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Slow Your Gender Roles

Mila Madison takes a look at gender roles and the transgender experience in the Weekly Rant.

So you did it! You came to terms with your true self. Maybe you transitioned, are transitioning or you are planning to. You are now openly that man or woman you were always meant to be. So now what? What is our role in society? Is it as simple as I am now on team pink or team blue?

In prepping for the holidays my daughters were decorating gingerbread cookies. My oldest daughter mentioned how one day her grandmother had given her a female gingerbread cookie and noted how good it made her feel as a female to have her gender represented. When I asked her, “what made the cookie female?”, she simply stated “it was wearing a dress”. This sparked a conversation regarding gender roles and society. How did we come to be identified by what we wear and who decided how we are supposed to act? Where did these gender expectations come from and was it always this way? Most importantly, are we doing our genders a disservice by conforming to them? As it often is in my family, something as simple as a cookie can often turn into an interesting conversation and thus we have our weekly rant.

There is a misconception that as time has gone on we have become more fluid with our gender expectations. This is not really true. Our gender journey is simply not as linear as we think. The picture of the little girl to our left is from 1884. The only problem is it is not a little girl. It is President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the age of 2. You see back then both boys and girls wore dresses until the age of 6, the time of their first haircut. Pretty gender neutral for the late 1800’s. The thought was that white dresses could be easily bleached and kids were free to be kids without having to be socially defined by their gender.

“WHEN DID WE START SEPARATING OUR CHILDREN AND PUTTING THEM IN BOXES OF PINK AND BLUE?”

So when did we start separating our children and putting them in boxes of pink and blue? Well you have our retailers to thank for that. But in the beginning it was boys who wore pink and girls who wore blue. According to smithsonian.com, it was in 1918 that Earnshaw’s, a trade publication for children’s clothing, published an article stating “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” This concept was further enforced by many publications including Time magazine.

It was not until the 1940’s when these colors were flipped by the retailers. The thought was that little boys should dress more like their fathers and little girls their mothers. This was the baby boomer generation. Though these notions would be challenged by the feminist movement in the 1960’s and gender neutral clothing made a comeback, the late 1980’s would finally define the pink and blue. This was due to prenatal testing and parents wanting to know the physical sex of their child before they were born. The marketers and retailers took advantage of the concept.

Gender roles are thrust upon us at an early age. It is decided for us in our culture through fashion, movies and media. It is reinforced by our parents. I remember at an early age being yelled at for any displays of feminine behavior. I remember feeling stress over wanting something as simple as a female action figure. I was fearful of disappointing my parents. This was just the way it was done then. I didn’t even know what transgender was. I only thought something was wrong with me because society told me so.

In an article for thinkprogress.org by Tara Culp-Ressler, she discussed the research of Maria do Mar Pereira who found that gender roles could be harmful to your health. Pereira observed a class of 14 year olds in Lisbon, Portugal for a period of three months without them knowing she was there to research the roles of gender. In her research she observed both boys and girls regulating their behavior in potentially harmful ways in order to adhere to gender norms. She found the girls would purposely restrict their desires to play sports as it would appear less feminine, unattractive or they would be mocked by the boys for not being good enough. She found they restricted their diets because they believed desirable women have to be skinny. The boys felt pressure to express their manliness. They were encouraged to physically fight each other if they were ever mocked or offended. They would constantly bully each other. Children were essentially depriving themselves of essential nutrients and hurting each other just to conform to society’s expectation of their gender role.

What was interesting about the study is that individually all of the kids expressed their desire for it to be different. None of them liked the grouping of masculine and feminine nor did they like having to adhere to these roles. After a group discussion with the children regarding what she observed and their actual feelings, the children became more integrated and positive behaviors developed.

So if gender roles are construct of society, what does this mean for transgender community? We talk so much about our identities and the causes of our condition. We talk about what it means to be male, female, intersexed or fluid. Gender is simply who you are. It is the roles associated with that identity that are constructed by society. We worry about things like passing. What we are really worrying about is fitting into these constructs just as those 14 year old kids are. We go to great lengths to do so.

We adhere to these constructed binaries. Even in same sex couples you often find one of them taking on a masculine role in the relationship while the other takes on the feminine. That his how we get terms like “butch” or “fem”. But aren’t we really just a mix of both?

My point is we are free to just be who we are. It is okay to be a feminist and still enjoy it when someone holds the door for you or sends you flowers. You are not less of a man if you cry or watch a romantic movie. Chivalry can exist and it does not need to just come from one parter. It can be changed up from one to the other at any time. There are so many relationships where the masculine and feminine are blurred. This is okay and it is healthy.

YOU GET TO DEFINE WHAT IT MEANS TO BE YOUR GENDER, NO ONE ELSE.

Ultimately know it is not about passing and conforming to a construct. Just be who you are. You get to define what it means to be your gender, no one else. Even cisgender people don’t pass sometimes. We are all truly a mix. Know that by being yourself you are affecting change in the universe. We challenge the social constructs by our mere existence. We are making progress as a community with each one of us that decides to be themselves.

Maybe this year my daughters and I will make some transgender gingerbread cookies. Some fluid and non-binary ones as well. Whatever comes to mind. This way we are all truly represented. I guess I am saying just be proud of who you are and don’t worry so much about fitting into a box.

Have a happy holiday to all those that are celebrating something.

Stay safe and keep fighting for all of us!

Love and Peace,

Mila Madison

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