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From Nail Polish to Not Crying: How I Learned to Play with Boys

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Sex and Gender
2005 First Web Papers
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From Nail Polish to Not Crying: How I Learned to Play with Boys

Kathryn Corbin

I attended the same school, a Montessori school, from first through eighth grade so I grew up with pretty much the same group of kids during my "formative years". My middle school was very strict in terms of female-male interactions and forbid us to date or wear makeup/nail polish to school. Interestingly enough, it was fine for us to wear nail polish in elementary school. However, once we reached the age where sexuality began to creep into the picture, my teachers found it essential to our "learning experience" to eradicate it altogether. And that also meant eliminating all superficial ways to make ourselves more attractive before we even consciously understood why.

I specifically remember one time in seventh grade when my grandmother had come down to visit. She came down on a Thursday evening and we did our tradition of nail painting that night. I figured since we had a half day on Friday, a few hours of nail polish wouldn't matter. I was so wrong. I came into school the next day and was instantly greeted by my male teacher with "Good morning Katie. What is on your fingernails?" I thought I would be able to get away with a quick sorry but instead, I received a 5-minute verbal rebuke that included talk of "sexuality" and finished with a "don't do it again"/detention. I was pretty angry that putting some colored paint on my fingernails had warranted me my first and only detention in middle school, but I was especially angry that someone who wasn't me or closely related to me was trying to control what I could or could not do to my body. I was too young to understand that my teachers were simply trying to protect me from something I was better off keeping under wraps as long as possible but I was too smart to just let it go and not understand that my "sexuality" could somehow be used to my advantage. I never went through the stage where boys had cooties and "good" girls should stay away from "naughty" boys. I was one of the "mature girls" Thorne refers to; the ones who developed early, the ones who boys were aware not to grab in the chest area. Did I understand then that my physical maturity gave me an advantage not only over less developed girls my age but also over boys? Absolutely. Did I understand why? Not really, but the fact that I knew I could use it at such a young age only reinforces Thornes proposition that sexuality is an integral part of interactions between the sexes.

My physical maturity caught up to me, however, when I developed a huge crush on a boy in the seventh grade. His name was James; he was extremely cute, extremely funny, extremely athletic and extremely popular with all the girls in my class. Fortunately, I was raised playing sports, so I figured this would be my way to get him to notice me without sacrificing any of the feminism my mother had preached to me since I was in the womb. I never allowed myself to go the "I'm acting dumb so you think I'm cute" route because, to me, it always just seemed dumb to act dumb. Basketball was the big sport during recess. All the guys played, no matter how good they were (or weren't) while the girls either played jump rope or sat on the bench and watched attentively like Stepford Wives. I didn't like to jump rope because somewhere along the line, my hand-eye-foot coordination went wrong, and I definitely didn't like to sit, so my alternative was make up a new game or play basketball with the boys, which is what I decided to do. On that day I started my own revolution. I threw myself into the group of boys and demanded that I be picked on a team. Shockingly, I was the third person chosen out of a group of about fifteen. I would be lying if I honestly thought I got the spot because of my skills, which were mediocre at best. Had I been a boy I would have been much further down in the pecking order, but being a girl gave me two advantages over the boys. First, they didn't want to be as rough with me as they were with their male peers simply because of some quasi-chivalrous rules implemented by society and reinforced by authority figures. Second, they underestimated me. True, I was no Diana Turasi, but when someone who knows how to play the game is left unguarded, it is only a matter of time before pure probability catches up despite their skill level. I was also stronger than most of the pre-pubescent boys I played with, thanks to early development and genetics. Combine strength and probability with the quasi-chivalrous attitude I mentioned earlier and I was golden. The next day, there was no "evening out of the teams" and the boys started considering me one of their strongest assets.

Once the other girls stopped playing jump rope long enough to realize I was playing with the boys, they approached me about playing too. I told them that asking the boys if they could play was not an option. Invoking an even bigger revolution than the one I had begun for myself, I said if they wanted to play, they had the right to play and they should just do it. I guess the boys were a bit overwhelmed by six more girls wanting to play in addition to me because they pitched a fit to my teacher about there being "too many people" which then turned into "too many girls", an argument that my Title IX-generation teacher wasn't having. So as a compromise, we all ended up playing, with a mixture of girls and boys and teachers, just to make it seem less strange. But something interesting happened the day I empowered my girlfriends to play with the boys: I lost some of my prowess on the basketball court. Since I had been the only girl playing, I naturally stood out. Looking back on it now, I realize that what I coveted from a young age was a bond with boys that was thoroughly equal and had that competitive element to it. I liked the fact that the quasi-chivalry went out the window as soon as they recognized that I was stronger and faster than they were (I believe it was day three). I enjoyed (and still do enjoy) being the only girl in a room full of guys because it gives me a huge sense of empowerment and incredible stomach butterflies at the same time. I love being able to hold my own among what society, and science, considers the "stronger sex" because it shows how far women have really come in this struggle we call feminism.
When my role as the sole source of estrogen among a mass of testosterone was taken away, incidentally by my own doing, I began to feel a bit resentful of my girlfriends and wished that I hadn't actually suggested they play in the first place. While it was sometimes fun to have other girls there, and I was still appreciated as the most skilled female player, I now had more than myself to live up to. I had a whole group of girls I was constantly in competition with for the affections of boys. Thorne mentions the pressure on girls from a very young age to look and act pretty to "get a boyfriend". Since makeup and nail polish were outlawed and natural beauty is a rare thing at age 12, one had to depend on personality and prowess to attain male attention. I have never thrived well under competition for boys and during that awkward middle school phase, I gravitated toward the attention I got from being a good female athlete.

