gender role

Fit Friday: Tank Tops and Taking Up Space

It’s May, and Idaho has made that quick and awkward transition from cool-and-almost-springy to my-kids-come-in-from-recess-hot-and-smelly. I have third-graders who needed to start wearing deodorant this spring, which is a new one for me. My second year of teaching, I had that fun conversation with my fifth-grade boys about DEODOROANT>AXE**. Their big takeaway was, Ms. Danielle taught us how to get chicks in middle school! But, it got them to start showering daily and give up the Axe in favor of pit stick, so I marked it a success. I’ve had fourth grade girls start their periods before. But third grade… I was just not expecting it this year.

That first group of students I taught? They’re sophomores now, for three more weeks. Most of them are taller than I am. You can insert any number of cliches here about how they’ve grown, and how old I feel. It’s been fun, though, to watch them. That’s one of the perks of working in a small school–I can see them every day, if I make a point to be in the hallways between classes or after lunch. We have high school students who have transferred to our school, too, over the past seven years who have added to the mix of personalities. And to the dating pool. I bring up this last point  because that’s a Big Deal in the middle school and high school. When I taught these students, boys and girls played together and were friends. Now, it seems everything is viewed through the lens of dating and pairing up and sex. This is not just the perspective of the students, but also the staff. When you are teaching students who are preoccupied with who is dating whom and the tangled webs thereof, it’s important to pay attention and to be proactive and involved.

Here is my disclaimer: I am not in these classrooms. I don’t interact with these students much. And there is a lot I’m missing.

What I see is this (in the hallways, staff meetings, and handbook revisions every spring): Girls have been chastised for wearing tank tops; boys are not. Girls’ clothing is sexualized; boys’ is not. Girls try to take up less space; boys try to take up more.

Toxic body image affects girls and boys. Girls see one version of the ideal body, and learn to lose pounds and inches and to take up less space. Boys see one image of the ideal body, and learn to build certain muscle in certain places. Self-perception and self-worth often hinges on these limited definitions of acceptable physical femininity and masculinity. (I’ll expand these more in the future, and provide more nuance).

In my anti-diet support and resource group, we talk a lot about giving ourselves permission to Take Up Space. To wear tank tops, even if our arms are not toned. To wear the clothes we want before we reach our goal weight. To wear the clothes we want without allowing our body parts to be scrutinized or sexualized. Do you know why we have to consciously give ourselves permission to do this, at the age of 20, 30, or even 60?

Because this kind of body shaming and sexualization starts in high school. When we talk about the dress code, we talk about girls wearing tank tops, and the boys getting distracted. We talk about the girls not having enough “self-respect,” about the girls using their clothes to get attention, about it detracting from the learning environment. When we talk about the boys wearing tank tops… we don’t. We have not, in my recollection, talked about boys wearing tank tops. A former student wears tank tops and sleeveless muscle shirts almost daily. I have never seen nor heard him told to cover up or change shirts during the day. I have seen multiple girls forced to wear t-shirts or hoodies or zip-ups over tank tops that were deemed inappropriate.

It starts before high school, when I am expected to tell a second grade girl that she cannot wear a tank top on a 90ºF day because of the dress code. Second grade girls (generally) do not have bra straps or breasts, and they definitely do not have sexy shoulders. Second grade children do not think about their own bodies in that manner, unless the adults in their lives create environments where those aspects are amplified.

Are there adult men and women who find shoulders, breasts, cleavage, or clavicles attractive? Yes. Are there adult men and women who find well-defined biceps, triceps, and pectorals attractive? Yes. Do we objectify every adult human that walks past us in a tank top? I sure hope not. Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same?

Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same? I might raise a stink if the dress code comes up again. I might bring it up myself. Our girls should be allowed to take up space; they should not have to “hide” their bodies. The boys should not have free reign to take up as much space as they want by wearing shirts that reveal their entire torsos from a profile view, especially if we’re using the idea of “professionalism” as the rationale behind other pieces of the dress code. Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies had a pointed piece about reframing dresscodes as “Don’t Wear Saturday on a Wednesday.” It strikes a sensible balance between allowing girls to retain agency of their bodies and clothing, respecting boys’ ability to control themselves and treat girls as humans, and teaching students to dress for the situation and venue.

Happy Spring! I’ma go garden in a T-Shirt while it’s still cool enough to do so. Once it’s mid-June…sports bra. Lots of sunblock. Not because it’s sexy, but because it’s just too hot. Also I have six-foot fences, soooo..

**I have to credit my sister Katrina with the approach to this one. This was said in a very kind manner. I am not the Takes No Prisoners teacher with my kids.

When you rub an onion and an orange together, it doesn’t make the onion smell better, it just makes everything smell kinda gross. Trust me, you don’t smell good. I used to be a middle school girl, and the people around you would much prefer you to shower daily and wash your hair than to smell like a can from a commercial. This is your homework for the next two weeks: Shower every day, wash your hair, wear deodorant. There will be a test, and it will be the asthma of the para across the hall who cannot breathe after you spray that stuff in the boys’ bathroom.

(More) Hair

My hair looks awesome today. So do my pants. So do the revisions on my paper I sent to my advisor this morning. The patriarchal hegemony is not holding me back from wearing kelly green capris and quasi-pixie-bob buzz-swoop ‘do!

In more easy-to-understand-terms, I have more pictures to show more drastically the before and after of this hair journey (for the longer word-based journey, check out Monday’s blog post)…

Before:

Danielle, 2003. Senior year of high school. I never wore my hair like this but still felt the need to spend three hours getting my massive amounts of hair curled and styled for my senior pictures. I also never wore makeup, except for my senior photos. So basically this is a photo of someone I never met. I think my internalized patriarchy might be showing a bit.

Danielle, 2003. Senior year of high school. I never wore my hair like this but still felt the need to spend three hours getting my massive amounts of hair curled and styled for my senior pictures. I also never wore makeup, except for my senior photos. So basically this is a photo of someone I never met. I think my internalized patriarchy might be showing a bit. 

Danielle, 2009. The long hair, past the shoulders, not quite to the elbows. About 10 minutes later, I chopped off a 10-inch braid and never looked back.

Danielle, 2009. The long hair, past the shoulders, not quite to the elbows. About 10 minutes later, I chopped off a 10-inch braid and never looked back.

Later (not really “After,” since my hair is an ongoing project):

Danielle, 2014. The Swoop, as it is sometimes known, is exactly what my hair wants to do, and I let it.
Danielle, 2014. The Swoop, as it is sometimes known, is exactly what my hair wants to do, and I let it.
Danielle, 2015. The hair is short, sassy, and in your face. I get shit done.

Danielle, 2015. The hair is short, sassy, and in your face. I get shit done.

Danielle, 2015. It took me longer to put on my three shirts than it did to do my hair. Short hair = ME! While sporting this ensemble while in line for the restroom, I got into a conversation about genderless restrooms and Idaho politics. I don't think that was a coincidence.

Danielle, 2015. It took me longer to put on my three shirts than it did to do my hair. Short hair = ME! That night, sporting this ensemble while in line for the restroom, I got into a conversation about non-gender-labeled restrooms and Idaho politics. I don’t think that was a coincidence.

Danielle, St. Patrick's Day 2015. You know you're an elementary teacher when the highlight of the week is getting to wear the kelly green capri pants you bought in 2004, with a pair of knee-high St. Patrick's Day socks, and you look totally awesome. A fellow teacher tried to "fix" my hair as we were walking in the building. I said, "No need. It's exactly how it needs to be!"

Danielle, St. Patrick’s Day 2015. You know you’re an elementary teacher when the highlight of the week is getting to wear the kelly green capri pants you bought in 2004, with a pair of knee-high St. Patrick’s Day socks, and you look totally awesome. A fellow teacher tried to “fix” my hair as we were walking in the building. I said, “No need. It’s exactly how it needs to be!”

