1 Year of the Gender Diary

// 6 March 2012

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A photograph of a pair of cupcakes, one has a blue flower on top with the word 'boy' and two question marks, the other has a pink flower with the word 'girl' and a question mark. This is a guest post by @Genderdiary. The @GenderDiary parents are both journalists working in Westminster and living in South London.

For a year now we’ve been tweeting as @GenderDiary about the ways we’ve seen people treat our 4-year-old girl and our 15-month-old boy differently. We’ve learnt a lot.

We were inspired to keep the diary by Marianne Grabrucker’s book There’s a Good Girl: Gender Stereotyping in the First Three Years – A Diary (1988). She recorded the experiences in her daughter’s life that were shaping her as female. It’s a simple but brilliant idea.

When our children were born, people would say, “Oh you’ll see, you treat them just the same, but boys and girls act completely differently, it’s in the genes.” It isn’t. And Marianne Grabrucker’s book was the thing that showed us how tiny little things in everyday life shape our children’s understanding of themselves as being ‘boy’ or ‘girl’.

And it was from day one. There was no time for either of our children to show us their ‘innate’ behaviour because they were already being treated differently. Cards, toys and clothes given to them were different, the language people used about them was different, and there’s the fact that we could expect adults to handle our children differently and direct them to different toys depending on their gender, although they are unaware they are doing it.

Other people continually reinforce gender stereotypes that are nothing more than glib generalisations, and within earshot of our children.

A defining moment of the year seems to be to have been the effect being a bridesmaid had on our daughter. We tweeted, “Today we had visitors. Our daughter wanted to wear a bridesmaid’s dress she had worn for a friend’s wedding. She said she wanted to wear her dress because the visitors “will like me”. She was right I suppose. A girl in a frilly dress gets a lot of “don’t you look lovely in your pretty dress!” etc. She obviously associates people appreciating her appearance with being liked.” (2011-01-14). We don’t tweet every time someone comments on our daughter’s appearance because we just wouldn’t have the time to fit it in.

The fetishisation of all things pink for girls has got to the stage where lazy ‘research’ and the media tell us that gendered colour preferences have an evolutionary basis, despite them becoming fashionable only 50 years ago.

In contrast we’ve come to appreciate this year the way boys are quickly socialized into disliking anything that is associated with girls. For example, “Today we saw the second of 2 different programmes that had a plot on the embarrassment of a male character because he is wearing pink” (2011-01-26)

We’ve heard many parents bemoan the fact that they’ve tried not to reinforce gender stereotypes in their kids but still see them develop stereotypical behaviour. They then use this as evidence that gender differences are innate. But gender stereotypes are everywhere and are constantly reinforced. Regardless of our behaviour, our children’s experience is made up of so much more than just the words and actions of their parents. They interact with countless adults and children, books, toys, television, images, sights and sounds every day and all these interactions leave their imprint.

The diary has given us a new found awareness that we want to share with other people. You have a document that brings it all together and shows you the weight of it in children’s lives. You can then imagine a child’s experience as a sort of wall of sound, where dense and complicated layers are built up on a daily basis to make an intricate identity.

It’s hard sometimes not to despair and feel the likelihood of change is insurmountable. One of the lovely things about our twitter account is that our followers share their own experiences, which we retweet, which creates a forum for those equally frustrated by the way children are stereotyped. Like any sort of group, it feels good to know people share your experiences and are struggling against them too.

So let’s look to the future and see what we can do. One of the most inspiring things we’ve seen is by @bluemilk who has run anti-sexism workshops in her child’s school. Likewise this piece on how a teacher ran gender-awareness sessions with her class while trying to help a pupil come to terms with gender variance is full of good ideas.

And finally, something that F-Word readers are probably already doing. Contradicting people and modelling the alternative. Contradict people when they make glib stereotypical statements, offer them alternative views, tell them your experience is different. Small actions matter.

[The image is a photograph of a pair of cupcakes, one has a blue flower on top with the word ‘boy’ and two question marks, the other has a pink flower with the word ‘girl’ and a question mark. It was taken by Kristen Ausk and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Saranga // Posted 6 March 2012 at 10:18 pm

i wrote about this recently on one of my blogs (paiwings.blogspot.com if you’re interested). my sister is about to become a first time mother and the shit people were spouting at the baby shower made me absolutely furious. but I couldn’t say anything without appearing rude, so I didn’t.

I despair. the thought of bringing a child up in this poisnous atmosphere makes me stomach turn.

Laura // Posted 7 March 2012 at 7:51 am

When we have a baby, I plan to send everyone in our life a letter/email setting out our views on gender stereotyping and asking for their support in trying to protect our child from it. Not sure it will make much difference, but at least we’ve mentioned it from the word go and I think that will make it a bit easier to call people out when they do treat the child a certain way based on hir sex.

Lavender Menace // Posted 7 March 2012 at 10:51 am

My nephew is four now and I find watching how people gender him and how he responds to that gendering completely fascinating as well as depressing. Children are such little sponges, they’re constantly soaking up information about everything, looking for cues from the people around them, and I can see the way he’s picking up all the implicit and explicit messages about gender that he’s receiving. Like a lot of little boys, he was happy to play with toys that are associated with girls until he went to nursery and now he’s more anxious about it – he had a baby doll which he loved, but now won’t touch it, for example – so I think something’s happened there.

