Tag Archives: patriarchy

Guest post: Binary Underwear

While I am hard at work this week finalizing my side of the preparations for the blog redesign — unveiling January 1st! assuming kids and computers stay virus-free! and please do pardon the dust whilst I knock about the categories — I’ll be having guest bloggers make sure your end-of-year is as content filled as the previous 12 months have been. (Which is to say, sporadically.) Today I am honored to have a guest post from Laura Schuerwegen of Authentic Parenting.

Binary Underwear

I went shopping yesterday. That doesn’t happen too often. I live in Africa and shops aren’t actually at every street corner. Well, there aren’t too many streets either, so… But I am deviating.

Now we are in Belgium, we do get to shop. Generally that means we have this huge list to fulfill and we run around like hamsters in a maze. I actually set out to find winter pajamas (living close to the equator, I don’t need any over there), and underwear. I am a breastfeeding mother and my hips have gotten bigger with my daughter’s birth. I like being comfortable without looking too frumpy. So I guess I am quite demanding when it comes to shopping.

So I went from shop to shop like Christmas Carolers go from door to door and with the trillionth shop I visited, I started noticing a pattern: in nightwear and underwear, women have only two choices. Either we’re reduced to mere objects of pleasure, there and ready whenever it would please our male counterpart, because indeed — and every woman’s magazine will agree on this — the key to feeling confident is wearing sexy lingerie. Because what could better boost a woman’s self esteem than her sexuality? Her openness toward sexual encounters? Her eagerness to be taken by any predatory man at large? The other option is to be completely infantilized, teddy bears on the breast and buttocks and all. There is nothing in between. Unless you go to a discount shop and buy white cotton grannywear (which I have nothing against if that’s what tickles your fancy, but it doesn’t apply to all the criteria I am looking for in my underwear).

Now donʼt get me wrong, I donʼt mind women wearing sexy clothes or sexy lingerie; I’ve worn my share of both. And if you like wearing teddy bears, cartoon figures and the like, you are completely free to do so. However, I feel that we — women — should have a choice when it comes to our underwear and nightgowns, and that choice should not be limited to two options.

It is completely possible to design underwear and nightwear that is comfortable and looks good, and isn’t inspired by childhood themes. Just as it is possible to design underwear that isn’t good for the wardrobe of ‘Burlesque’. Seriously! I do not want to run around with Hello Kitty on my ass. And as much as I can appreciate silks and lace and ruffles and ribbons, they are hardly practical when you’re running after a two and a half year old.

So to underwear designers all over, if you read this:
1. women don’t only wear underwear to please the opposite sex.
2. sometimes burlesque doesn’t even light the spark with our significant other
3. women like options and two options isn’t much of a choice
4. underwear should first and foremost be comfortable
5. and seriously? What’s with the bears and pussycats and cartoon figures. We’re adult women for freezing snowflakes’ sake!

So – for the time being – no new underwear for me, and I guess Iʼll have to continue wearing my lounge pants and husbandʼs T-shirt to bed.

Laura Schuerwegen aka Mamapoekie is a Belgian expat mother and wife. She is currently in between African countries of residence and blogs at Authentic Parenting.

Raising him purple: a defense of gender neutrality in early childhood

One of the stereotypes about feminists is that we’d have everyone raise their children completely gender-blind, ignoring and eliminating any sex-based variables that pop up, seeking to create a generation of complete androgynes, indistinguishable from each other, with equality achieved through absolute sameness.

Which is complete poppycock, of course.

Except, well, it kind of isn’t. Because I do think there is value in raising our children in a gender-neutral manner. Not in the stereotypical way, perhaps, in that my end goal is as far from creating a generation of androgynes as one can get, but yes, in that I wish we would dress all our infants and toddlers the same regardless of sex, give them the same toys, talk to them the same — even perhaps give them the same names, because so much of gendering is unconscious, and we are unlikely to treat a “Suzette” the same as a “Steve”, no matter how enlightened we think we might be.

There are several reasons I believe this, but first let me say: I’m not interested in judging individuals, or determining whether anyone is “gender-neutral enough” to get whatever gold star or mental checkmark anyone might be imagining goes on in my head. Honestly? I don’t care that much, and “my best friends” (no, really!) raise their children highly gendered, The Man and I (obviously) do some gendering of the Boychick so we’re not “perfect”, I think you can raise girls in pink dresses and boys in blue suits and still be feminist, etc, etc, and so on.

