Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Changing The Narrative: Gender Roles In Play

Recently some friends of mine who are parents of girl the same age as Myles (2 years old) told me they wanted to call me while they were in Target recently. Their daughter loves Thomas the Train but when they showed her shoes with Thomas on them she said “no, those are boys shoes”. This upset them because she should be able to like whatever she wants regardless of her gender and wanted to know what I would have said or done in that situation. If you've kept up with my blog you know that I have introduced my two boys to all the colors and all types of toys from day one. I don’t just give them “boy’s toys” or tell them they can’t play with “girl’s toys”. Toys are for everybody!

So, I told them the story of the day when Jackson came home from his brand new preschool at age 3 and started identifying toys “for boys” or “for girls”. I got angry. Here was this school teaching my son these rigid and oppressive gender roles I had worked so hard to protect him from. I shouldn’t have been surprised I guess (because patriarchy), but the moment I heard him do this I thought “Noooooooo!” and couldn't help but snap back “no, toys are for everybody!”. I quickly checked my anger at the teachers and re-explained to Jackson that he could like whatever he wanted to like, no matter what other people might tell him. So, my initial reaction wasn't great, but I quickly recovered. I had work so hard to create an environment for him where he could be who he truly is and like whatever the hell caught his fancy and I didn't want them to ruin it for him. In hindsight I see this was his first test of what he’s been taught at home and with some guidance and support he felt confident again to like whatever he wanted.

Jackson with his new favorite book series, the Guardian Princesses.

I told my friends that they just needed to reinforce a nurturing home environment where she could be who she really is and like what she likes and encourage dialogue about these types of things. That way when instances like this come up and they’re not around, she will feel comfortable asking about them and they can help her to navigate these archaic social constructs. Jackson and I talk about everything. I started telling him “let me explain” from a very young age so now he asks me to “explain” everything. Recently he asked me to explain why the radio stations “played 100 songs by boys but only 1 by a girl”. (On a side note, I usually play music from my iTunes for him because I have more female artists for him to learn about. He's currently obsessed with Taylor Swift.) I have worked hard to give Jackson (and also Myles) the tools he needs to work through out-dated restrictive gender rules and stereotypes so he can be his true self.

Something else I do is teach him to create his own stories. Not all the books, TV shows or movies we come across have a feminist plot, obviously (because patriarchy). Girls are often left out completely or they are included as one token character. He's at the point now where he will ask "how come there aren't any (is only one) girl characters". They're also usually the ones needing to be rescued instead of being their own hero. We create stories where girls are smart, strong, capable, funny, etc. just like real girls.

Then there's the violence that comes in most toys marketed to boys. When characters such as Lego figures come with swords in those little blind bags, I ask him what he thinks that tool is and what its for. Recently he told me a spear was actually a key that opens everything and a sword was actually a stick for roasting marshmallows. We also come up with stories where characters take turns saving the day (not just male characters) and work together to solve problems. We talk a lot about how it’s not good to be violent or hurt people so this exercise allows him to change the narrative to something more positive. Sometimes he will come across new characters, like the Ninja Turtles, and act out things he’s learned from the other kids at school, like saying “hiyah!” and waving his arms around. I just explain to him that he is simulating fighting and help him to understand that would mean he was hurting someone and how that is not nice.

Mechagodzilla and Ariel having a playdate.

When I read him stories before bed sometimes I’ll change words or phrases to make them less violent or patriarchal. When we watch new TV shows or movies together I say things like “that wasn't nice” or “that’s not good” when scenes of someone getting hurt or hurting another pop up. He’s at the point now where I don’t have to do that for him. He’ll just look at me, shake his head and say “that’s not nice”. He’s even able to identify bad behavior in real life with other kids and knows to avoid it.

We talk a lot about gender. I asked him one day what gender is and he said "it's a feeling". He also told me that the little girl down the street said “boys can’t be pretty” but he told her “That’s not true. I’m the prettiest boy in the world.” He then proceeded to invite her over to play “even though she doesn't understand gender”. She asks him why he has “girl toys” and he just tells her he likes all kinds of toys. He’s confident enough now in what he likes that he just laughs off those kinds of questions as if they’re silly. Besides, she doesn't seem to mind being able to play with all different kinds of toys at our house.

"Let me tell you the storyline, Momma."
Playing Legos with Jackson

It’s an ongoing effort to help him figure out how to be himself in a world that wants him to fit into little boxes or perform one version of masculinity that is not healthy. Traditional gender roles hurt boys too. It tells them they shouldn't have emotions (which all humans naturally have) and to solve conflicts with violence. It tells them they have to act tough all the time. I can’t wait to see the new documentary “The Mask You Live In” to see what they have to say about healthy and unhealthy masculinity nowadays.