Hair

The first time I had a panicked birthday was my 22nd. I was a senior in college, about six weeks away from graduating. I looked around at my friends and classmates, remembering how at 18 I had looked up at the seniors and seen them as a world beyond me. They were so adult, so learned, so together. I felt none of those things, and it terrified me. Also, 22 looked like a fat number. That second two looked a lot wider than 21.

I did not freak out at 25. I had just purchased a house and life was awesome. I did, however, freak out when my baby sister turned 25 two years later. But, for the most part, my family are not birthday freaker-outers. My mom did not flip at 40, 50, or 60. My grandmother is 93 and as far as I know she handles each milestone birthday with a positive attitude and a sizable helping of angel food cake.

I turn 30 in less than three weeks.

I am totally losing my shit.

I don’t think 30 is old. I am not grieving the end of my 20s, as far as I can tell. I just feel like I haven’t really made much progress on this whole “adult” thing since I turned 22. And I’m certainly not where I thought I’d be. I’m divorced, I have no children, and I’m broke. I haven’t had a raise, really, in seven years.

In the midst of my weekend freakout, a friend shared some encouragement with me: May you have at least as many lives and adventures as I have had….and am still having. May you be able to reinvent yourself as often as your cells regenerate. When I saw her later that evening, we had a conversation along that topic, regarding hair. If hair represents my regenerations, I am currently in my Tenth Doctor tousled phase. All I’m lacking is a personal hair tousler.

Dream Job: David Tennant's personal hair tousler

Dream Job: David Tennant’s personal hair tousler

That said, my hair has been fairly representative of my life since moving to Idaho, and I am grateful for the conversation this weekend. During most of my life, I kept my hair long  enough for a ponytail, even if it was a short “sumo” ponytail. I am perpetually low-maintenance. I haven’t even used shampoo in seven years, let alone any hair product. To say I have thick hair would be a gross understatement. My hair is grotesquely thick, monstrously thick, thick-beyond-words thick. Whenever I have started with a new stylist, their shock the first time they have hefted my vast coif is worth capturing on film. I have a lot of hair. My current stylist books an extra-long block for me now, simply because we spend so much time thinning, and that’s even after he buzzes out the bottom third of my hair.

Anyway, I put as little effort into managing this mane as possible, which for the vast majority of the first 24 years of my life meant ponytails. Then, I chopped off a ten-inch braid, and my hair has been getting progressively shorter ever since.

During the same time frame that my hair has become strikingly short, I’ve taken control of a lot of areas of my life. I started going to counseling again, I started a 12-step program, played roller derby, took control of my health (sorta), embraced my feminism, appeared in two challenging productions with provocative, award-winning scripts (How I Learned to Drive and The Vagina Monologues), and started graduate school.

Correlation is not causation, but the correlation between my ever-shortening hair and my bolder approach to life is no coincidence.

I am loud and awkward and passionate, and I spent a lot of time apologizing for my elbows and my voice and my opinions. My parents were always shushing me. I no longer apologize for taking up space. I used to try to blend in and shrink back and hide the parts of my body and my personality that were deemed unfit or flawed. I spent too many years hiding in ponytails, oversized jeans, and hoodies. Now I wear what I want and I embrace my hips and my breasts and my tears and my fists when I’m fighting for the underdog.

Every time I’ve cut my hair, I’ve shed a layer of myself. Like a sassy snake. My hair was ridiculously fluffy last Wednesday, and the sensory integration therapist met me in the hallway and said, Your hair is so… awesome today. I replied, genuinely, Thanks! I used to fight with my hair, but I always lost. Now I just let my hair do what it does. Who wants to start every morning losing? One of my students thought that was really funny, in part because she has a mane of curly hair that has at least an 80% correlation to her mood. She’s like Japanese animation. She retold that story three times on Wednesday. The next day, after a good-morning hug, she told me we both won with our hair that morning.

