Kindergarten. Oh, what vivid memories. Even though I was only four years old I remember those days clearly.*
It was a mixed class, boys and girls. We had to wear uniforms! Girls in skirts and boys in trousers. I remember meeting my first best friend there – she was cooler than other girls. I don’t remember sitting next to her in class though. I sat with a girl called Naomi and some boys. I remember having my first crush on this boy who was really nice to me. I remember looking like a six year old and thinking that this was the reason why one short scrawny boy, who used to sit next to me, would bully me. Then I remember him picking on other girls and thinking how silly little boys are. And I remember learning nursery rhymes for the first time and starting a love affair with them which has lasted up to this very day.
One particular nursery rhyme which I remember learning from a big book of rhymes (Childcraft – The How and Why Library, Volume 1, Poems and Rhymes – yes, I still own the collection!) as I got older was the following:
What are little boys made of, made of?
What are little boys made of?
Frogs and snails
And puppy dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of, made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.
As a little girl I recall reading this nursery rhyme and thinking why little boys were made out of such disgusting ingredients. I also remember thinking how not all girls were as nice as the poem suggested. However, I also remember thinking how rude and pushy little boys were and how most girls I knew loved acting like little princesses.
As I got older and started primary school, I found myself in an all girl environment – even our teachers were all female! Many girls bought pink stationery and lunchboxes. Mine were usually black, blue or green. I remember girls playing “Mummies and Daddies”, as it was referred to in the playground. I used to prefer some good old fashioned Power Rangers role-play! Girls would buy talking dolls that could piss just like real babies. I preferred Playmobil and Lego. The only doll I begged my parents to buy me was the Disney version of Pocahontas. She was always my favourite Disney female character – so strong, free spirited and beautiful.
It could be because I grew up with two brothers but it didn’t really matter. I don’t remember feeling bad because I generally liked more of the stuff boys are supposed to like or made friends easier with boys than I did with girls. I was happy most of the time wearing my elder brother’s baggy outgrown t-shirts and a pair of shorts to go play with the girls in their frilly tops and dresses during the cool summer nights in my neighbourhood. I only started to become aware of my choices at the age of thirteen. Hello Puberty!
It was like I saw pink for the very first time. I remember opening my wardrobe and realising I didn’t own anything pink and entering into a complete state of panic. I remember dragging my mum to go clothes shopping and I remember wearing almost only pink for two years after this revelation. Then I remember being conscious of fashion trends and make-up and the hair growing on my legs and underarms. I remember not feeling “girly” enough and starting to feel insecure about myself. Damn hormones.
It took me a while to realise that little girls aren’t really made of “sugar and spice and all things nice” after that. (Although, in retrospect, I already knew this at the tender age of five!) Since then I’ve learned a lot about sexuality and gender – especially my own. I respect and accept my character traits, my hobbies, my beliefs whether these are classified as “male” or “female”. I like embracing my femininity and my masculinity, even though I don’t really like to separate the two into categories. I mean really, what makes a man a man, and a woman a woman? Or rather, what are little boys and little girls made of ? (made of?!)
This question often rings in my head but I felt compelled to write about it after a little up-roar that happened in the US earlier this month. Gender issues and equality have been discussed so much in this last century that it has become old news but it seems people still feel threatened by the whole argument. The recent controversy has gotten people talking about gender again because of a recent advertisement by J. Crew.
First of all: Who are J. Crew?
Well, they’re one of the biggest names in specialty retail in the US and are very influential. They sell a wide range of apparel and accessories for women, men and children. Every year they issue 24 editions of their J. Crew catalogue – one of which had the controversial advertisement I shall be discussing.
The ad in this last edition, featured a designer from J. Crew painting her three year old son’s toenails pink and this is where it gets “controversial”: the caption on the ad reads “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.” Check out the ad below!
The ad would not have caused so much controversy had it not been criticised by Fox News pundit and psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow in his article called J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Equality. Ablow goes out of his way to explain how such an ad will corrupt the minds of young children and get them confused about their gender roles in society. Many people were against Ablow’s criticism. Most were females who spoke about “double standards” and how Ablow would have not had the same reaction if the ad featured a girl playing with toy monster trucks. Of course, there were some male bashings too like the one from Joseph Alexiou on the Business Insider. However, the response that intrigued me the most was the vlog posted on YouTube by a one John Halcyon Styn:
I like the way Styn uses his own experience with the colour pink to explain how society is so worked up with stupid things like colour or toys or clothes in order to identify a gender. At the same time, Styn uses a colour that is stereotypically a girl’s colour to actually put this message across. I really like some of the points he raises although it does irk me a little that he seems bothered by the son’s name and the psychiatrist’s name, which contradicts his argument on stereotypical gender associations. Of course, that’s just the vibe I got off of him. I could have misunderstood his comments.
What I get from all this controversy is a snippet from one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays Romeo and Juliet:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
This quote is as cliche as one can get, but let’s not diss Shakespeare. He was right, as always. And from this quote one can dispel any argument about what men should portray and what women should portray. Before being men or women, we are first individuals with our own cultural and family upbringings, experiences, education and a whole mix of genetics to boot! It’s hard enough going through all the images media and society drills into us as kids, let alone trying to come to terms with our identity and sexuality as teenagers.
I don’t know if the lady in that J. Crew ad was forcing her son to wear pink just to make sales, but I doubt it. The bottom line is that kids will have more serious things to worry about when they grow up so if one little boy likes the colour pink, who are we to judge? Who cares? It’s just a colour for crying out loud!
It’s true that some people feel that this whole genderless or androgynous look is becoming more of a fashion statement then a simple form of gender identity. We see it everywhere: catwalks, magazines, ads and on the street where the hipsters live. I too am enamored with the whole scene. One of my idols is Grace Jones, a woman who truly crossed all gender boundaries. I don’t want to idolise the scene but I always loved it because I too often feel genderless and I really wish genders didn’t exist. I wish we could just love people and not genders. It’s a confusing feeling to explain but it’s one that many people genuinely feel. And to have parents and teachers forcing stereotypical ideals of what society expects a woman or a man to behave or dress like can become even more confusing for kids and can create opportunities for hate and bullying.
I am not trying to tell people how to raise their own kids, nor am I trying to outright bash Dr Ablow’s criticism of the ad, nor do I want to praise the ad itself as it may very well be that the “gender issue” was used as a marketing tool. However, I want to make people realise that they should be happy in their own skin and not succumb to what society tells them. I honestly mean this in a “pursuit-of-happiness-type-of-way” and not in a “rebellious-anarchist-type-of-way”.
Most people will come to terms with what makes them an individual eventually but until then they will feel like they have to uphold a role that society gives them like having kids, getting married, getting a job and all that other stuff “adults” do. At the end of the day, I guess kids will forever have to wait till puberty to figure all this out, which is fine by me. I mean, who wants all that pressure at the age of three anyway?!
*In Malta, kindergarten refers to the two years before primary school. Before that, children are sent to daycare (newborns to two/three years of age).