I have my work cut out for me. I’m in no way done helping him to understand the world or work through issues he encounters. I doubt I’ll ever be done. But that’s what parenting is about, right? While I may not have all the answers for how to parent from a feminist perspective, I feel pretty good about the job I’m doing making it up as I go along. 

What experiences have you had trying to raise your child without rigid gender roles?

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Every Body Is Beautiful!

This week is Love Your Body Week at my University! This is my favorite week every year because I get to talk to students about positive body image and empowering them to use their voices to change the world. This is my photo from our Every Body is Beautiful Photo Shoot. 

If you're interested in learning more about body love, check our the Body Love Conference in Arizona next year. #BLC15

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jackson's Nail Polish Review

Maybe you've read my blog posts about Jackson's Nail Polish Adventures. Well, now you can see his review of his current nail polish collection! The little girl he refers to in the beginning of the video told him boys don't wear nail polish, but he's learned that haters gonna hate and to do/like whatever he wants. We teach him that gender does not limit him. I love seeing him so happy in this video! Enjoy!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Grrrl With Boys Photography: Sharing My View Of The World With You

My first camera circa 1980's.

When I was in middle school my mom gave me my first camera. It was a purple and yellow "Le Clic" 110 camera like the image above and it was the best thing ever. I grew up in the country so there was plenty of beauty around me to capture. I mostly took landscapes and pictures of my dog Kisses. I grew to love photography and even won a few blue ribbons at the county fair. I went to college to study photography but then fell in love with Women's Studies and switched my major. I still love to take pictures and have even done weddings and a few family and senior photo shoots. While I still love a beautiful landscape image to hang on my wall, I have really grown to love doing photo shoots for friends and family.

Recently I created my very own photography Etsy Shop so I can share with you the beauty in the world that I come across. Feel free to peruse the images I have for sale and share with your friends. I take requests for individual, family, engagement, and senior photo shoots. Email me at for details. Click the image below to visit my shop.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

#RaisingBoys: Football, Gender Roles and Violence Against Women

Recently I signed as a speaker with Soapbox Inc. and was asked to write for their SoapVOX blog. Being that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month the video surfacing recently that showed Ray Rice knocking out his now-wife, my first post was about how to talk to boys about domestic violence. Check it out here:

I work at a University and one of the campaigns we do every year for Relationship Violence Awareness Month is the Red Flag Campaign (which I helped to create along with other interpersonal violence prevention advocates from various Virginia colleges and universities). You don't have to be a college student to find this campaign helpful. Last year I wrote a piece about healthy versus unhealthy relationship behaviors referencing the content from the Red Flag Campaign. 
Check it out here:

If you feel that your relationship is unhealthy, there are advocates out there ready and willing to help.

October always reminds me just how important it is to raise my boys to be good men. Have you talked to your kids about healthy and unhealthy relationships?

I love it when my boys hug!
(Yes, that's an Elmo bucket on Myles' head. LOL)

Monday, September 1, 2014

#SelfCare: Doctors, Heredity and Ovarian Cancer

This week I had my annual checkup with my gynecologist. Now that I'm done having kids (we decided that very soon after the second one was born #sleeplessnights), I have different concerns to discuss with my doctor. You see, both my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother died of ovarian cancer. I learned about this when doing an oral history project for one of my Women's Studies classes on the women in my family. My great-grandmother was just 31 when she died, leaving behind my then 12 year old grandmother and my great-grandfather. I can't even imagine how devastated it would be to lose your mother at such a young and critical age. I don't know much about what kind of medical treatment she received or at what point she realized she had cancer, but they had her on laudanum to keep her comfortable. Ovarian cancer is really hard to detect and this was in the early 1920's when she was diagnosed (1923) and died (1925).

My grandmother died of ovarian cancer when she was about 60, so it hit her later in life. I was just a baby when she was receiving treatment. I do have a flash of a memory of getting into a rental car after flying down to Florida with my mom to visit her. The interior was red. Funny how you remember those little things, but I digress. My grandmother was active and healthy and had the same doctor for many years. She went to her doctor about pain and bloating in her lower abdomen but he just said "oh you girls just don't drink enough water" (#sexism). When the pain didn't go away he said it was gallstones. When they went in to remove her gallbladder they did a large incision and noticed that she had stage 4 ovarian cancer. They told her that with chemo she would live 2 more years, but without it she would only live 6 months. She did chemo but lost the battle 11 months later. She got to live longer than her mother, but 60 is still too young. I've heard wonderful stories about what an amazing woman she was and it really saddens me that I only had her for the first few years of my life which I don't remember.