Last semester in Feminist Theory, we regularly returned to the theme the personal is political. Hair is one of those personal-political feminist issues. Any time a Hollywood actress shaves her head for a role, she gets major headlines. When Jennifer Lawrence cut her hair in a pixie style (was that in 2013?) just because she damn well wanted to cut it that way, I’m pretty sure the internet broke. The fact that cutting one’s hair is considered so newsworthy makes it pretty clear how much a woman’s hair means in our culture. And when we add race to the equation–because I love me some intersectional feminism–the implications and consequences of short hair are magnified. In 2012, Rhonda Lee, a small-market meteorologist in Louisiana, was fired after defending (in a Facebook comment) her choice to keep her black, ethnic hair short and natural. It seems to me, at least in certain contexts, short hair is where the personal becomes political.

Women with short hair get noticed. I am okay with that now; I don’t have to hide. I may not be where I thought I’d be, but I am certainly not where I was.

Danielle, 2009. The long hair, past the shoulders, not quite to the elbows. About 10 minutes later, I chopped off a 10-inch braid and never looked back.

Danielle, 2009. The long hair, past the shoulders, not quite to the elbows. About 10 minutes later, I chopped off a 10-inch braid and never looked back.

Danielle, 2015. The hair is short, sassy, and in your face. I get shit done.

Danielle, 2015. The hair is short, sassy, and in your face. The underside is totally buzzed. I get shit done.

Women, Sex, and Cars

Content Note: sexism, sexual symbolism in theatre

I bought a car this weekend.

The experience was fraught. Little Purple, my trusty steed for the last dozen years, had been ailing for the last year. I had spent close to $1000 on three major repairs since school started, and then she choked out in my driveway on a recent Friday. I cried several times. I tried all the tricks I’d used on her glitchy electrical system over the years, but she was down for the count. Even before I got the call from Cody in the Service Department, even before the tow truck brought her there, even before I called the towing company, I knew she’d driven her last mile. I knew it the same way I knew my grandmother had died when the phone rang on that July morning. I knew it the same way I knew I was pregnant that December evening before I took a pregnancy test. Sometimes a body just knows things.

Nostalgia kicked in. Hard. All the frustration of the last year of breakdowns quieted, and I managed to crank out a few thousand words on a new chapter for April Showers

Twice she crossed the mountains on eastwardly all-nighters. During the first, my sister and I traded driving duties every four hours while our mother sat in the back seat in variations of annoyance and anger with us. We entertained ourselves with music and a rapping sock monkey named Maurice; mother was not amused. Eventually she fell asleep; so did Katrina. When it was Katrina’s turn to drive, mother woke, briefly, and then she slept some more. I nodded off quickly. After two hours, Katrina woke me, wracked with anxiety: it was dark, we were crossing mountains, mother was snoring. She begged me to take over. I took the wheel and Little Purple whispered through the invisible Montana landscape, the mountains parting to accept her and swallowing her up as the pass quietly zippered up behind us.

I am well aware that I refer to my car with feminine pronouns. Last summer, I performed the role of Li’l Bit in Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive. One of the (many) themes running through the play is the connection among cars, women, and sex. The sexualization-of-cars metaphor seems clear in the text and subtext of the script, but in case anyone has missed it, there is one scene when Uncle Peck is teaching Li’l Bit to drive and classic 50s and 60s pin-up style shots of women with cars are projected on the back wall of the stage; cut into the the slide show are era-style pin-up shots of Li’l Bit (a.k.a. me). Li’l Bit asks her uncle why the car is a she. He brings the metaphor to its full by spelling it out for us. For me, Little Purple as a she carried sexual implications, but in a mutually empowering way, rather than in unidirectional objectifying way. We carried each other, we ailed together, we soared together. There’s a reason the call from the Service Department reminded me of finding out I was pregnant.