Apparently not much changed as I made the transition from middle school to high school because I still coveted being the only girl among a group of guys and gained attention for being a good athlete. The feminist was still within me, although there was a more conscious aspect of sexuality to it than in middle school. I still loved sports and played three a year all through high school. Growing up with a father who played college football, I loved seeing games on television and playing catch in the yard. Football looked like a lot of fun-it was fast paced, required quick thinking and included a little bit of roughhousing, something I loved. I never played "real" football when I was younger because I was an only child and there weren't many boys in my neighborhood. When I got to high school, my best male friend was, coincidentally, a football player. I had always been friends with guys who played sports, probably because we had something in common but also because I think they respected the fact that I wasn't afraid to play rough with them.

During my junior year in high school, I went to a picnic held for my class. There were all the usual fun things: friends, food, face painting...and football. I noticed a group of guys, some who I was friends with, some who I wasn't, playing a rather raucous game of no pads, no rules, full out tackle football on the field. My best friend, Jeff, the football player, was assigned to guard me but not before making a few quasi-derogatory comments about having to "guard a girl". After a few plays where I didn't get much action (read: none), I decided to use my quickness to outrun my defensive linebacker friend (read: not very difficult). I ended up in range of the pass and somehow jumped high enough to catch it. Unfortunately, I also caught Jeff's elbow, right in the face. I came down hard, still holding the ball. I figured the guys were yelling because they were happy I had made a touchdown. Turns out, I had the bloodiest nose ever created, or so they thought. I have a fairly strong pain threshold, so I don't cry much when I'm injured and at that moment I was so ecstatic that I had caught the ball and made a touchdown, I barely even noticed I was bleeding.

After leaving the training room, with an order not to play contact sports for at least a week in case of a concussion, I walked back up to the picnic and continued to go about my business. I specifically remember one guy, who had never said more than 5 words to me despite the three classes we'd taken together, came up to me later and complimented me on my touchdown. I was ecstatic! This guy who was a good football player and rather cute, who had never taken notice of me before, had now noticed me because I had done a terrific job of outplaying all the guys. However, my moment of intense self-pride turned into intense anger when he also complimented me on the fact that I hadn't cried. Although I know he meant well, the comment perturbed me because it was exactly what I had been trying to overcome for all these years; it was the reason I had joined the game in the first place. I know he would have complimented a guy on a nice touchdown but he would have teased a guy mercilessly had he cried after getting hit in the face, a fact which only bothered me more.

I understand now that wearing nail polish doesn't make you a piece of meat, just as not crying when you are injured doesn't make you tough. While the dynamic of my relationships with guys has changed, in that the sexual aspect became less avoidable and more acceptable to promote, the foundation of a need for equality still remains. I get intense self-pride out of being better than guys without having to try too hard and an even more intense feeling of self-humiliation when I am "given" something because I am a girl. I still compete with guys to see how I do and I know that if I do something better than them, there will be a nasty backlash of snide comments because a girl won. But I'm trying to change that with each little act of "basketball revolution".



Comments made prior to 2007

I really enjoyed your account of nail polish and sports. I was trying to find out if its ok for my 3 y/o to wear polish but the reason I'm letting her is that I am always worrying about and trying to balance her "boy" interests and "girl" interests. She's the biggest, bravest, toughest toddler you ever saw and plays w/ 4-6 y/o boys in the neighborhood. Your page was very reassuring ... Deborah Luik, 24 April 2006


Anonymous's picture

Where and when did you go to

Where and when did you go to middle school? I have never heard of a rule like this forbiddening girls from wearing nail polish, and as for dating, what business is it or theirs? They can make rules that apply OUTSIDE of school too?! Though, I remember Walmart had such a rule for their employees.

I remember in middle school kids dated, though I wouldn't really consider them dates, just dinky little things, going to the mall and stuff. A friend of mine was somewhat concerned about it. He imagined his classmates as adults with thier children asking them when their first date was and they would have to say "Sixth Grade." Though like I said I wouldn't even consider them real dates. I didn't want to do it because this was before you could drive there would be no privacy whatsoever because your parents would have to bring you.

Anonymous's picture

Nail polish....blah.

Unlike Deborah, i didnt enjoy this at all. If you like patting yourself on the back for being a mediocre athlete, but better than the average female, fine, but to pretend this is at all anthropological or has any point at all is laughable.