Tuesday, June 24, 2014

More Playground Gender Thoughts

I'm wandering off into unfamiliar territory here, but humor me.  I'm just exploring thoughts that arose from some playground time this past weekend.  

Saturday I was at a playground in an upscale area of San Francisco with my granddaughter.  She was wearing pants and a t-shirt.  Invariably, other parents, told their kids things like, "Be careful of the little boy."

I started looking around.  My granddaughter is barely 17 months old and already her clothes mark her as a boy or a girl.  Her hair is still mostly fuzzy.  Her face doesn't give her away.  But everyone assumed she was a boy.  Just because she had on pants and a T shirt - nothing frilly, no flowers, a little baseball cap with a frog. 

The next day we were at the same playground, but she was wearing clothes that identified her as a girl - the pants were more like tights and didn't go below the calf.  Her shirt had a pattern and was more like a smock than a t-shirt.  Yet one four year old girl who started talking to her in a big sisterly oh-how-cute way, suddenly pulled back and said, "She's wearing boys' shoes."  Boys' shoes?  I looked around.  The girls had more colorful shoes, with patterns and designs on them.  My granddaughter had sturdy walking shoes. 

I started looking around more carefully.  I'm not sure there's boys' clothes as much as there are girls' clothes.  By that I mean, the clothes the boys wore would be perfectly ok on a girl, but the girls' clothes wouldn't be perfectly ok on a boy.  So, if you aren't wearing 'girl' clothes, you are by default wearing boys' clothes.  It seems boys' clothes are more practical and girls' clothes are more colorful and showy. 

My daughter consciously dresses her daughter in non-gender specific clothes because she's read studies that say girls and boys are treated differently by strangers as soon as they have any identifiable gender marker - say pink or blue clothing.  People, she says, tend to comment on what girls look like  and on what boys are doing. 

Finding those studies is proving hard on google.  The blogger at A Haircut and a Shave
after having similar reactions to her daughter, pondered whether people could tell the difference between girl and boy infants by their faces.  She found studies of adult faces (adults can tell most of the time) and older kids' faces (adults can tell 75% of the time, though little kids were less successful.)  But she couldn't find such a study of infant faces. 

She also found a study
which asked mothers to estimate their 11-month-old son's or daughter's crawling skills and predict how their child would perform in a new crawling task up and down some sloped surfaces.

Interestingly, the mothers of baby girls significantly under-estimated their daughter's skills and future performance, while the mothers of baby boys significantly over-estimated their son's skills and future performance on the crawling task.  When the researchers actually measured the baby's skills and performance on a crawling task, there was absolutely no difference between the boys and girls.  The mothers were wrong; and not just wrong, but systematically wrong on the basis of their baby's gender.
She also supports my comments about clothing:
Meantime, I can say that I think the super-gendered baby clothes that dominate stores are just silly.  It can be so difficult to find clothes that aren't blue or pink, especially for very young babies.  
 Clearly, the big difference between girls and boys has to do with different parts in their pants.  But do those anatomical parts really define everything else in their lives?  Based just on this clothing review, it seems to me that our society (and probably most others)
  • makes a big deal about the differences between boys and girls 
  • expects different things from them
  • treats boys more as doers and girls more as objects of display
The environmental impacts surely play as big a role and the genetic impacts.  


  1. "Sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears"... that's the best aphorism I've heard on the subject of gender context, and it holds in much of the experience of people blessed by 'being different'. Far too much to comment on here but here is the one point I want to say now:

    Just as LGB folk have a tremendous perspective on sexuality and gender, trans folk have a tremendous perspective on gender and sexuality.

    It's confusing, confounding and difficult to get one's head round how human beings, while every bit produced by and of genetics, can find their assumed sexual differentiation reshaped in so many profound ways.

    Rather than being concerned by it all, I think one can find it makes it all the more fascinating! We are not all the same little boys and girls our patterns would seemingly dictate.

  2. Interesting observations. A few years ago our (then) 5-year old grandson and I were out hiking and he said "Let's play Princess and Bad Army." I said "Can I be the princess?" And he said, "No, I'll be the princess and you be the bad army." And so he chased me down the trail whacking me with a stick, which was pretty fun for him. He lives in a world of kick-ass princesses. Possibly now that he's 8 and in school he's more male-gender-role now (we are in San Francisco) but mostly he's dealing with all the ups and downs of becoming, and continuing to be, oneself.


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