Questioning Gender Expectations Since 1968


I was showering this morning when an old story came to me. When I was little, I stayed at Merrie Joan preschool when my mom was at work. Every afternoon when the weather was nice we’d go out to the playground behind the building and chase each other and play kickball, pick bark off the fallen trees and dare each other to let those furry caterpillars crawl on our hands.

When I was about 5-years-old, on the first really warm day of the year, they let the boys take off their shirts to play. So I took off my shirt too. I wasn’t worried or ashamed. There wasn’t anything to be ashamed about.

When the day care workers noticed, they almost passed out, made me put my shirt back on and punished me for running around shirtless.

Of course they told my mother when she came to pick me up and I’m pretty sure she got a case of the vapors. But I did NOT understand what the hubbub was all about.

“But they let the boys take off their shirts!” I was genuinely puzzled.

My mom scolded me, but realized I really didn’t know what I’d done wrong. “Why can’t girls do what boys do?” I protested.

“Girls don’t run around without their shirts like boys do. It’s just not nice,” she explained.

“Well that doesn’t make any sense. It just isn’t fair,” I replied. My mom shrugged and that was that.

In the third grade I was more defensive about gender expectations. My mom had one of those “School Memories” scrapbooks where she pasted my school pictures each year and then I filled in the blanks to answer questions like what was my favorite food and the names of my pets.

One of the questions each year was “what do you want to be when you grow up?” My early answers included ballerina, fireman, teacher and baker. Then one year around third grade I scrawled with lots of capital letters and exclamation marks, “I want to be a professional baseball player!!!! And don’t say I can’t BECAUSE I AM A GIRL!!!! I CAN IF I WANT TO!!!!”

But that bravado didn’t last. As you grow older and hit puberty, society’s rules slowly wear you down like water over stones. You become more self-conscious about conforming to gender roles so people won’t think you’re weird, some kind of he/she.

(And you also realize you’re not even a good enough athlete to play women’s slow-pitch tournament softball above the “C” level. The pro baseball failure wasn’t all about gender. But back to the subject at hand…)

You become more self-conscious about the acceptability of being gender non-conforming, especially if you’re straight. You feel more self-conscious about your female body.

So much of my worry about gender conformity is about impressing men, about them finding me, my gender presentation and my body OK, enough, lovable, a real woman.

That body-confident, carefree little girl who didn’t give a second thought to running around topless in public or doing what she wants “even though” she’s a girl is long gone.

The last time I slept with someone (and it was the first time I’d ever gotten naked with this man), he casually stripped off his clothes with no reservations and climbed in bed.

I came out of the bathroom in a t-shirt and panties and slid under the sheets. He asked me, “Are you embarrassed of how God made you?”

And I answered truthfully, “Yes.”


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