I accompanied my sister when she bought her Jeep last summer, and I saw how the salesman treated her. He did not take her seriously or see her as an equal until she got a (male) friend on the phone, one who happens to be a successful car salesman. She passed her cellphone off to HotShot McWranglerpants and I could hear him swallow his heart. To hear that smarmy voice change to one of young man knocked down a few pegs infuriated me. Why did it take a man in his mid-forties to get this hot-shot prick to actually listen to my sister? Why are women treated this way when it comes to purchasing and servicing cars? How did one man on a cell phone elicit more respect than two women in person?

Why does Jiffy Lube have a “Ladies’ Day”?

The dynamics of power between men and women are quite plain in the automotive world. The only women I’ve seen employed at the dealership where I purchased my car work at the coffee counter and in the payments department. I’ve co-hosted a few remote broadcasts from that dealership with my radio job, so I’m acquainted with a few employees. As I waited in the payments department to make my down payment, a salesperson I’d previously met walked by, patted my back (hooray for unsolicited bodily contact!), and said, Congratulations, sweetheart! I replied non-noncommittally. It’s a nice car! he reassured me as he walked away (hooray for drive-by nonversations!). I turned to my salesperson (who is, by the way, my sister’s friend from the other end of that phone call with HotShot McWranglerpants) and said, I know it’s a nice car. I bought it. I just don’t like being called sweetheart.

Anyone who thinks we live in a post-feminist society has not purchased a car recently. Or if they did, they are probably a man who purchased a car from a man. I’m not a car person, but I am a person. This whole men-sex-women-cars thing looks as dated as the 50s pin-up pictures we took as publicity shots for How I Learned to Drive, which were, by the way, intentionally vintage. Buying a car as a woman should not take extra strategies or back-up plans or friends on-call if the deal goes south.

So again, I ask: why does Jiffy Lube have a Ladies’ Day?

Unconfirmed

Content note: trans persons in the media

I am not a trans activist. I do not claim to know enough about the trans community. Thusly, I will be brief and stick to what I know at present: language. I’m shooting for roughly 350 words.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article: The Transition of Bruce Jenner: A Shock to Some, Visible to All  (I used a proxy so the NYT will not log a page hit from you).

The blurb reminded us “he has not confirmed it.” Several paragraphs in, I read, “Advocates for transgender issues declined in interviews to discuss specifics about Mr. Jenner’s situation, saying that until he announces what is going on, it is wrong to make any assumptions.”

This reminds me of the ridiculousness of the episode of This American Life about “Batman”: include a single, passing statement wherein a source calls you out for your previous line of reporting to before moving along with your reporting.

If a person has not come out as trans, there is no article about their transition.

I don’t care if the rest of the article is a good “think piece.” If the first third of the article is premised upon speculation and tabloid journalism, the last two-thirds do not redeem the piece. If the NYT cared about the trans community, it would run a piece on the trans community without linking it to click bait. As it is written, the article is just one more that commodifies the presumed gender identity of a celebrity.

My closing thoughts come from tumblr:

I don’t care that media and tabloid coverage has suddenly become more serious and respectful because of reporting that Bruce Jenner might be transitioning.

Gaining some sort of confirmation (confirmation will only come from Bruce until then, let’s shut up about it) does not mean that the tabloid reports were not transmisogynistic and hateful in the first place. Because they were. They’re a prime example of how anyone who defies gender norms, but particularly those who are feminine-presenting, will always be the subject of ridicule and violence.

Fit Friday: Breaking the Model Mold?

Content warning: body image

I love bodies. This has not always been true, but I love bodies and count my own among the bodies I love. So when I first heard of Tess Munster and #effyourbeautystandards, I giggled with delight. The body-positive parts of the internet celebrated her recent modeling contract as a step forward in ending fat shame. But the rest of the internet doubled down on the shaming, of course, in the form of concern trolling. A plus-sized model will glorify unhealthy lifestyles! they typed between hand-wrings. But the amount of body fat a woman has isn’t an indicator of her health. And the modeling industry is rife with young women and girls who are encouraged to lose weight at any cost; are they not glorifying unhealthy lifestyles?