What I do care about is how we think about these things — and that we think about these things. I care about the pervasiveness and the degree of gendering in society, so that these things aren’t a matter of individual choice, but of cultural prescription. I care that I can hardly find clothing for my child free of sexist characters or stereotyped colors. I care that I cannot take the Boychick out in public without him hearing some variation of “What a big strong boy you are!” or “What a pretty girl you have!” depending on how he’s been gendered in the eyes of strangers that day. I care about the culture my child is growing up in, and more and more entering into and being influenced by as he ventures out of the environment we his parents create for him.

But individuals? As long as you’re doing your good enough (screw “best”), that’s good enough for me — and really, it shouldn’t matter to you what I think anyway. Even if I were judging you. Which I’m not. Honest.

OK, got that out of the way? Good. Let’s talk gender.

I do not think gender is entirely patriarchally created — exaggerated, adulterated, interpreted, interpolated, yes: but not created. Just like sexuality, I think there’s some part of our brain that is filled in with some concept of Who We Are (or for sexuality, Who We Like). Sometimes this matches our bodies — and thus the slot society ascribes to us, whether we appreciate the roles and dictates that go along with that slot or not –, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, we hardly think about it, and assume that “gender” is nothing more than culturally ascribed ideals based on our phenotypic sex (that is, our genitals and secondary sex characteristics) — or, that those roles are Inherent Immutable Characteristics, which arise from our sex-gender (since they’re obviously the same thing, right?).

This type of thinking is what is known as cis privilege. Just like heterosexuality used to be (and still too often is) considered the default/only state of being, so obvious it was/is unnamed and invisible, so too is the state of being cissexual and cisgender. But our cis person inability to recognize the sex/gender difference (that is, that assigned gender based on phenotypic sex and inherent gender based on whatever it is in our brains/selves that determines this sort of thing are two different categories which may or may not accord) does not make it any less real.

So, what does this have to do with my annoyance at gendered infant and toddler clothing, and toys, and stereotypes? Only that while I know my child has a penis and testicles, and apparently lacks a vulva and vagina, I do not know that he is a boy. I may think that he is a boy, it is likely that he is a boy, but just like I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his sexuality, I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his gender. He might be a boy. He might be a girl. He might be some variation of genderqueer or otherwise fall midway in the gender spectrum, or outside of it altogether. (And for that matter, he might be a high femme boy or a very butch girl, but that’s getting too complicated even for me to contemplate in depth in this blog.)

But let’s say he’s a boy. Let’s say I know — or am willing to take the 90% or so odds — that his gender matches his phenotypic sex, and that his phenotypic sex reflects his genotypic sex (that is, that he is not some variation of intersex, any of the numerous types of being that do not fall into “neat” XX female-bodied women and XY male-bodied men, not all of which present obviously at infancy). Why not then dress him all in blues and browns and trucks and puppies? Why not avoid pink like the plague (and dream of a daughter if I desire demure little dresses and dear little bows)?

The answer to that comes down to a more traditionally feminist (and thus all too often transphobic, but let’s see if I can avoid that) objection to the codification of arbitrary gender roles. This part you’ve likely heard before: why must girls wear clothing that is decorative, delicate? Why must they present as precious, pretty, petite? Why must boys wear clothing that is rugged, dark (or on occasion bold)? Why must they be strong, boisterous (“boy-sterous”?)? What the hell do kittens and butterflies have to do with being female, trucks and dinosaurs to do with being male? (And when we raise children in a culture that colors everything “girl” pink, and slaps truck on everything “boy”, even if we their parents do not, why are we so damned surprised that our highly intelligent and observant children notice this and fall in line with what they feel they’re supposed to like?)

Our children are intelligent and observant, and they will and do pick up on the messages coded in the genderization of practically every product they encounter (and the more explicit messages they hear and see). These messages — still, today, in 2009 — say that girls are for looking at, boys are for doing; they say girls are relational and boys are aggressive; they say that girls do fantasy (unicorns, fairies), and boys do science (bugs, dinosaurs).

These messages are, in short, misogynistic patriarchal bullshit. And I want no part of them, for myself, or for my child.

Do I want him (if he he be) to be androgynous, indistinguishable in all ways from his presumably-female best friend? No. But I would far rather let him learn that he is fundamentally the same as her than that he and she are as wildly different as patriarchy would have him believe.