Me and Grandma Rose.
She was sick and towards the end of her life at this point.
I treasure this picture of us as its the only one I have.

My mother had a benign tumor on the outside of her uterus at the age of 50. Because of her family history her doctor recommended a full hysterectomy. She wanted to talk with other women about the surgery and the after effects, but because of HIPPA regulations her doctor couldn't connect her with his patients. She did find online support, but that was in 1998 so there wasn't as much out there as there is now. Despite no knowing much about the after-effects, I'm glad that she agreed to the full hysterectomy. Now I don't have to worry about her as much. She is definitely a wonderful role model for self-care. She was having problems with her hips a couple years ago and went ahead and had them both replaced. Now she's walking around like nothing ever slowed her down. When something is not 100% with her health, she takes care of it. She doesn't ignore it and hope it will go away. This is the main reason why I really listen to my body when it does new or different things. This will hopefully come in handy if I start to exhibit any of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, or any other ailment for that matter.

My role model for self-care.
Love my Momma!

I brought up this history with my doctor this week. It was already in my medical chart, but I wanted her to know that I was concerned about it. I asked if there was anything I should be doing or looking out for. Guess what? She validated my concerns! High-five, doc! She asked lots of questions about each of the women on my mother's side, including my aunt, and I was able to answer most of the questions (which I would not have been able to do if not for that Women's Studies assignment). Since my mom didn't have ovarian cancer (thank goodness for that), and we don't know if she would have, but my grandmother and great-grandmother did, she decided to treat me as if my mother had had it. She prescribed me ultrasounds every 6 months. She said this is not fool-proof method. She told me of a patient that developed ovarian cancer in between her biannual ultrasounds. However, there isn't much else to help you detect it. There is a blood test, but that isn't always accurate. She said I may want to have the genetic test done to see if I'm at a higher risk. The ultrasounds are less invasive which I appreciate. If you've read either of my previous blogs Knitting Pidgen or Femiknitzm you might have picked up on that I'm terrible at giving blood. I've had enough ultrasounds with the three pregnancies (one ectopic) that I'm not nervous at all. Well, except maybe for the results. Speaking of my ectopic pregnancy (2008), I brought that up to my doctor as well and she said that had nothing to do with ovaries, just tubes. That piece of info helped me to relax a little.

I always thought I would have daughters, or at least one, but now that I'm really thinking about all this, I realize that it is a good thing that I had boys. This way I don't pass on the ovarian cancer gene or whatever it is to daughters. I mean, not that it would have been a bad thing. Maybe by the time my daughter would have been my age they would have discovered not only a cure but a shot that would prevent it. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that my mom had me, and her mom had her, and her mom had her. I'm just a little relieved that I don't have to worry about continuing our history of ovarian cancer. I have many more positive things that I want to pass along to my future generations.

I do have an older sister and I will be talking with her about all this. I think she's pretty good about listening to her body and getting things checked out, but it can't hurt to have a sister-to-sister chat. It's important that we know our bodies, listen to them, and talk with our doctors when we feel something might be wrong. I know people worry about being thought of as a hypochondriac, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Check out this video (and the symptoms listed below) from the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition:

Okay, so now you get that it's important. Now what? Know the symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation or menstrual changes
These symptoms can seem like every day kind of issues, but if they persist for more than two weeks and don't go away after diet changes or rest, talk to your doctor. If your doctor brushes you off, find a new one. Ask your friends who they go to and trust. Just reading through the list worries me because I have several of these symptoms. However, I also know that I inherited my dad's acid reflux issues which can cause some of these symptoms. I'll admit that I'm a little worried, but my first ultrasound is scheduled for September 16th. Read all about ovarian cancer and the symptoms here at the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Listen to your bodies and choose a doctor that listens to your concerns and validates them instead of brushing them off easily. Your life depends on it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Like A Girl: Physical Conditioning of Girls

My 5 year old is going to start Kindergarden this Fall. Being the diligent parent that I am, I did some investigating of what to expect of his new school. I went to their website and opened up the Parent Handbook. I expected to see information about absences, school closings, dress code, grading scale, etc... What I was surprised to find was their "Wellness Related Fitness Criteria". See here for yourself:

First thing I noticed was the color separation: blue for boys, pink for girls. I couldn't help but think of the irony that these were pink and blue boxes, but I digress. You will notice that boys and girls start off with the same physical activity requirements. However, there is a definite gap as the kids get older with boys being required to do more physical activity. The only exception where the girls are expected to do more is with the "back-saver sit & reach". One of my friends commented that basically they just wanted girls to be more flexible. What a spot on metaphor for traditional gender roles for women! 