A friend of mine sent me links to a few articles about Carmen Dell’Orefice. At 83, she is the oldest working supermodel in an industry obsessed with youth. She is breaking age barriers, but she reinforces the narrow standards of thinness, beauty, and whiteness. And while it may be a step in the right direction as far as age in concerned, the message seems clear to me: to be accepted one must age gracefully and it helps to look younger than you actually are.

I’m not asking you to compare the two women pictured below. I am asking you to think about what our culture deems newsworthy: Carmen Dell’Orefice (age 83) made the news for still being beautiful at an old age. My Grammy (age 93) was one half of the Longest Married Couple in the state of North Dakota when my grandfather died in April. She’s shrinking in height, she has wrinkles, she wears orthopedic shoes. I don’t care about any of that. Her impact on the world may not make the news, but it is evident when you meet my cousins, who all work in their own way to make the world better.

o-FADIL-BERISHA-FOR-NEW-YOU-570  10329760_701077928405_4477219096389484373_o

Alternative modeling aims to break free of the standard definitions of beauty, often featuring models who are trans*, have disabilities, or are tattooed/pierced. But even as they stretch our concept of beauty in one area, they often reinforce another set of beauty norms (link NSFW for exposed breast): hairless femininity, facial symmetry, youthfulness.

All this reminds me that we spend a considerable amount of time talking about how women look. After my grammy (pictured above) had her second mastectomy, I asked her if she had ever considered reconstructive surgery. She told me she was too old to be vain. It was not a dig at women who opt for less-invasive lumpectomies or for breast reconstruction; it was just a statement that in her late 70s, she had too much to do to spend time with the consuming process of reconstructing her chest. That’s not to say she wasn’t self-conscious; she was visibly uncomfortable for a long while after that second breast was gone. But she adjusted. And she kept busy.

My students have different sized bodies that can do different things. And we don’t engage in body talk in my class, unless it’s to talk about what our bodies can do. Yesterday, we talked about running. TLK said he can run the fastest in the whole elementary. I told him about my friend Greg who runs marathons even though he doesn’t “look like a runner.” We talked about speed and endurance, and strong legs, strong hearts, and having fun. Elsa reminded me I needed to fix her walker because she broke it (again!) running in P.E. TLK asked when I would be able to skate again. I told him soon, and he said that was good. He said I seem happy when I can skate.

But even all that is focused on our bodies. And even though I love bodies, I am more than my body. And so are my students. They are more than cute, pretty, active, strong, and fast. They are also curious, empathetic, kind, bright, clever, and hilarious. They are Full of Awesome.

Body shaming is dangerous. Having a wide variety of bodies represented by modeling will normalize a wide variety of body types. I’d rather live in a culture that isn’t obsessed with body type and appearance, but since I do, I want to see diverse representations of people of size, people of color, people with disabilities, people that break down the gender binary. And I want to see it celebrated, not shoved into a niche corner of the interwebs. Instead of creating new molds, let’s just break ’em, eh?

Conversations, plural

Most of my best teaching happens through conversation. Conversations. Plural. My students and I had conversations about race and melanin and segregation for a couple weeks around Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, which fit into our yearlong conversation about identity and community. That yearlong conversation involves a lot of shorter conversations about what it means to be Deaf or deaf, how to advocate for accommodations, and their right to choose a preferred modality for communication.

The topics we covered this week during calendar time, transition times, and during some of those happy teachable moments were funny, surprising, important, and mundane. It was a very ordinary week, really. Our conversations are often this way. My students know that if they ask me a question I will always answer it, and I will do my best to answer it honestly. They know I will try to tell a story to help them remember the answer and the information. They know I do not know everything, and that they will be included in the search for the answer.