Are there inherent gender differences? Indubitably — in the nature of highly overlapping bell curves on a population scale. There are differences based on our physical bodies, differences that arise from our hormones once we enter puberty, differences in preferences based on our inborn gender. But these are not absolute differences: they are tendencies noticeable only on the large scale, tendencies the patriarchal arm of the kyriarchy pushes as far apart as it can in an effort to divide and conquer us.

But far more profound are our similarities as members of the same species; far more profound are the individual differences based on inherent personality. I want to honor my child for who he is, who he may be even before I know exactly who that is; I want to minimize the misogynistic messages he absorbs; I want him to recognize everyone’s common humanity even as people differ; I want him to pursue his interests whatever they are, regardless of the gendered coding his society has ascribed to them; and I want to create a culture in which this is true for all children, because if it is not true for all, it cannot truly happen even for one.

He will know his gender one day (he may know it now and be unable to tell me). He will want to create his presentation based on the combination of what he knows his gender to be, what his culture tells him belongs to that gender, and what he as a person simply likes. He may be one of the many, many XY male-bodied boys who simply likes things that go (and why not? trucks are nifty). But unless I give him room — psychic and psychological space, if you will — to discover and create these things on his own, I will never know how much of what he does is what he really wants, and how much is what he’s adopted because it’s what he thinks he’s supposed to do and like.

I’m not opposed to gender (which would be about as sensical as being opposed to gravity); I’m just opposed to its imposition on children too young to know better, but not too young to be warped by all the baggage it brings with it. I cannot say it better than this: “Turn down the volume on the gender coding. Respond to the child’s personality. Let your child be who he or she is.” Not gender-free. Just free to be whatever gender they are — whatever that means to them.

Cycle of oppression

In addition to me starting Couch to 5K (aside: not going great, level 3 appears to be cursed — not so much doing it, but arranging to do it. but I’ll get through), The Man and I have pulled out our (old, crappy, ill-fitting) bikes, bought a used trainer from Craigslist, and have started cycling. This is in part because running, due to his knees, is not something The Man is able to do; in part because it’s something we can bring the Boychick along for; in large part because parking at his downtown office costs upwards of $9 a day but would be an entirely bike-able commute (all downhill to get there! OK, so all uphill to get back, but that’s what buses with bike racks are for); and also because it’s just plain fun. And if it ain’t fun, I don’t do it.

Anyway, so I’ve been looking lustfully at bikes recently, because what we have are a couple of old bikes that are inappropriate to our purposes and ill-sized for either of us. Plus, I am a consumerist American: new hobby means new chances to buy buy BUY! So I’ve spent inordinate hours in the past week or so with my butt in a chair, eyes glued to an electronic screen, or driving a gas-guzzling pollution-pumping automobile all over town, with the excuse of researching a product designed to get me outside and active and reduce my impact on the environment. (Ah, life as a middle class “environmentalist” American!)

The things I’ve discovered while exploring the new-to-me world of cycling are sort of fascinating (for a certain value of “fascinating” approximately equal to “horrifying”). First, apparently laydeez need speshul bikes with slanted top bars for our voluminous skirts. You’d think teh menz would need the slanted bars so as to avoid massive testicular trauma, but nope, we get ‘em for our skirts. Also, and this probably goes without saying, we like “pretty” colors, like “powder green” and “robin’s egg blue”, and, of course, pink in all its mindnumbingly similar infinite varieties. And — this is a bit less familiar to yours truly — flowers under our rears. Here I thought the seat (in cycler parlance, the “saddle”) was for, y’know, sitting on. But apparently the appearance of something intended for our butts to sit on is highly important. Who knew?

Speaking of butts, the seats of “men’s” and “women’s” bikes are actually one area a difference in design sort of makes sense — if we ignore that some women have penises and testicles and some men have vulvas and wider spaced sit bones. Of course, some women have vulvas and narrow sit bones, some men penises and wider ones. Some people really don’t fit in any neat categories, whether gender or genitalia. But it would be entirely too easy unsexist confusing to just have a variety of saddles classified by size and features. Nope, they must be Men’s Saddles and Women’s Saddles, in case (patriarchal deity forbid!) we ever forget even for an instant that humans come in two distinct easily classifiable non-overlapping varieties, and never the twain shall meet (except under the covers, in the dark, for makin’ teh baybeez and pleasuring teh menz).

But what took the cake, what really pulled an impressive whole-bakery heist and set off a little Twitter storm in my corner of the Twitverse, was the selection of kids’ bikes at a local store. Go, gape at the overwhelming genderization on display for your delectation. It’s a treat (for a certain value of treat equaling “total shite”).