I remember this testing in elementary school. We didn't have a gym so we got tested on the stage (behind the curtains thank goodness). My favorite part of that memory is reliving my leg wrestling success. I won all the matches against my female peers except for one who was much taller than me. They never let me try it against the boys but I bet I could have won those matches too. I had a lot of confidence in my physical ability then. I wonder why that changed...could it be...socialization and conditioning (see chart above)?

Some of you may get why this is an issue. For those of you who don't quite get it, you may be saying "but boys are stronger than girls" or "girls and boys have different body types". I would argue that anyone who is conditioned from an early age to reach certain physical goals will as an adult be able to do those things. For example, there was the great episode of Myth Busters where they busted the "you throw like a girl" myth/insult ("insult" because our society thinks associating something with the feminine means it's weak or less than). Watch them bust that myth here (totally worth the 3:39). Basically what they found was that since most boys/men are traditionally taught how to throw a ball/play catch, that...

"men throw with a better technique..and when we removed all that training and had our blank slates throw with their non-dominate hand, males and females threw with almost identical techniques...this suggest strongly that it is cultural, that it is training and when you remove that training you level the playing field...given the training, there's no reason why women can't overcome cultural bias and throw as well as the guys" 

So, if you start from the beginning with a level playing field of training and conditioning, in this case with physical activity, there is no reason why boys and girls won't grow up to have the same level of skills. The reason we require less physically of girls than boys is because of socialization and traditional gender roles. We are taught that women should strive for beauty and men should strive for strength. That does a disservice to us all, but mostly to women. The message is even though we are capable of being strong and reaching the same physical activity goals as men, we should conditioned to be physically weaker because society doesn't value strength in a woman. (What does it value? Beauty.) Women are basically taught to take up less space. It is assumed/taught that women are not capable of doing physical activity up to par with men. Check out this video from Always about "run like a girl". (Fave quote "Why can't "run like a girl" also mean win the race?" Excellent question. It can.)

I played sports my entire childhood. I played t-ball then softball from age 5-17. I played field hockey from age 14-17. I saw that the girls whose parents took them to softball camps where they got extensive training became much better than me, even though I think I was pretty good. ;-) The point is they got more training and conditioning. I got hit by a 70 mph softball (nothing about those are soft, by the way) in the thigh while up to bat once. After I got over being super mad at her for hitting me, I realized just how great of a pitcher she was (obviously not the time she hit me, but I think she meant to do that. #meangirls). Speaking of 70 mph pitches, did you hear about the 13 year old girl that pitched a shutout recently? Awesomesauce! But, did you also hear the Fox News correspondent ask her that incredibly sexist question? Le sigh.

The start of my t-ball career. The 80's were awesome.

With my t-ball team. I was one of 4 girls out of 14 kids.

Freshman year of field hockey. With my goalie mentor Towanda who passed on
her ass-kicking knowledge and my best friend and goal sweeper Tiffany.
Why were we wearing volleyball t-shirts? Because they put no funding into "girls" sports beyond getting us to and from our games but "boys" sports had new equipment and uniforms. Just in case you think what I'm pointing out with this article doesn't matter.

Field hockey Senior year when I was a co-captain.
I'm in the center with the feminist t-shirt. ;-)

A friend of mine who is in the military agreed with me that requirements for girls and boys should be the same. Then he referenced physical requirements in the military. I will agree that physical requirements in the military should be the same for everyone, but not until we have reached that generation where both boys and girls have been conditioned from the beginning to reach the same goals and taught the techniques to be successful. We're not there yet so I don't think it would be wise to raise the bar there until we have leveled the playing field. Say if they changed the standards next year for 6 year olds (the first age listed on the chart above), in 12 years when those boys and girls are 18 and eligible for the military, then the military physical standards should be the same for everyone.

So, let's start now. Let's start telling our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, and kids we know from down the street that boys and girls are physically capable of doing the same things given the same training and conditioning. Let's empower everyone to do their best and have respect for others knowing that they are also capable of reaching the same goals and standards. Let's stop telling girls that they're weaker when we don't give them a chance to prove what they're capable of from the get-go. This message to our kids won't just have an effect on what girls and boys are taught in P.E. class, it will have a ripple effect where we start to see and treat both girls and boys (and everyone else on the gender continuum) with respect and give them a level playing field.

In other news, CBS just announced that it will launch the first all-female sports talk show. I have my fingers crossed that they do it right. It could go either way (awesome or stereotypical gender portrayals) but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. I would definitely watch as long as it was on at a reasonable hour and not stuck at midnight or something. Onward!