Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Stereotyping

I started a new Bible study last Thursday night that I am excited about. I haven't been part of any regularly meeting group of women for over a year now, and I have missed the companionship of other women immensely. The topic for this study is The Ministry of Motherhood, based on the book of the same name by Sally Clarkson. We haven't started the book yet, so I can't give any feedback yet, but the concept is something I want to study more, and I am anxious to dive into the deep discussions that I think this particular group of women is anxious for. I have high hopes.

In the very beginning of last week's opening session, though, I had an experience that touched on a sore spot for me. I tried to ease the sting of it with humor, my specialty, but it still smarted a bit.

The leader had kindly purchased a small journal for each of us women, to be used to record our thoughts as we journey through this study. Before she handed them out, though, she noted that there were several different styles, most with floral motifs, but one with a bold geometric pattern. She figured this last one could be for me, and laughed to the rest of the group that I probably wouldn't like any of the others.

I balked and cried out that I was being unfairly stereotyped. A couple of the other women who know me backed me up and questioned the leader's conclusion. Amid much light-hearted laughter on the group's part and feigned insult on mine, I marched across the room and selected a tan colored journal with botanical drawings of sunflowers on the cover and a yellow ribbon bookmark.

Sarcasm always contains an element of truth. My response was no exception.

This leader is a person I have been getting to know. I have been in her home and she in mine. What do I do to give people the impression that I abhor any and all forms or expressions of femininity?

There was a time in my life, in my elementary school years, that this was true. I was tall, lanky, clumsy and awkward, with none of the natural feminine charms that my female classmates or church friends seemed to have. I was told frequently how ugly I was and was the butt of all jokes at school. If one boy really wanted to insult another boy, he could simply suggest publicly that the boy liked me. Those were fighting words. I had bad skin and a flat chest, too much hair on my arms and a lower than average voice that the mean-spirited girl in the youth choir at church mocked incessantly, spitting out Kermit the Frog jokes whenever I ventured too near her. I got to hear, on a regular basis, from both children and adults, "Wow, your mom is so pretty! You look just like your dad."

It hurt. Deeply.

Knowing that I would never be able to compete with the other girls or even run in their same circles, I chose to not even try. I chose to not care about "girl things." I chose to shun femininity and focus on what I could do, which was to excel academically, learn BMX tricks on my bike and play sports. These were "boy things" in the world I lived in, but they were the only things I knew how to do well, and I wanted to do something, anything well. It was a lonely existence, but as a child, I didn't know any other way to survive, to cover the pain I felt inside. By the fifth grade, I was so boyish that I was frequently mistaken for a boy--by adults.

By junior high school, things began to change a little. I didn't shun femininity any more, although I wasn't very good at it either. My clothes and hair styles more closely resembled the popular girl styles and I wore make-up and got my teeth straightened, but somehow these things didn't do for me what they seemed to do for the other girls. My best efforts seemed feeble. And although I wasn't so frequently openly mocked anymore, I wasn't noticed as a girl, either. I was the non-gender specific friend who could crack a good joke, pull a practical joke, throw a ball and get good grades.

It still hurt, but not as badly as before.

By mid-way through high school, I'd never had a single boy express the tiniest amount of interest in me--as a girl. In my circles of friends, in the media, and even in my own home, this was presented as being of the utmost importance, so it was a stressful situation for me. I knew that getting boy to like me was supposed to be my goal, but I had no way to attract one. My attempts at femininity still went unnoticed, so I still wasn't exactly sure what to do with "girl stuff."

Eventually, I did find a boy who liked me. I quickly agreed to become his girlfriend and relished the attention he gave me, even when that attention was a little more physical than I was comfortable with. It wasn't until many months into the relationship that I began to notice his angry, violent side--not ever toward me, but scary nonetheless. I began to notice that he was very pushy, when it came to our physical relationship. He began to expect, to demand--never quite pushing me too far, but far enough that I was uncomfortable.

