By Joanne Ike
“Boy or girl?”
Before the 2nd trimester of pregnancy, the answer to this question remains a mystery. But this does not stop the expectant parents, their relatives, their friends and the man in the flat upstairs from obsessing over it.
Why? Because they want to know what to do next.
Once they know the gender, they can finally start ‘baby-shopping’ for clothes, toys, furniture for the nursery, gifts and so on. Pinks and dolls for the girls and blues and trucks for the boys.
After the child is born, these stereotypes only intensify as they fit the girls into skirts and dresses with butterflies and cupcakes while the boys are fit into trousers and shorts with images of trucks and superheroes.
In Nigeria, so much of our gender biases arise from our culture and traditions where the man is the breadwinner of the family and the woman is the homemaker. With the rise of feminism, we claim to be abandoning such stereotypes, but parents unwittingly continue to raise up their children to fit into these roles.
They surround their daughters with pastel colors, encourage her to play with barbies, doll houses and cooking sets and teach her to be quiet, modest and well behaved. For their boys, they don them in blues and reds, hand them trucks and toy guns and teach him to be strong, and assertive. They don’t bat an eye when their sons run around but chastise their daughters when they do the same.
So, what happens when a girl shuns pink for more ‘masculine colors’ or when she rejects a skirt for baggy jeans and tee shirts with robots and superheroes or when she plays ‘rough’ rather than quietly? We call her a tomboy, a label that just shows how uncomfortable society is with people who are different, who don’t conform. We are so uncomfortable with a girl who doesn’t fit into our preconceived ideas that we create a special category for her. Not a girl. But a tomboy.
For boys, it’s far worse. The term ’tomboy’ at least provides an acceptable way for girls to cross gender barriers. For boys, no such thing exists. A boy who picks up a barbie doll immediately has it snatched from him. A boy who cries is told to buck up because ‘he’s a man’.
We don’t realize how damaging these stereotypes, that we subtly surround children with, are. We don’t realize that this little bit of bias is what drives sexism. To limit certain colors or toys that we see as ‘louder or rougher or more violent or assertive’ to boys, we are effectively communicating to him his role as dominant and even predator over women. By restricting a girl to what we deem ‘quiet or modest’ colors or play, we are telling her that her role is to be quiet, modest and vulnerable.
We forget that childhood is when many of our beliefs and conceptions are formed, and these fractured beliefs imposed on parents and other adults on their children will be much harder to undo and unlearn later in life. By the time they encounter anything that challenges these ingrained ideals, it’s too late. Like a second skin, it’s already firmly attached.
Even worse, these biases can frankly confuse children. For a boy who finds himself naturally drawn to pink or pastel colors, or who wants to paint his nails, or who is naturally compassionate and other-centered, he will wonder if there’s something wrong with him. And from there, he descends into an internal conflict over his gender identity.
Well, maybe the problem isn’t with the gender itself but society definition of it.
We must ask ourselves why a person should feel the need to question their gender identity just because they enjoy certain colors, or toys or clothes or have certain traits.
The truth is that parents tell their children that they can be anything they want to be but really, what they mean is that they can be anything they want to be, within reason. Because ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls should be girls.’
We need to change this narrative. Boys and girls should be encouraged to be both strong and vulnerable, assertive and kind. They should be able to wear anything they want and do anything they want without labels like ‘tomboy’ or ‘sissy’.
A girl can just be a girl. Not a tomboy. Not a girl who likes to dress or act like a boy. Not a girl who wants to be a boy. Just a girl. Similarly, a boy can just be a boy. Not a ‘feminine’ boy. Not a boy who acts like a girl. Not a boy who wants to be a girl. Just a boy.
It’s not enough to claim to be changing. We must truly address our personal biases so that we can do better for the new generation.
Featured image: Justin Tran