Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
My daughter just informed me that her teacher told her that only girls wear lipstick. I immediately told her that her teacher was wrong (bad move, I know), and that everyone is allowed to wear makeup. I pulled up a few insta-famous male makeup artists like James Charles and showed her how makeup can be beautiful on anyone. She agreed and began “ooohing” and “aaahing” at their beautiful work. Her reaction made me feel better but now I’m torn about what to do.
I disagreed with her teacher who is someone she’s been taught to trust and believe implicitly, but I strongly believe her teacher was wrong to say this. I’m wondering if I should say something to the school or just let it slide? I have a feeling this is a belief held by members of the administration as well. More importantly I’m not sure how to help her navigate the concept of gender when I myself struggle with its constructs. I want her to be accepting of all people but we live in a rural area and it’s difficult to teach her this when she is almost completely surrounded by cis-gender, heterosexual, white folks. She always comments when she sees someone who doesn’t fit her idea of “normal” and I try very hard to help her understand that people come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, but I feel like I’m failing. What else can I do?
Trying So Hard
Dear Trying So Hard,
When I was 6 years old I told my mom that I had figured out life. I remember this really well – we were in the kitchen of our suburban home. She was making dinner and I was standing on the yellow-orange tiled floor, explaining the conclusions I had come to after studying Barbie, our neighbors, and Saturday morning cartoons. I knew, for a fact, that dads are always taller than moms, dads have dark hair, like my dad, and moms have light hair, like my mom. Dads are also always, always, older than moms.
I knew that this system left some people out, but, honestly, I was fine with that. What really excited me was that I had discovered an ideal, a way that things should be, and my family conformed to that ideal. Sure, this ideal was completely fascist and limiting, but those limits were comforting to my child brain.
I remember that my mom was standing at the stove, stirring something in a pot, as I spoke. She listened to me, politely, and waited for me to finish. Then she stopped stirring, turned around, and said, “I’m older than your dad.” I stood there as my tiny, newborn world view crumbled. I was left sputtering, forced to abandon my neat theory and replace it with something far more complicated.
Your daughter’s teacher’s comment seems so small – girls wear lipstick. On the surface, that sentence can appear to be uncomplicated and true. Women are the major purchasers of lipstick, therefore girls wear lipstick. But there’s something more behind that simple statement. A hidden command. Girls wear lipstick. Girls should wear lipstick. Boys shouldn’t wear lipstick. Boys who wear lipstick are girls. Girls who don’t wear lipstick are boys. Boys are OK the way they come, with bare lips and unadorned faces. Girls aren’t OK the way they come, their bare lips are gross, they must fix themselves. Girls must place a layered of colored pigment between us and them. Girls must amuse our eyes so we can tolerate their presence.
About a year ago, my son went through a phase where he started pointing at people on the street and yelling out what he thought they were. “That’s a little girl! That’s a big boy! That’s a grandma! That’s a grandpa! That’s a daddy! That’s a mommy!” He simply extended the categories of people in our family out to strangers. And this really bothered me but it took me a while to figure out why. What’s wrong with him pointing at a little girl and yelling, “That’s a little girl!”? The world is, frankly, messy, and young minds long for order. They want to sort people into categories so they can feel like they have some understanding of the world. But, still, I hated the idea of him upsetting someone with his proclamations. What if that person isn’t a girl? What if that woman didn’t want to be called a grandma?
I ended up explaining to my child that we don’t tell people what they are – we let people tell us what they are. So, if someone says that they’re a girl, then you can call her a girl. But, until they let us know, we don’t tell them what we think they are. It’s a complex idea and I’m sure the full meaning went over his head, but at least he stopped pointing and yelling.
Currently, my kid is obsessed with who has what for genitals. He tries out theories on me, “Boys have penises and girls have a vagina.” I correct him, “Some boys have vaginas and some girls have penises.” He frowns, trying to fit this additional information into his theory. But he accepts it, the way he accepts most things I tell him – it’s time to brush teeth, we’re going to the zoo today, gender isn’t a binary.
Dear Trying So Hard, I think that you are doing GREAT. It’s part of our job as parents to gently challenge our children’s assumptions and help them to realize that the world is full of many people who are living in many different ways. It’s also our job to appreciate where our children are, what they’re capable of understanding, and to patiently guide them through complex subjects while understanding that these are all ongoing conversations.
What more can you do? Take a day trip into the city and find a “Drag Queens Read to Kids” event at a local bookstore. Expose her to books and TV shows and movies written by, and starring, non-white, non-cis, non-hetero people. Understand that while you’re trying to show her that anyone can wear lipstick, she is receiving different messages from society. Keep showing her those amazing people on Instagram and keep challenging her to expand her worldview to include all types of people.
The next time you see your daughter’s teacher, I would mention that the proclamation that girls wear lipstick confused your daughter. You can say it’s because your family knows men who wear lipstick, or you can say it’s because girls shouldn’t think that lipstick is mandatory, or you can say it’s because you’re trying to save your child from the tyranny of rigid gender roles. Or, you can say it’s because you don’t want your daughter to be defined by some 1950s Norman Rockwell bullshit that reduces femininity down to her use of lipstick. You want your daughter to understand the world as it actually is, with all the complexity of the thousands of ways that sex, and gender, and sexuality intersect. You want your daughter to grow up knowing the truth and “girls wear lipstick” sure as fuck ain’t it.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.