Shoulders Back: Combating the Consequences of Gender Stereotypes

Syard Evans I Society & Culture I Commentary I September 11th, 2014

She stood, stone-faced, with her shoulders back and her chest held high. Her face was expressionless, and her chin was tucked in tight. This was her "nervous but determined stance."

I marveled at how distinctive and developed a "nervous but determined stance" could get in just 11+ years of life.

The whispers were occasionally interrupted by blurted shouts, "Look! It's a girl." As if a person possessing female genitalia had not been seen in public in the last three decades.

She cut her eyes to me and said, "So stupid," without ever relinquishing the solidity of her stance. She was firmly committed to being there, and nothing some half-pint sized little boy said was going to move her from her steadfastness. As I looked at her, I saw the three-year-old who once told me that she really liked climbing trees, but climbing trees was a "boy" thing. I responded to her then by asking, "What makes something a "boy" thing? If you like it, why can't it be a "you" thing?"

Apparently, she got my message.

Football was something she had wanted to do for the last two years; and this year, she was doing it. Right in the middle of small town, USA, in a community that, quite literally, worshiped a football deity, she stood in line, surrounded by approximately 120 boys, waiting to get fitted for her football pads, because she had the intrepidity to be a girl who played football. It did not matter if she was the best player that had ever played. It didn't even matter if she was any good. All that mattered was that she had the sound knowledge that if she was interested in something, she could at least try it, regardless of her reproductive organs.

She's certainly not the first girl who has braved the hits and tackles, not to mention the snickers and the bullying, to put on some football pads. Notables include Sam Gordon , who dominated her Utah league in 2012 as a 9-year-old, Holly Mangold , who played offensive lineman in high school and received offers to play on the collegiate level before deciding to pursue Olympic weightlifting as a member of the 2012 US Olympic team, and Shelby Osborne , who signed to play defensive back for an NAIA college in Kentucky in 2014. Girl participation on predominantly male sports teams and leagues is not limited to football, either. Mo'ne Davis blew the sports world up with her 70-mile-an-hour fast ball and complete-game shutout in a 2014 Little League World Series game. At the same time, Becky Hammon made major headlines when she was hired as the NBA's first female coach as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. And these are only a few of the more renowned examples of the many young women pursuing their non-traditional passions each year. Slowly and with much effort, female athletes throughout the country are pushing past the traditional restrictions of "girlhood" to pursue the things that interest them.

Despite these many strides toward inclusion in sports, as I stood in line with the girl who was playing football and marveled at her "nervous but determined stance," I was jarred by sadness at the thought of the thousands of little girls who will not be allowed to develop an interest in certain things, much less muster the courage to pursue those things, simply because they are girls. I thought about how those stifled interests would eventually impede career pursuits, relationship decisions, and ultimately the processes of defining self and worth, and I wanted to scream. But the more I thought about all the little girls who weren't standing in line to get fitted for football pads, the more I began to notice all of the little boys who were. And I couldn't ignore that there were a good number of boys standing in that same line who had no desire to be there at all.

Gender oppression and gender isolation are harmful for women, no doubt; however, men are traumatized by the established roles society insists they conform to as well. The expectations for men to be strong, tough, and emotionless create restrictive experiences that disallow pursuits of interests and passions outside of the accepted parameters associated with having a penis. As I watched little boys as young as 8-years-old stand in line to be fitted for football pads, I saw faces mixed within the crowd that were terrified to be there. Faces of little boys who would rather be anywhere else in the world but standing right there. And I couldn't help but think about the first big hit they would take and the responses that would come with it, "Suck it up, boy. Boys don't cry." It would be an early step in the indoctrination to manhood that prevents any emotions outside of anger and rage, and forbids vulnerability of any kind. The indoctrination to manhood that, no doubt, contributes to almost 80% of suicides in the US being completed by males in recent years, with males being far less likely to access mental health services than their female counterparts.

Society assumes that the power and authority associated with male privilege are attributes that everyone desires; and, therefore, struggles to understand why anyone with a natural right to those attributes could ever desire any other lot. This is likely why many Americans can understand and embrace a woman who wears pants, t-shirts, and baseball caps, but cannot fathom a man who wears dresses. The genderization of clothing attaches the privilege of maleness to pants, t-shirts, and caps; and the disempowerment of femaleness to dresses. For many, a woman's desire to 'borrow some privilege' via clothing is understandable; however, many struggle to contemplate why a man would willingly yield the power and control associated with male privilege by putting on a dress.

To foster the most productive and functional society possible, we must not only provide our girls the opportunity to suit up and hit hard when those are the things that drive them, but we must also stand with our boys as they invest their energies into learning to sew or perfecting the art of make-up. Opportunity for self-exploration and self-discovery must start at the point of interest and passion, not at the point of the pre-existing expectations attached to a child.

Here's hoping every child has opportunities to stand shoulders back and chest held high to pursue something she or he loves.