Monday, August 18, 2008

They learn so, so many things.

I used to work in a toy store. Right now I work in a day care. The place where I work is pretty big for a day care, with 35-50ish kids there a day, aged 12 months to 6 years, and separated into classes based on age group. I usually work with the "transition" class, who are too old for the toddler/waddler class, but not old enough for the pre-school or pre-K classes. Think about 2 years old, as an average.

In both Toy Store Retail and in Day Care my favourite part is the kids. And in both my least favourite part is watching our socially created systems of oppression already having an impact on said kids. I can remember dying of frustration in the aisles of the toy store when mother after mother came in saying her son loved to play cooking, but didn't like pink, and did we have any toy cooking sets that were less feminine? I remember cursing whoever thought to split the educational section into a "boy" section and "girl" section, the boy section filled with microscopes and bug catching kits, and the girls section filled with jewelry making kits and hair accessory kits. And feeling disconcerted by box after box with thin white children's faces staring out at me advertising their product.

I left the toy store because I was taking extra credits in school. And then worked as a hotel night auditor and a freelance stagehand, and then I got my day care job, which is where I work now.

And, of course, the frustrations follow. All currently embodied in one little boy, aged about two. Or rather, in the reaction and interaction of others with this little boy. We will, for the purpose of this story, call him Don. Which isn't his name at all, but it works.

Now, first off, if you are truly an observant person, nothing will destroy more gender stereotypes and body stereotypes than being with a diverse group of toddlers. The one who eats the most is a tiny tiny tiny blonde girl, whereas we have to coax two of the big ones to even touch their food. All children, when given an opportunity, will play with a baby doll. All of them, when given a chance, will push a big toy truck around. And even if you do start to notice a trend, that trend says nothing about what to expect from an individual child.

And amongst these children is one particular individual child. "Don".

Don is a big baby. He is definitely among the heaviest in his class (though not necessarily the top). He's fat. Fat and adorable.

Now this has very little relevance to my big point except to say why I might have been defensive of him from the start. The very first time I set eyes on him, I thought, "Does he have a mental disability or something similar?" This was not based on anything but appearance. His unusually light eyes, small nose, and large forehead had reminded me of a lot of the kids I had worked with in middle school when I volunteered for the Special Education classes. It was an unfair assumption, and when no one mentioned anything I figured I must have been wrong.

Then it became apparent that Don is kind of a handful, and not for being rebellious. Because he is big, he can easily hurt the smaller babies just by laying on them (which is something he does frequently, but never, it seems, maliciously. It's like he just doesn't understand what he's doing and so just gathers in too-close proximity to whomever he latches onto, knocking them over and winding up on top of them). And when we give the babies instructions, he doesn't seem to understand, and so it's a hassle when we have to maneuver over to wherever he needs to be. And then when he eats, he doesn't really eat his food, he just mechanically and inefficiently stuffs it into his mouth, often creating a huge, crumby mess. He doesn't necessarily eat more than the other babies, but his method of eating certainly makes it seem like he does.

My reaction as I watched this unfold was a resurface of the suspicion that maybe he had something else going on, such as a mental disability, or just some leftover baggage from being in foster care. That maybe what he needed was a different sort of care than was available at our day care. That maybe our repeatedly getting upset with him wasn't ever going to help, because as far as I could tell his actions weren't on purpose and he didn't understand he was doing anything wrong.

The reaction of them women I work with was to give him a nickname.

"Fat Baby"

Now, personally, I don't think the word "fat" is an insult, or that it should be. It's a descriptor. And he is a fat baby. BUT - they are using the word to strip him of his name. In a way, to make him not a person. He's just the fat baby. And even when they use it "endearingly" it's still apparent that they are making fun of him. Or that they feel resentful of the fact that they have to care for this baby as well as the others. This fat baby.

And, of course, of all the big babies we have, this is the one it's okay to call fat, because have you seen how he eats? And he's not smart! He confirms our stereotypes! Never mind the other fat babies. They don't confirm the stereotypes, so they're not really fat babies. He's the fat baby. We don't like him, so he can be fat. Which is, of course, the worst thing you could be.

I need this job, and I'm about as low as it can get as far as the levels of power are concerned. I don't feel completely safe making a huge deal of this (despite the fact that I think it is a huge deal). So I, whether right or wrong, have made myself settle for a side mention of "Is that really necessary?" (which was patently ignored) and refusing to use this nickname myself.

And then there was today.

Today, Don came in with new shoes. His mother pointed them out as she dropped him off. Disney Princess shoes. It seemed pretty apparent that she was pointing it out so that we wouldn't think he had someone else's shoes on (trading shoes is a favourite pastime among the babies, basically every time you turn your back you turn around again finding that you have a puzzle of shoes to solve). She was saying "Yes. Princesses. Yes. These are HIS shoes."

My only thought upon hearing this was something along the lines of "Neat. Okay."

