted her to know that "pretty" isn't what she should aspire to, and that worshiping femininity as an ideal for beauty is dangerous and masochistic. I wanted her to know that my gender expression isn't the only valid one.

By then, she had run off. I wondered... who am I to decide what this child should believe about gender? Should I try to influence the way she looks at gender, when she's not my child? I tossed this question around for a few days in my head until I found an answer I was satisfied with.

Yes, we are influenced and educated by our parents. But we're also socialized by friends and family, by strangers, by teachers, by social structures and pervasive beliefs held by the dominant majority. We're educated by TV and the internet, books, movies, music. My thoughts would probably be but a drop in the bucket compared to how much media influences her ideas on beauty and gender. This child could one day be my neighbor, my child's friend, my co-worker... who knows. She'll be a voting citizen who decides if those who don't conform to the gender binary deserve rights and respect. She'll possibly be a parent, a teacher, an influence on another child. She's not yet old enough to truly decide if my opinion -- or anyone's -- is valid. But she's making these decisions every day, accepting and rejecting and buying in to beliefs and opinions. She's affected by those beliefs every day. Any and all influence matters. Her beliefs affect mine, my recognition in this society. So yes, it's a careful and thin road to walk, but I do think I should talk with her.


I remember, as a child, feeling fat. I was five, maybe six, years old, and I would sit on the toilet or in the bathtub, staring at my stomach, and hating it.

I remember my neighbor, Miss Susan, telling my mother that if her daughter, Jessica, didn't fit in a size four dress for homecoming, then she would make her lose weight or she couldn't go to the dance.

I remember the girls at summer camp making fun of me for not plucking my eyebrows when I was in 6th grade.

I remember my high school teacher, Mrs. W, catching me in the hallway and telling me that ladies don't wear clothes that show their shoulders. Instead, she said, I should learn to dress like a lady.

I remember dance class, as a child, when the leotards didn't fit me right and I couldn't move my feet and arms gracefully like the other girls. I was distinctly aware of how everything I did was ungraceful. I remember taking another dance class, at 15, at it was like those years of controlled movement suddenly sunk in all at once -- my body could do things it couldn't, years before. But in my mind, I still didn't have the talent, and sometimes, I still hear my teacher telling me that I'll never be any good at ballet, tap, or jazz.

I didn't do femininity right.

There are a thousand moments in my life that are and have been a lesson in gender. For me, for many women, most of those are negative. Girls shouldn't go barefoot or yell too loudly or wear pants with holes. Girls shouldn't have sex, because that's what sluts do. Girls shouldn't wear low-cut clothing or date boys with piercings or smoke cigarettes. Women shouldn't be single. Women shouldn't be childless. Women shouldn't hold the door for men. Women shouldn't walk alone at night.

That's not to say that men don't get lessons in gender -- of course they do! -- or that lessons for men aren't negative -- some definitely are.

The ideals for girls are extremes of femininity. Models. Princesses. Beauty queens. It's how companies sell make up and clothing, cars, beer, and just about every product on earth -- put a "sexy" woman on an ad, and you'll sell it. Women want to be her, men want to be with her. But what does she want? Does anyone care?

I'm reminded, every day, that I carry a certain privilege due to my gender expression. No matter how carefully I walk that line, no matter what my words and actions and beliefs are, my body is marked by gender cues and clothing, and those cues are read and responded to by people who believe strongly in a gender binary. I'm reminded that I face different risks, but more often than not, my gender identity is unquestioned and therefore, less marked and less risky. I'm reminded that the terms we use as compliments -- pretty, beautiful, charming, handsome, gorgeous, cute -- are gendered in a ways that make me profoundly uncomfortable. (I'm still learning how to create my own language out of what is available and to reject using these terms). I'm reminded constantly of my gender expression in queer bars that question my sexuality, and in heterocentric spaces where I pass but still get sexually harassed or feel extremely tokenized and isolated.

At the base of all of this, my experiences and those of many others I've talked to, I find that there's a very harmful ideal of who/what is feminine and who/what is masculine. No one -- trans or cis, male or female, queer or straight, genderqueer or androgynous -- can live up to a binary system of ideals. No woman will ever be "pretty" enough. Yet so many will do anything to achieve that. No queer community which defines its members as only gender normative (like some of Los Angeles bars) or gender non-normative (like places here where I get static) will provide a safe space for all those who are queer. Yet we define and identify those in our community by using gender cues.

If I have a child, I couldn't shield hir from media and strangers, from family members, from all the influences that teach us what gender is and isn't, what's acceptable for hir gender, and how to "properly" express gender. But I know that there are studies showing that adults respond differently to infants depending on their perceived gender. Our ideas of gender start at -- if not before -- birth, and those influences are so very persuasive and strong on young children who can't evaluate and reject opinions and ideas the same way adults can. If I have a child, I would want hir to understand and respect gender expressions of all types. I would want hir to embrace any -- or reject any -- aspect of gender ze wished. I would try my best to make sure ze doesn't feel crushed by a beauty norm ze can't live up to. I would want to offer more than two options, but instead, endless possibilities.

I would want my child to keep having conversations, keep questioning those ideas that we are told to assume.

What I know about gender, my own expression and gender as a social norm, comes from years of experiences and much unlearning. It is an ongoing process. I hope my understand of gender continues to evolve and change as I age, and yet, I hope having these kinds of interactions someday becomes less taxing.

I can imagine a world that doesn't operate within a gender binary. I can. I want to live to see it.

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