Here is a rundown of the things we learned during informal teaching time this week (not counting the actual structured reading, writing, math, and social studies time):

  • The stuff in our noses is snot. If you plug your nose when you sneeze, it can pop your ears. They won’t explode out your head (thanks for asking, Taz), but it will hurt. Possibly a lot. (“I have very snot my nose! Sneeze ears BOOOOOM!!” –Taz)
  • Even though Immodium makes you feel better and stop pooping, it doesn’t mean you are instantly healthy. Your body still needs to rest.
  • Faces have left and right sides, not east and west, but if they did, the west side of my face was twitching.
  • Sometimes teachers get sick, too.
  • I will never leave school early without first saying good-bye and telling the kids where I am going and when I will be back.
  • The preschool teacher makes a lot of exciting noise when one of her students uses the bathroom because it was the first time that student showed communicative intent. Yes, he is three years old. Yes, most three-year-olds are talking and using the bathroom pretty well. But just like TLK was nervous to talk in front of people in first grade and is now a confident tri-lingual third-grader (after a lot of practice in a safe environment), the preschool kids need a lot of practice to catch up. That’s why we get excited; we love watching our kids learn something new.

I had two conversations about gender expression with one of my students this week. We have a small school–84 students in PreK through the Super-Seniors. My students know almost everyone, so when we get a new student, they notice. Usually they follow standard conversational norms: What is your name? Are you deaf? Where do you live? On Tuesday in the library, a new high school student was working on the computer when one of my students walked up and tapped her on the shoulder.

Are you a boy or a girl? 
I’m a girl.
Why do you have boy hair?
I like it short.
Why do you have boy clothes?

I intervened. We’ve spent a lot of time breaking the pinkgirls/blueboys habit (because colors are for everyone). But I also know that kids using all the colors is a far cry from kids breaking free from gender stereotypes and gender roles. My students have a friend in the department who is a non-conformist, as far as gender is concerned. They are used to that. They accept her and love her for who she is. But a new person coming into their world who doesn’t fit their idea of “boy” and “girl” proved to be a little jarring. The high school student was pleasant and friendly, and she didn’t seem to mind the questions, but it’s not her job to educate my students about gender expression. She should not have to defend her choice of clothing, hairstyle, or footwear to anyone. She should just get to be.

So I intervened.

Hey, Elsa. Did you ask her name?
Um…No.
Do you know where she lives? Or how old she is?
Nooo…?
What do yo
u think would be a polite way to start a conversation?
Oooopssss.
It’s alright. Why don’t you introduce yourself?
(she does)
And hair is hair, kiddo. My hair is really short, but it’s not boy hair or girl hair. It’s my hair. New Student’s hair is her hair. Hair isn’t boy or girl. It’s just hair.
Oh, ok! I like it!
And clothes are just clothes. This is my favorite sweater, and I got it from the men’s department at Kohl’s. That doesn’t make it boy sweater. I just like how it fits better.
(Elsa looked at me, looked at the new student, nodded, and said) Nice to meet you!

The next morning, the first thing Elsa asked me was Why do girls like boy clothes?? It was clear she’d been thinking about it. I asked her to explain; I wanted to know if her thinking had progressed, or evolved, or otherwise changed. She referred to the high school student, and then asked about her friend in the elementary department. She made the connection between the two. So we sat down and had a little chat, no pressure, no lecture, just a chat: Stores divide clothes into boy and girl sections, but clothes are clothes. I bought this cardigan from the men’s department because it’s not too tight and it has real pockets and real buttons. Women’s cardigans usually don’t have pockets, and I like to carry sticky notes and paperclips. But these pants are from the women’s department because I have hips. Clothes are clothes and people like what they like.

She seemed content. We’ll keep having conversations. I have some revisions to what I might say next time, but it’ll ultimately depend on what my kids ask. Because it’s not always about what I know, but it’s always about what they ask.