Note how all the bikes come in a Girl’s variety and a Boy’s variety (except for the Electra Hawaii 24″, which is just Pink, but I’m pretty sure by this point everyone knows Pink is patriarchy-speak for Girl’s). Note also, please, how the Boy’s bike (the Jet! because boys are fast, nudge nudge wink wink) comes in dark colors, predominantly black, styled like a motocross/dirt bike, conveniently decked out with fenders because of course boys play in the mud. The Girl’s bike (the Mystic, because women are so mysterious, I just can’t figure ‘em out with all those inside parts and inscrutable emotions!) comes in light colors, mostly pink, styled with pink flowers, with oh-so-practical white tires and plastic pompoms sticking out of the handle bars, and conveniently decked out with a white wicker basket because of course girls go shopping (thanks Kate for pointing that one out).

As Maria says: “whenever i see that kind of gender dichotomy in kids’ products i’m just like, “but where are the REGULAR ones?” gah.” Where are the regular ones indeed. (Silly Maria, don’t know you the regular ones are the Boy’sTM? We GirlsTM should be grateful they have anything for us at all, really.)

Even better, in-store (yes, I went to the store, though in my defense I let my toddler play in there for an hour and a half and didn’t buy anything) they have two toddler tricycles. You’ll never guess the colors. Go on, guess! Oh, you guessed pink and blue? Hm, I guess the patriarchy isn’t that inscrutable after all. Because genderization can never start too young. How will little boys and little girls know whether they’re little boys or little girls if they don’t have the right color tricycle?

I’m still jazzed about riding, and still suffering massive consumerist bike-lust. I’ll definitely be getting a saddle (yes, I’ve adopted the jargon!) “specially” designed for my speshul laydee parts (say it with me people: vulva. it’s a beautiful thing), because having my labia fall asleep while riding just isn’t fun and probably isn’t healthy either. I might even get the powder green drop-bar laydee bike (with the tiny rack in front, for my purse! instead of the big rack on the back of teh Men’s, for big important manly junk!), from the same manufacturer of the lovely kids’ bikes, because it’s comparatively cheap, meets my needs, and hey, the green is pretty. Really though, I could have done without the foray into Products of the Patriarchy just because I want something comfortable in which to ride around town and with which to reduce my personal pollution impact.

But hey, what’s life without a little rage at patriarchal idiocy getting the blood pumping through your veins now and then? Or now, and then, and always, and everywhere, and inevitably, and inescapably. Oops, there it goes again. I think I need a nice relaxing bike ride…

New post up at “I blame the mother”

I blame American woman, who are all potentially mothers! by I, your cheating-on-you-with-another-blog-but-hey-I’m-letting-you-know-about-it bloggess.

Featuring lines such as:

nope, it’s all because American cis women of childbearing age apparently scarf narcotics, nicotine, donuts, dope, and dirty, dirty dick willy-nilly.

Reader maria raves:

this post made me seethe with rage, but also laugh. because you rule.

Go, read, laugh, seethe!

(Never fear, Dear Reader, I may be cheating on you, but I haven’t left you entirely. New content exclusively for Raising My Boychick coming soon! Some of which I may even write myself!)

WFPP Guest Post: Talking to Strangers

This entry to the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer comes from Amber Strocel, who blogs about parenting, life with kids, and maternity leave at Strocel.com.

As the title implies, this post is about Amber’s struggle with first encouraging and then finding herself afraid of her daughter “talking to strangers”. She discusses her own socialization to both fear and avoid offending strangers, and neatly elucidates both how and why teaching “stranger danger” is not only ineffective but potentially dangerous.

Although she doesn’t explicitly relate her desire for “my daughter to feel confident, to be able to trust herself instead of being nice at all costs” to feminism, her reasonings and decisions are emphatically founded in womanist/feminist ideology. The patriarchy would have us — all of us, but especially women, children, and most especially girls — give up our own autonomy and healthy interdependence in favor of unfounded fear and a frightening disregard for our own feelings. Raising a child, then, to trust herself, and to trust those she feels comfortable with, is revolutionary.

Talking to Strangers

My 4-year-old Hannah is very friendly. At the park she strolls right up to people she’s never met and announces, “My name is Hannah!” She tells me, “I say my name and people want to be my friend.” It makes no difference to her if they’re children or adults, if they respond to her advances or even if they speak English. She will chatter away as long as someone occasionally smiles and nods.

