Age 6: My wardrobe is full of frills and flowers with pink skirts and pastel t-shirts to match. Looking back, I am the poster ‘girl-child,’ with glitter clips and barrettes in my hair to match the bows of the ballerina flats on my feet.
Age 10: Opening gifts on Christmas morning — mine consist of tea sets, teddy bears, and dolls, while my male cousins get trucks and Lego sets. We play with the Legos in the kids’ room for hours, while my doll lays by my side.
Age 14: I predominantly wear jeans, leggings, and t-shirts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to the occasional skirts and dresses — I’m just more comfortable in pants I can run in. I’ve convinced myself that my favorite color is pink, just like all the other girls at school.
Age 16: I have been told to start sitting like a lady: legs crossed, back straight. “Have some poise!” “Show some grace!” “Girls don’t sit like that.” It’s time to start caring about my appearance now.
Age 18: I am painfully aware of the fact that I don’t wear heels and makeup to parties; I stick to my trusted sneakers and the occasional eyeliner. I don’t wear tight-fitting dresses with low, dipping necklines either; I’m more than comfortable in my black ripped skinny jeans. I force myself to dress better, grow my nails out, and wear sandals and skirts. I think I look like the other girls now.
Gender norms are confusing. For years, I spent more time comparing myself to the girls around me than celebrating our differences and allowing myself to be happy with who I am. I hated being the ‘tall girl’ with the slightly rounder, bigger features who stood at the back of the line in school with the boys. Why wasn’t I like the shorter girls with the small noses who stood at the very front? I distinctly remember thinking of myself as less than the girls who looked more like ‘girls’ in my eyes. This dichotomy between masculinity and femininity was created in my head by the socially constructed gender roles that I saw in my everyday life, and unfortunately, this deeply embedded heteronormative culture exists all around us, plaguing young girls and boys everywhere.
These norms created a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to exist as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ which led to confusion in my head. They made me feel awkward when I talked about being on the football team and heard snide comments about how football was a boy’s sport and made me uncomfortable when I had ‘friends’ tell me that I ‘didn’t dress like a girl.’ Soon, I got comfortable with a little bit of casual sexism, not only within my extended family but with peers and in school as well. I’ve had teachers round up the considerably smaller boys to help rearrange the furniture in our classroom for a group activity and call on me and the rest of the girls to help wipe down the whiteboard and distribute worksheets to everyone.
These learned gender roles have been embedded in the young minds of boys and girls for centuries. While there have definitely been improvements along the way, ultimately, they still exist. Boys wearing crop tops and makeup still raise eyebrows, and girls with shaved heads are still considered unladylike. It’s time we actively engage ourselves and unlearn these stereotypes of what a male and female should look and act like. Call out your sexist relatives, point out the gender stereotypes in film and media, and don’t let sexist jokes get brushed under the carpet anymore.
Respecting people’s gender identities and pronouns play a huge role in this unlearning and further contributes to creating a safe space for people to feel comfortable. Just because this issue doesn’t directly impact you, doesn’t mean it’s not important.
I’ve had family members appalled to hear that I don’t know how to cook a good Indian meal when their sons have probably barely ever stepped into a kitchen. I’ve also been told I don’t smile enough, and then further belittled for the tone of my voice. The difference now is that I will no longer feel sorry and try to change myself.
Age 20: I still have growing to do. Instead of immediately apologizing or averting my eyes in an uncomfortable situation, I’m putting conscious effort into challenging the gender roles that are expected of me. Enough with the patriarchy, the ‘boys will be boys’ and the ‘act like a girl.’ I’m going to speak loudly, dress the way I want, and not let anyone else’s notions of how I should behave affect my day — and neither should you.