I was in fifth grade the year I discovered that girls were supposed to be squeamish. This was a painful and puzzling thing to find out. Up until then, girls and boys mostly played together. The cool girls were the ones who could keep up with the boys. They were athletic and daring. They rode horses and chased cows, had beat up jeans and practical t-shirts. The rules of our universe were that everyone competed to be bravest and toughest.
Until one day, all the rules changed.
It happened like this:
After school, we were all waiting for our respective school buses when one of the boys found a garter snake. A garter snake! We’d all been catching garter snakes for years—and really, they’d sort of lost their appeal in the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. But this was a whole year later and when one of the boys advanced on the girls, holding the snake out at arm’s length, the rest of the girls knew to squeal and run, acting for all the world like the snake was a dangerous weapon instead of 5 inches of harmlessness.
I didn’t know the new rules so I failed to squeal and run, a social mistake that it took me weeks to recover from. I was left out while all of the others repeated versions of this game—brave boys finding overrated items in nature and torturing frightened girls, only to be rewarded with giggles once the threat had passed. Eventually, though, I learned to shriek and run along with all of the others, convincing myself that I was so grossed out by grasshoppers and spiders that I’d lost my senses.
The message was reinforced in subtle but life-altering ways over the next few years. Girls began to list “shopping” as one of their hobbies. We giggled about how hard math is , asked boys to help us in science and dreamt about when we’d be allowed to wear make-up.
Middle school passed in a haze of uncertainty. It was impossible to pin down my identity when the rules kept changing so quickly. Being smart wasn’t cool. Being athletic was—but only if you were daintily athletic, and never quite as good as the boys. The lines we had to walk were more like tripwires, always shifting just as we began to figure them out.
I probably would have stayed adrift well into high school except for a speech given to us by an 8th grade teacher. On the last day of school he gave the entire class a lecture about the importance of staying true to ourselves in high school. It was pretty standard stuff—remember your values, don’t get too caught up in the search for popularity, stay away from alcohol—except that he added a crucial element, just for the girls.
“Ladies, do not dumb yourselves down just to fit some stereotype. I have seen the most amazing, talented 8th grade women go off to high school and when I see them later, they’ve become empty-brained giggling idiots. Do not do this. It’s not worth it. That’s what you think people want from you but it’s not true. The people who matter want you to be your best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.”
In that moment, something clicked. All of a sudden, I understand what had been happening. For the past 3 years, we’d all been participating in the gender-ification of our brains and interests. Not only did I understand but my puzzlement and frustration suddenly made sense. Someone had named what I didn’t have the wisdom to recognize. I was being pushed to embody someone else’s idea of who I should be.
Gender roles are complex precisely because they develop in this way. They are insidious, seeping into our identities at a time when we’re most vulnerable. Like racial biases, gender biases need to be called out. As researcher Marianne Cooper says, “We have different expectations for boys and girls, and for men and women, and those different expectations lead us to think that different goals are appropriate for them.”
But as one wise teacher pointed out, the people who really matter want kids to be their best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.
This is what kids today need, as much as they needed it 10, 20, 60 years ago. They need more people to name for them the truths that they can’t yet name for themselves. They need wiser, braver, kinder adults to point out that gender stereotypes are still shaping lives, for men and women. Because sometimes, simply naming the game is enough to kick start a change.