It’s also very interesting to see how he tries to get around the situation to get what he wants. In particular, he seems to have worked out which adults are safe to ask for items that are associated with femaleness and which are not. My sister and his Dad are divorced and his father’s family firmly believe in gender-typing children. He came home from visiting his Dad the other day and asked his Mum if he could have a sewing kit because he wanted to make soft toys. Out of interest, his Mum asked him if he’d asked his Dad for the sewing kit and he said “I thought about it and decided to ask you”.

He also asked my parter if she’d put nail polish on his nails for him. There was a bit of a negotiation about it and he and his mother compromised on toenails rather than fingernails. My sister doesn’t believe in gender-typing, but I can see the way coercive gendering is already bearing down on her and shaping the way she treats him – she didn’t feel she could say “yes” to polish on fingernails because it might result in bullying at nursery and a freak out from Dad’s family, so she compromised on toenails where its less visible, but of course that sends a strong message to him about what’s acceptable and what must be kept furtive and hidden.

Baby Gender Diary // Posted 7 March 2012 at 5:07 pm

-Thanks Saranga, I’ve tweeted a link to your blog. Are you on Twitter? I wouldn’t advocate disagreeing publicly with people if it makes you uncomfortable. But sometimes just one small comment can illustrate that there are people with alternative views. But I think it’s kind that you respect that it was an event for your sister.

-Laura, that’s a great idea. If you do it sometime in the future, let us know what happens.

Saranga // Posted 8 March 2012 at 9:38 am

Hi baby gender diary. yep I am on twitter @sarangacomics

I appreciate how one small comment can change things, but my family have heard all this from me before! (many many times!) Seeing as how my mum brought me up feminist, always called herself a feminist and it’s down to her that i’m a feminist, and now she’s the one (amongst others) coming up with gender rubbish, means she won’t listen if I make a comment. and there’s a lot of family dynamics to consider. It wouldn’t have made a difference, I’d have got dismissed or frowned at for being rude.

Families eh??

Victoria // Posted 8 March 2012 at 10:44 am

As the mum of 2 boys and 1 girl I find the whole gender stereotyping debate really interesting, and it’s certainly hit a nerve. I rejoice in the fact that my daughter doesn’t like dolls, pink, wearing dresses and skirts, playing quietly (as girls should?). However, those around me, particularly my husband’s family, keep trying to make her into the archetypal little girl. My mother-in-law insisted on buying her a pram at Christmas, which I told her would be a waste of money – and indeed my daughter cried when my husband put it together for her, and it’s been sat gathering dust ever since. I do feel pressurised to make her look nice, and to encourage her to play with dolls, and people have bought them for her from birth. But so far, they don’t interest her – and good on her! I’d much rather play with cars and run around outside than dress plastic dolls that don’t do anything, so why would she be interested – hmm, maybe there’s a correlation between those two statements!

But how does this fit with my attitude to wearing make-up, making myself look nice (who for??) – and what is she going to grow up thinking?

It is certainly going to be very difficult to explain these differing attitudes of mine to ‘typical’ girly behaviour and one I’m going to have to carefully consider in the coming years.

JessLeeds // Posted 8 March 2012 at 2:06 pm

I think Victoria’s last comment is really interesting. My mother never wore makeup, and now neither do I. There is a family story of when I was 5 going to my friend’s house for tea. We invaded her mother’s dressing table and I, not knowing what it was, ate her mother’s lipstick.

Behaviour is for the most part taught, I believe there is no point in instilling a lack of stereotypes behaviour in your children if you continue to live within the confines yourself

Gillian // Posted 8 March 2012 at 11:05 pm

I also have 2 boys aged 16 and 14 and a girl aged 9 and find the issue of stereotyping fascinating. When the boys were very young, I tried leaving my old tiny tears doll in their toybox, hoping that they might be interested in playing with it but rough and tumble, fighting with swords etc was all they wanted to do. I tried to ensure that toys,clothing and books were as gender neutral as possible and that they were exposed to as many different influences as possible. The sex of their new sibling, who arrived when they were aged 7 and 5, was irrelevent and they played with her in the same rough fashion they had always played with each other, much to my mother’s horror! From day1 I dressed my daughter in bright clothing (unfortunately sometimes pink, often a gift I promise!) and tried to parent her exactly as I done the boys, which on the whole, I think I achieved.This lead to some interesting situations such as when she became upset having discovered she didnt have a ‘willie’ and couldn’t do a ‘stand-up wee’ and when aged 3 we were attending my sisters wedding and she expressed a wish to wear smart trousers and a top and wanted to be complimented as looking smart not beautiful.

Today of course, she could be considered quite ‘girly’; she keeps her hair long but wild, hates pink with a passion but loves to put on make-up when allowed and I feel is a well-balanced individual, as are her brothers, I hasten to add.

The challenge for 21st Century inhabitants is to actively resist any attempt to pigeon hole any individual. Any stereotype, be it gender, sexual-orientation,racial, health or age based demeans the individual and is divisive.

You can fight the gender stereotyping as much as you like but unfortunately the marketing men sorry, marketing people are always one step ahead.

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