Until about a year ago Hannah was too shy to approach strangers. She didn’t have the necessary social or verbal skills to pull off an introduction. I could see her watching kids play and I could tell she wanted to join in but didn’t know how. Sometimes I would help her, and sometimes she preferred to just observe. I really wanted for her to find a way to bridge the social gap, since she seemed to really want to.

When Hannah became confident enough to approach people on her own I was happy for her. Most people were happy to listen to my boisterous preschooler chatter away incessantly. And she really chattered, spewing forth all sorts of information in rapid fire fashion. Where she lives. How I let her eat dry cereal off the floor. The names of all her friends at school. That time she accidentally called 9-1-1 and I was mad. It occurs to me I might not always be portrayed in the most flattering light in these little expositions, on closer examination.

And still more climbing

Listening to Hannah talk and talk and talk some part of my brain screamed Danger! After all, kids aren’t supposed to talk to strangers. Especially not adult strangers. I certainly wasn’t supposed to when I was a kid, anyway. When I was young we were warned about stranger danger and admonished not to accept rides or candy from people we didn’t know. As I watched my daughter chat people up on the playground or at the grocery store I wondered if I should let her do this.

The thing is I don’t believe admonitions about avoiding strangers are all that effective. Anyone who’s ever watched a newsmagazine has seen 7-year-olds get into some guy’s van to help him find a lost puppy. Their mothers swore up and down that their kids would know better, and yet they didn’t. I remember having a preconceived notion of what a ‘stranger’ looked like as a kid myself – in my mind a stranger looked sort of like the Hamburglar. I don’t think that most kids think that someone who seems nice can be a stranger.

Plus the whole message is really very contradictory. I talk to strangers all the time. My kids see me talk to strangers. At the grocery store or the library or sometimes even the sidewalk I will share words with people I’ve never seen before and will probably never see again. I even gave birth in front of people I didn’t know because my daughter was premature and there was a whole team on hand. I suspect that a lot of talk about stranger danger is confusing and pointless.

Hannah drawing chalk art at the playground

On the other hand I don’t want to send my daughter out into the world unequipped. The unfortunate truth is that not everyone has good intentions. While stranger abduction is rare, the statistics about sexual abuse are alarming. According to my local abuse prevention authority 35% of girls in grades 7-12 have experienced sexual abuse. I feel I need to arm my daughter in some way so that she’s not a sitting duck.

But how? I thought about my own childhood and what worked (or mostly didn’t) for me. Like most girls I was raised to be ‘nice’. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but I also wasn’t supposed to be rude to them under any circumstances. At no point were my own feelings or instincts considered. I have found myself sitting beside people who made me feel uncomfortable, responding as they engaged me in conversation. As much as I wanted to get up and move I didn’t, I ignored the voice in my head because it might have offended someone.

When Hannah talks to strangers she is using her own instincts. As a 4-year-old girl she naturally gravitates towards other children of around the same age. She also likes to talk to other parents, especially if they are playing with their own children. Out in public she talks to the people she sees me talking to – the cashier at the grocery store or the librarian. Although she doesn’t verbalize it, she has an idea of who she is comfortable with and who she isn’t.

Hannah and the hens

In fact, Hannah is doing exactly what she should do. She is seeking out certain people. She is honing her social skills by interacting with them. She is learning who she can trust and who she can’t trust. And she studiously avoids people that she isn’t comfortable with. Since she is only 4 of course I am always nearby, in eyeshot and earshot, ready to assist her if she needs it. But so far she really hasn’t.

I want my daughter to feel confident, to be able to trust herself instead of being nice at all costs. I want her to learn how to seek out the help of others as required, in a way that makes her feel safe. I don’t want her to sit passively beside someone who makes her uncomfortable because she doesn’t trust her own intuition. And I want her to engage with others in positive and meaningful ways. I believe that allowing her to talk to strangers on her own terms is critical to that process. Not forcing her, not coercing her, not dictating that she hug someone she doesn’t want to hug. But also not intervening or preventing if there’s no immediate danger.

The world isn’t always a safe or welcoming place. For better or worse, though, our children will live in it. They need to know how to navigate it. And I have come to believe that talking to strangers is one of the best ways to learn.

Amber Strocel blogs about parenting, life with kids and maternity leave at Strocel.com. She is 33 years old and is still afraid to talk to strangers but thanks to her daughter she’s finally learning how.