There’s this picture of me sitting in an old photo album at my parent’s house. I am probably four and I’m standing on a patio chair outside with my brother and my dad. I’ve got a popsicle stick in my mouth with red juice stains surrounding my lips. We must have all finished swimming because the three of us are all shirtless, wearing swim-shorts.
Being shirtless isn’t a huge deal when you are a four year old girl. It’s probably not preferred, but it is not the worst. I remember my mom would frown at me as I refused the pink and purple swimsuits and demanded to wear swim-shorts just like dad. We were just in our own backyard and nothing was growing on my chest yet – but still, it wasn’t proper swimwear for a girl. However, with the picture as evidence, I had gotten what I wanted. I swam in those swim-shorts and was just like the boys. I stood proudly on the chair with a popsicle in my mouth, my thumbs up in the air. I was a girl, but I was a girl who could do what the boys could do too.
Now, I’m not at all arguing that we should change what is considered proper swimwear for women. That memory is just an example of a four year-old who knew who she was, and knew what she wanted. It’s also a memory of a four year-old who was beginning to experience a world with gender roles.
Gender roles are weird when you really stop and think about them. The “parts” you’ve been given will determine what extracurricular activities you can participate in, how much you’ll be paid, and the likelihood of you getting sexually assaulted. That’s crazy! From the moment your physiological parts are called female or male or neither, most of your life is already determined for you.
In my own opinion and experience, most gender roles are arbitrary and are socially constructed. Girls aren’t biologically determined to love pink more than boys; and men aren’t inherently messier than women. Yet, stereotypes and our social expectations keep these myths alive. If you’re doubtful that gender roles are socially constructed, just think about how gender roles have evolved throughout culture and history.
Look at this picture of a small child:
Guess what! That’s baby FDR!
Yep. Our former president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, wore a dress and had long, girly hair as a child. But aren’t dresses for girls??? Apparently that was not the case in the late 1800s. Just like blue used to be the appropriate color for girls and pink used to be the appropriate color for boys (Read more about FDR and baby colors here). History has changed and so have the notions of what it means to be “male” and “female.”
Another example would be how sexuality defines masculinity and femininity. Today, it’s considered masculine for a man to sleep around and act as a womanizer. However, in ancient Greece, men who were easily seduced by women or were controlled by their sexual passions (or really lacked any sort of self-control) were considered effeminate. These are two completely contrasting notions of what it means to be masculine and feminine. Gender roles really do depend on time and place – which begs the question, if gender roles change over time, do they really describe what it means to be male or female?
When I was four, I didn’t know that gender roles were arbitrary. I didn’t understand the idea of a “social construct.” I just knew that it was silly that I couldn’t play with Hot Wheels because I was a girl. So as the stubborn and determined child that I was, I screamed when put in a dress, I asked for the “boy meals” at McDonalds, and I blew up my Barbie doll heads. That’s not to say that I hated all “girl stuff.” I just wanted to play with the toys that I enjoyed, and some of them happened to be marketed for boys.
I think we do a disservice to ourselves when we put each other in such a tight gender box. That’s not to say that there aren’t physical and biological differences between men and women, because there definitely are! But when it comes to what jobs we’re encouraging young people to dream of or what style of clothes to wear, I think it’s silly to automatically determine choices for people based off of their anatomy. I think it’s beautiful that God gave us different bodies that are capable of different things – but we can’t let that blind us to the various gifts and interests that God has given us.
I like to think I’m a bit smarter and more experienced than four year-old me – but I’ve got to say, I was on the right track with the whole swim-suit protest. So go be yourself and if you haven’t already, see what life is like outside that box. It can be pretty freeing.