We broke up. I still had no idea what to do with the concept of femininity and after this experience, wasn't sure that it was all that important afterall. Eventually, by late high school, I found a balance that I could live with. The wounds of childhood were always with me, and I never completely felt like "one of the girls," but I was close enough. It worked for me.

Since meeting and marrying my husband, fourteen years ago, I have steadily grown as a person, specifically as a woman. Although I still have my moments, as perhaps we all do in our own way, I am comfortable with who I am. My insecurities no longer rule me. I am the woman that God made me to be--or at least I am closer to becoming her than I used to be.

So back to Thursday. Why does this still happen? Why do people just assume that I have no interest in anything feminine? What must I do to overcome this incessant stereotyping? I'm tired of it.

For the record, I love poetry, art, wildflowers, my grandmothers' jewelry, soft sweaters and sipping tea. I have several items of clothing that are pink and I wear perfume. I have my ears pierced and my favorite black shoes have heels. I have borne and breast-fed two children and enjoy sex with my husband.

In addition, I can throw a football and I get fiercely competitive when I play any sort of game.

So there you go.

In the words of Sojourner Truth, "And ain't I a woman?"

6 comments:

alison and two ukrainian friends said...

Yes, an amazing one.

My opinion about this particular assumption - you are markedly intelligent and straight forward, there can be an embarrassment from girly girls when dealing with less frou frou women. It could less about you and more about what this woman is making up about you and perhaps her own insecurities which just happened to bump up against your own.

When in doubt, ask.

I am not articulating this well. Torey is reading over my shoulder and I am a leettle beet tired. We are both knowing you are an eencredibly woooomanly wooman.

Ees true. Veddy true. Do not fourget thees.

I am veedy sorry to have to change langoojes on you. Boot some theengs I am only knowing how to express myself foolly in Ukrainian. You are understanding how Eeengleesh is having such limeetaeshuns.

I looooove speaking Ukrainian eet ees veddy good all thee time. Eet ess making a sad theeng a veddy good theen.

Ees true.

Sherry C said...

Alison,

Please tell your Ukranian friends 'Thank-you.' They made me geeeggle.

Sherry C said...

Another note:

By late high school/college, I had come to a couple of very simple, but vitally important conclusions:

1. Getting a boy to be attracted to me was not the primary goal of my life.

2. Because I was not putting much focus on external appearance (knowing I just couldn't compete), I knew that when/if a boy did like me, it would be based on who I was as a person, not on some fading external image. I knew, even as a late teen, that this kind of relationship would be much more solid and dependable, long-term. I arrived at that conclusion by sort of a backwards default, but there is so much truth there.

"Charm is deceitful and beauty fades..."

Teach it to your daughters.

Scott said...

Sherry, I hate to disagree on Point 2 - but it could have been because of your fabulous, Bill-Gates-like wealth ... that's what attracted me to my wife. Turns out she's a halfway decent cook too, so it turned out well for me.

Anyway, sorry to be the voice of reality. Chin up, anyway.

I've heard a lot about those Ukrainian friends of yours - I only wish I could speak the language.

Ruth C said...

Wow, I knew a lot of this, but there it is, your heart on the page.

Can I can return the favor?

Add single in your 30's and the lonliness of a Master's education, surrrounded by wedded friends having babies, and you have a me-ized version of your story. Only less intelligent in my youth!

I do wonder if there will ever be a sexy black dress as a birthday present from an adoring husband who finds me attractive. I can hope, right?

mrsfish said...

I never thought of you as unfeminine. I did and do think of you as bold, direct, and preferring the unique, quirky and meaningful over the sentimental, surface or sappy. Those not be the 1950's happy homemaker adjectives, but I also wouldn't say they are not feminine qualities in today's world.

Other things that strike me about this post include that although I knew I was clueless in the waning years of our friendship, I must have been very teenage self absorbed, clueless, or as close as we were - we were still really good at hiding things from each other. Or my memory stinks.

Anyway - friend - sorry this happened, miscommunication or insensitive comments - I am glad there were people there who knew you well enough and cared enough to correct the comment, and that you were able to make the choice you wanted in the face of it.