How we see things is not just as they are, or always have been

She wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug, and stated: “I never thought I could have done this. Thank you.” Rebecca*, 14, was a participant on a weeklong backpacking course for teenagers for which I was one of two instructors. Over the course of the week, she had admitted to me that she had never traveled by foot further than three miles. She said this as a way to explain that she was out of her depth; as a defense of her relative “inability” (as compared to the other students), “slowness,” and proneness to slip or fall. In our five days together on the trail, we traveled almost 20 miles – one of the days was 8 miles over difficult and rocky terrain. DSC02737Rebecca had come to the course with Adam*, her 18-year-old biological cousin and foster brother, who also physically struggled to keep up with the other students. Adam, like his sister, gave words to his experience: his, though, were to tell how his mother “did not like to hike more than three miles,” and so he had never been exposed to the kind of experiences the other kids’ had, and was at a disadvantage – he “normally could keep up!” Rebecca often used phrases like, “I can’t do this,” “it’s just too hard for me,” or “maybe I’m just not good enough.” Adam, on the other hand, kept quiet about his doubts and pushed himself to the point of near injury in order to keep up with the other students – especially the (younger) female students who were surpassing him.

These two students’ behaviours are not considered necessarily exceptional. Many would even conclude that this is just “typical teenage behaviour” — that it is normal for a boy to be more physically competitive, and a girl to be quicker to complain and/or downplay her physical abilities. However, why would we say this is normal? Where do these “normal” ideas come from? What histories have been set in place that have created an environment for these two youths to approach the same physical challenge and react in entirely different ways to their peers, instructors, and even themselves?

Within the field of Child and Youth Care, attention is being paid to ideas just like this. What histories have been put in place that are now defining childhood and how we practically work with children and youth? Adding to the conversation on a gendered approach to the body, Mona Gleason, in her study of the history of education and its role in socially constructing the bodies of children, writes that “[i]n sharp contrast to the assumed ruggedness of boys, girls were believed to be not only the weaker sex but also the more emotional sex” (Gleason 2001, 205), and that “among boys, prowess at sports was probably number one” (209). School policies regarding gendered recess restrictions, clothing, or even discipline, then, reinforce these beliefs and, ultimat
ely, contribute to a history that states a certain reality for children. In another article, Gleason remarks that “children continue to be understood, in Western societies at least, as lacking the power and competency to drive social change or to produce important knowledge” (Gleason 2009, 132). And so it is that children have been assigned their identity, and too are believed incapable to change it.

As we look back at what we can see of the history of childhood, we can identify (at least parts of) the path from there to here. The way a student relates to his or her own body and its relative abilities is necessarily tied to an immense history of how we have been taught to think about bodies. How do we continue the conversation in a way that acknowledges history, and also pushes the dialogue… creating space, for example, for young girls to not discredit their bodies because of sex, gender, or age?

*Students’ names have been changed.

Gleason, M. (2001). Disciplining the student body: schooling and the construction of Canadian children’s bodies, 1930–1960. History of Education Quarterly, 41(2), 189-215.

Gleason, M. (2009). In Search of History’s Child. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 1(2), 125-135.

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3 thoughts on “How we see things is not just as they are, or always have been

  1. You have shared an interesting story about gender identity in adolescents. It reminds me of a book I recently finished called Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed (2015). The author’s account of feeling insecure about her own gender is often revealed in the story of her real-life event of hiking for months without proper training. When she meets other hikers, they are almost always male, which brings feelings of insecurity toward her body, as well as insecurities in meeting her goals. In the end she reaches her goal, unlike some of the men she had met along the way. The story makes me wonder why our society, including adolescents, still conjure images of gender identity in this day where women’s bodies are often seen as strong and capable. What more do women need to do in order to change these perceptions?

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  2. I don’t know. I think that, like many conversations that still contain unsettling words, this one about the abilities and limitations of women’s bodies is still Becoming. There are many campaigns (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs), advertisements (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmmGClZb8Mg), and organizations (http://www.sisugirls.org/) that are helping giving space for the dialogue. I do think the conversation is changing. And I believe that that is a good thing. The fact that these movements exist, though, is because there is still a problem. Girls like Rebecca, on my trip, still very much lives in a world where Girls Can’t. For me as a present and future practitioner of Child and Youth Care, I see joining this conversation as incredibly relevant. Change takes a tremendous amount of time and, even while we may cognitively know one thing, the imprint of so many years of a certain belief is deep – we cannot just bounce back from its impact.

    As for what we do? I think we keep the conversation going. I think we really look at the history of the dialogue, and acknowledge what it is that brought us to where we are. I also think that we allow youth participation and voice – as evidenced in the first video, girls know what they’re capable. It’s as we grow into women that we lose sight of our abilities, or begin to believe the common conversation.

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  3. Pingback: Girls have been placed Two Boxes, when maybe they’d rather inhabit a third non-box (of their choosing). | working with teenagers

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