But, oh, those shoes. They became a topic of discussion today at work!

See, because I had missed the apparent scandal in those shoes. See, they're princesses and he's a boy! Which is, apparently, a big deal. Or so was explained to me.

"Look, look!" the other teacher in my class was whisper-calling over the manager, "Look! He's got princess shoes."

"I don't see anything wrong with that." Says I, ignored.



"They're not, like, Winnie the Pooh or something?"

"No! Look. Princesses!"

The manager makes a scrunched face.

"I don't see the problem with wanting princess shoes." I interject.

And then the manager said, not really to me, but to the other teacher, "I wouldn't buy him those shoes even if he wanted them. Because he's a boy!"

Oh! I see! That makes things clear.

The conversation ended there, because we were all pretty caught up in, you know, making sure the small mostly-harmless almost-helpless childlings didn't get themselves killed or seriously injured, which is rather time consuming. And that's probably for the best.

Because if it had been allowed to continue. Oh, the rage I had welling in me in that moment. I so wanted to scream at that woman. I wanted to scream so loud.

I wanted to yell

Don't you know what you're doing? Don't you understand? What are you saying with those shoes? Why is wrong for a boy? Don't you ever reflect on where this comes from?

See, he can't wear girl shoes, because they're for girls, and there's something wrong with that. But there's not something wrong with it if it's a girl wearing them. Just think this through.

There's something inherently wrong with girls' shoes. Boys shouldn't touch them. That's gross and weird. There's something wrong with girls' shoes. There's something wrong with dressing like girls. There's something wrong with acting like girls.

There's something wrong with girls.

Except, of course, for girls. Because feminine is the lower standard. And female is the lower sex. So it's okay for them, but don't you stoop there. Don't you dare. You might end up inferior, like those girls.

That's where this comes from. If girls want to act like boys, that's stepping up, so they can (as long as they don't get too ambitious or uppity, mind!). But for a boy to lower himself to their level! I never heard the like!

It's like when you learn that Spot can eat off the ground or from a dish, but you can only use a dish. Because you're better than Spot!

But these are people we're talking about.

And the people who are listening to you right now? The two-year-olds? They are so anxious to figure out the rules to this crazy mad world. And you're teaching them fast.

See, every afternoon when we comb everyone's hair to make sure they look okay for their parents? And we coo over the girls, calling them "so pretty" like it's the best thing they've accomplished all day (not, you know, their coloring or listening well or singing the ABCs)? They're picking up on that.

And those girls? They've already learned shoes. Remember, how the kids trade them all over? The girls started that. They hear us complimenting their adorable shoes every time we put them on them. They've learned that shoes are a part of "pretty" and "pretty" is important. They know it. Already. They know it.

They know that, and now, today, you are teaching them that those shoes are "their place", and that it's embarrassing and wrong. But only for boys. Because, boys are better than their shoes.

They are learning it, but they are not old enough to properly examine it yet. They will not be offended. They will just put it in their categories. And by the time they are old enough to examine it, it will be something "everyone" knows, because it's the only right way. And "because he's a boy" will be all the explanation they'll ever need.

They are learning. They know already. You are teaching them. "Pretty" is the most important, and they know already that "Fat" is categorically not "Pretty". You're making it so clear to them already. They are figuring it out. "Fat" is the opposite of a compliment. They are making the connections.

And the boys know now that girl things are things that they can look down upon. Boy things are never looked down upon, by boys or girls. But the boys know now, there's something wrong with being like a girl. We can mock it. We can shun it. Ignore it. It will never be important. When they get older "throws like a girl", "screams like a girl", "girly" - they'll all be perfectly legitimate insults. I mean, duh. They're like girls.

And no one's more like a girl than an actual girl is.

As Sweet Machine so succintly put it

[O]ne of the great rhetorical tricks of patriarchy (...) is to define women’s value in terms of appearance, and simultaneously to define appearance as something so utterly trivial that only completely shallow and useless creatures — like, say, women! — would care about it.

I know they're learning it. I know because Danica (not her name), just a week ago, in the next class over, after she had her hair put up for the afternoon, I saw her and was surprised by her new pigtails. I said, "Danica, your hair is beautiful!"

And she lowered her head in sadness. Do you know what she said?

"I have black hair."

She was not referring to the color of her hair. She was referring to her race. It was an argument against my compliment, because, you see, she's already learned. She already knows. She doesn't have beautiful hair. She has black hair. And she's learned, those things must be mutually exclusive.

It was all I could do to keep from crying as I hugged her and told her she had black beautiful hair.

Danica is four.

These kids learn fast. They are learning so, so fast. Do you have any idea what you are teaching them?

If they were the shoes my son wanted, my son would get princess shoes. Because I don't want to be the one who teaches a child that girls need girl shoes to be worth something, but that boys are above them.

That there's something wrong with girls.

I don't want to be the one who delivers that lesson to anyone.

Why the hell do you?

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