Friday, October 7, 2016

I love you, but I don't own you

Today on the bus I listened to a passenger talking to the driver about a female driver he finds very attractive. The passenger described her, saying that she should wear her hair down, because he'd like to see her with her hair down and wearing makeup. Because she's beautiful, so she should. I'm sure you can imagine what I was thinking. I was livid. Obviously. And so very tired of listening to women being appraised like used cars, and told what to do to increase their value. I imagined the bus driver felt the same way, listening to one of his colleagues degraded like that. He seemed like a nice guy, after all.

But no. He proceeded to give all kinds of information about his colleague: her name, her relationship status, the relationship and school status of her children, and which bus she was driving, today. The passenger got off grinning, and said he was on his way to find [her name].

Yes, I wrote to the bus company. But that's not enough. The bus driver is a nice guy. He was trying to be friendly to both his passenger and his colleague. The problem is that neither he nor the passenger sees the problem. Our cultural problem (which translates to a public safety problem, among many others) is firstly a lack of understanding that women are not property, and that is something that we as parents actually have a huge capacity to change.

It starts when our babies are born. It starts with the moment we realize that their lives depend on our decisions, so we start making decisions for them. We know better than they do. Necessarily, we teach them to follow our schedules and to grow to be like us. We reward them with affection when they please us. And then it begins to change. We begin to reward them for their accomplishments... and along the way we do this more for boys than for girls. We reward girls more for prettiness. Don't imagine it's not true. Look around. Even those of us who tried very very hard not to gender-stereotype our children, who bought our little boys dolls and pink tutus and took our girls out adventuring and playing with trucks -- we fell victim to our own gendered history and we told our girls they were pretty. We taught our boys they could be pretty too, especially if they wore a head full of butterfly clips and nail polish, and we thought we were being gender-neutral. We weren't. We were teaching them the conventions to which they would need to adhere when they left the security of our embrace. It's a different world outside the security of our embrace, and we are complicit in that.

Today at the library I heard two men talking about the many times they've been harassed by 'gay men' who pursed their lips at them, who looked at them too much, and who talked to them too kindly as if they thought they would be "interested". They knew these men were gay because they had done these things. They talked about how they wanted to kill these men; how maybe next time they would break their necks. This is the world our tutu-clad boys walk out into, and I promise you they will not be safe there, with butterfly clips in their hair. It's not that we're endangering them with the false idea that their gender doesn't matter; it's that our sons will be those men who are so afraid of other-ness that they want to destroy it. 
By the time our boys are four or five they know that it's dangerous to be "pretty" in public. By the time our girls are the same age, they know that their social status and even safety depends on being pretty in public. Have you ever passed out an assortment of coloured objects to a group of kids? How many girls will fight tooth-and-nail to get the pink ones? How many boys will fight equally hard not to? My daughter tells me that she and her friends only used to like pink because everybody else did. Every other girl, that is. At four years old, my son's favourite colour was pink. But that was a secret. At four years old they were already trained to conform or be left behind, to please or be rejected; to fit into the gender roles we taught them, or to perish.

Perish. Does that sound extreme? It's not. A baby knows that its life depends on its parent. A baby screams for food and affection, and eventually learns more positive methods of getting these essential needs: cooing, pleasing, pleading, and eventually asking. So as parents we reward them. In this simple exchange we have taught them that their lives depend on pleasing us.

As new parents we were aware of this, so we tried hard to allow them to be their own people. But as time went on we told them that if they cleaned their rooms they could have dessert. We told them that if they asked sweetly they could have a ride to school. We told them that if they said they loved us they could have a cuddle. We praised them for doing as they were told. Silently, we told them that their value depended on how well they pleased us. We owned them. 

And as mothers we taught them how to be in relationships. In the evenings when their Daddies came home we rewarded their hard days' work with dinner, and their Daddies rewarded us with affection. They told us we were beautiful and in an effort to honour us they told us we should take time to go get our hair done. Make ourselves pretty. And our daughters heard them, and asked to get their hair done too. And our sons heard them and checked out the girls at school, wondering if they'd had their hair done, or what that even meant.

And our children went to school and to friends' houses, and to parties and coffee shops and their first jobs and their second jobs, and they fell in love and told each other they were pretty. And they had babies, and they loved their babies so much that they kissed them when they cooed and they bought them ice creams when they followed the rules, and they dressed them in pretty clothes and taught them how to please their superiors. 

And I still long for someone to tell me I'm pretty.

Today is my daughter's birthday. She's twelve years old and right now she wants to be a pop star. She really loves pink and frills and powerful female vocalists and building stuff in the wood shop at school and sitting in trees writing stories and plays and essays. But this morning I thanked her for being so wonderful. As if she's doing it for me. I told her she's beautiful. As if my assessment of her should matter; as if somehow on the market for pre-teen girls I've just upgraded her value.


I don't want her to be the bus driver whose life and safety is determined by well-meaning men, but I told her she should wash her hair so people don't see it greasy at school. I don't want her to be the pop singer whose lyrics are secondary to the way she moves her bum, but I put her in ballet to help her acquire poise for her desired singing career. I don't want her to be the mother who longs for someone to tell her she's pretty just so she can go to bed at night feeling that she was worth something. But I do that every day.
I've tried so hard these past twelve years to raise my daughter with the knowledge that my opinions are less important than her own; that her value depends only on herself. But in a million small ways I have owned her and judged her and made her dependent on those things.

The kind of massive cultural change we need doesn't happen overnight, or even over a generation, but with each action I take and each thought that transits my mind I have an opportunity to push a little further in the direction of equality and freedom. The prize right now is not the end-goal. I don't know if there's ever an end-goal. But the prize is to be mindful of the work we're doing now, in this generation. Today. It is to look into our children's faces right now and say, "I love you, but I don't own you".
My darling daughter, you are beautiful to me, but it doesn't matter what I think. You are cherished by me, but there is nothing you can do to change that. I appreciate when you help me, but your usefulness as a person does not depend on that. I feel wonderful when you hug me, but only when you want to hug me. I feel happy when you are happy, but I appreciate the times we've been sad together, too. I don't like all of the songs you like, but I like that you have your own opinions. I like the way you've cut your hair, but what I like most is that it was your idea, and that you did it because you wanted to. I love you, but I don't own you.

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