Birthmark: Why categories hurt.

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Birthmark: Why categories hurt.

Flora Shepherd

My cousin and I are five years old, my brother, Kyle, is four. Visiting my aunt and uncle's new house in Texas, we are playing in my cousin's room while he is in school. My cousin walks into the room. I look up, watch his eyes widen, and he shouts, almost snarls at me, "NO GIRLS ALLOWED!!!"

Inside me is the sickening silence between an infant thudding on the floor and the first wail of pain. I run through the living room, the backyard, climb on the swing set, sit on the monkey bars, sobbing so my throat hurts. I won't come down. I want to leave. My father comes outside, picks me up and hugs me. My aunt and uncle are furious; I can hear them inside the house. Kyle looks scared and confused. This happened 16 years ago. But I remember, a multisensory snapshot, sitting on the gym, feeling the sun on my skin, staring at the tear-blurred sky and grass, feeling like someone had torn a piece of myself away.

Two weeks ago, I spend a night with my cousin. He is incredibly charming and genuinely nice. An avid musician, he takes time to remark that the movie we are watching is historically inaccurate because the baritone had not been invented in that century. My stinging childhood memory is still there. I know that that experience was probably a fluke. After all, he was an only child, he may not have been used to having girls over.

But then why does it stick in my mind, bumpy, ugly and slightly worn like the scar grown over a deep wound? It is like my bright red birthmark still outlined on my hip. It was the first bit of ugliness, of unfairness, in my bright, bright ungendered-childhood world and it struck deep, never quite healed. This relatively inconsequential scene was birth into adulthood, the beginning of understanding what the outside world was going to demand from me. It hurt. It still hurts to be put into gender categories that limit me.

I would never claim to have had a strongly gendered childhood. That statement is completely wrong. Did I have experiences that caused me to learn some socially approved ideas of gender? Yes. But did those experiences cloud my judgement to the point that I thought less of people or, worse yet, disallowed myself to pursue my dreams? No. The mere fact that I am writing this, with problem set scratchwork for my physics major still spread out on my desk, should prove the fact that whatever gender stereotyping I may have encountered in my early childhood did not stick. At that time of my life, my own ideas of gender was loosely rooted enough to remain unaffected by the machinations of what little patriarchy I encountered.

When I was very young, most of my friends were boys, like my brother. Kyle is just 16 months younger than me. We spent a great deal of time together on car trips and family outings together. Perhaps because my closest playmates were boys, we never engaged in very gender specific activities. After all, we had to compromise and do things all of us were interested in. We liked the Care Bears and the ninja turtles. Leaving dolls I received to collect dust, we played almost exclusively with stuffed animals. My Dad built us a huge jungle gym in the backyard. I don't remember playing with these objects more because of feminist notions, they just weren't anything I was very interested in. If I wanted to explore femininity, I explored it with Kyle. We'd painted our nails pink and my Dad taught us both to skate and play hockey. I didn'g get the girly socialization. I remember going to first grade, seeing all the girls oohing over someone's play bonne bell powder compact and wondering what the hell they were talking about.

My parents are hippies who really and truly did live in a van for quite a while, touring with their band. Now, they are self-employed artists. We were born and raised in New Orleans, (where my parents still (are trying to ) live) the melting pot, a city where diversity is not just tolerated, but embraced, a way of life. My favorite babysitters were a lesbian couple. My parents' friends were hugely diverse, when I think back on it. But at the time, it didn't seem weird to me that strong looking men would be artists and women worked in construction. That was my life. All my life, my Mom has worked during the day performing puppet shows and my Dad has worked at night doing gigs with his band. We never even went to day care programs. My parents shared housework equally. I did not experience stereotypical gender roles first hand.

We did family art projects, At night, sometimes my parents and their friends would sing and played music together, giving Kyle and I tamborines or letting Kyle play on his little drumset. My Dad would put on our favorite record, Santana's first album, and Kyle and I would put on our rollerskates and skate around the living room, dressing in sparkly costumes, dancing. Our childhood was one of performace, watching and participating as our parents performed music and theater; it was a childhood of constant dress up, of pretending whatever we wanted. My Mom remembers that once Kyle and I were playing with a neighbor. Kyle chose to be Princesess Cimorene, the heroine from "Dealing with Dragons," by Patricia C. Wrede. Cimorene is a smart, willful princess young woman who refuses marry a prince like her sisters, choosing adventures with her dragon friends instead. "You can't be Cimorene, Kyle. She's a girl, you're a boy," the neighbor said. But Kyle stuck to his guns, saying he could be whatever he wanted.

Some would make the argument that my household was a house to raise an unmanly child in. Kyle grew up to play three sports in high school: soccer, golf and roller hockey. Kyle and I weren't even allowed to have toy guns in the house unless they were water guns or our beloved pizza shooter from the ninja turtles. something that can hardly be considered masculine in the traditional sense. Strangely enough, neither my brother nor myself are very artsy now. Our upbringing did not force us into those categories.

Yet, despite our open minded childhood, when we got older, my brother's and my interests did separate along somewhat gendered lines. He played sports constantly, even running around playing hockey with himself in the yard, while I preferred to stay inside and read. I became much more interested in my mother's puppetry, continuing to perform with her after Kyle stopped. My brother spent more time with my Dad going to sports events and I spent more time engaged in my hobby of the moment: fencing, gymnastics, violin, accordian, piano, fine arts, theater, you name it. Were those just natural proclivities emerging as we grew older? Or did I react to the fact that people expected my brother to run around and me to stay inside be artistic and nerdy?

I'm afraid those are not questions that can be easily answered. I'll refer to Newtonian mechanics here and say that I, like any other mass, naturally follow the path of least resistance, which leads me to pursue the activities that are easiest for me: physics, writing, running. I was exploring different identities, finding the ones that fit best. But everything I explored as I got older became more and more uniquely feminine. I don't even know if I would be a physics major were I not in an encouraging, mothering all girls school environment. Is that because of how my gender has been constructed? That I have always been the one eager, no desperate, no needing to please? I don't know

I would not argue that my childhood is perfect, and I don't think that the whole world should be raised the same way just because I liked my childhood so much. I'm just trying to explain my world, why I loved it and why sexism would hurt me so much as a child. Regardless of how others may see or categorize me, I know that because of my upbringing, I rarely see others in strongly defined categories. It can remember how much it hurts.

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