What we are taught about sex and gender

Until last year I did not know there was a difference between the terms sex and gender. I feel foolish to say so now, but I’m wondering how many others were just as shocked to learn the two words were not synonyms? I was in a class on how to write history and we dipped our toes into gender and feminist criticisms of historical practices. At the time I was angered by the entire interlude of feminist criticism. Why would I want to learn about feminism? What could feminism teach me about being a woman that I didn’t already know just from being alive? In my mind at the time, women were not oppressed.

When my teacher asked us to define gender and sex I was amazed at how many people were able to contribute to two very distinct definitions. I was even more amazed that two definitions was nothing like I had been taught. Gender as a performance of cultural norms and sex as biology was a new concept. I was raised with such a strong aversion to the word sex that until that moment, it had no other meaning than procreation. Gender was the neutral word my family could say and use comfortably. We never referred to sex to refer to sex organs.

I can’t be the only one who was raised this way. Although I know that it is up the parents to decide when and how they will teach their children sex education, why is there such an aversion to the word sex? If it is more accurate to describe one’s sex then why do we substitute gender?

I wonder if my education on sexuality would have been different had I known that sex was not procreation. If I had known and had been less afraid to explore what sex and gender were, I might not have grown up wondering why I didn’t like men, but that I didn’t like women either. I might not have struggled to find a word to identify myself. I might not have waited until tenth grade to become a comic book fan and buy shirts from the boys’ section. My gender and my sexuality would have been mine to explore earlier in life.

When gender and sex have the same meaning dialogue between parents and their children can never be exact and the crucial stage of questioning sexuality becomes more difficult to reach.

I do not pretend I would have been comfortable if my mom or my brother had used sex as a term for biology, but I would have learned to accept it. I would have grown accustomed to adult language and adult ideas. I would have grown up around feminist ideas whether anyone in the house knew so or not. There is no greater gift to identity than the right words to use and a no-fear attitude toward approaching sexual differences.

Women Wear Bras…Get Over It

When I was in 5th grade, my mother started telling me to wear a tank top underneath my shirt. I didn’t understand at the time this was her way of transitioning me into wearing a bra without having to bring up such a distasteful word. And it’s word ripe with negative connotations.

After all, bras are a reminder that women have breasts and that this is a main biological difference between males and females. It is the reason women are not permitted to go shirtless despite both sexes having a chest area and nipples. Somehow, having breasts must make women inferior.

It seems that way, as when growing up I was constantly embarrassed to even say the word bra or have it come up in conversation. There was an episode of The Amanda Show where during a sketch in outer space, Amanda’s space ship was attacked by a giant bra. I was offended and mortified watching that episode with my brother and I left the room. I was too young to be wearing a bra yet, but I understood there was a horrible connotation with female underwear and I was ashamed I would one day be associated with something so vile. I explained that there was a flying bra in The Amanda Show to my mother and I had to use the offensive word and that somehow made the situation worse. It was barely 30 seconds out of a 20 minute television show, but that attacking bra still tugs at my mind that a woman’s body is evil and destructive.

I am well aware of the counter arguments to my point: 1. it’s a comedy show so they weren’t trying to be offensive  2.it was said by a woman and therefore it’s okay, and 3. I’m overreacting. But this wasn’t comedy to debunk stereotypes and it didn’t explain why a woman’s body and what she is told to wear is not evil. Laughter is only the best medicine when it’s laughter with purpose and direction not geared to oppress. As to the show starring a woman and the joke being said by a woman, that does not make the joke funny any more than it makes it excusable. Women do not have the right to put other women down anymore than men do. And no, this is not an overreaction because I was traumatized by this one memorable instance where it felt shameful and horrible to be a girl. No one should have to go through that.

From early middle school into most of high school I didn’t wear bras. I wore tank tops with bras built into them because I hated underwire and I was embarrassed when someone could see the outline of my bra through my shirt. But above all, I didn’t want to be associated with wearing bras. I didn’t want to be a woman.

The last time I went bra shopping with my mother at the mall, my brother was at the mall with us. To explain where we were going, my mother told him we were going to go get me unmentionables. Bra is not a word for polite conversation and is apparently not even polite speech within families. Heaven forbid my brother realize I’m a woman and that I wear a bra! Heaven forbid the world catches on that half the population is female and most are expected to wear bras! It all goes back to the nipple conundrum, I suppose.

This is not to perpetuate the stereotype of the bra burning feminist. My point is that female biology is treated radically different than male biology and this is a tactic to keep women feeling poorly about themselves. If women’s underwear is linked directly to sex and being sexy then there is a cultural connotation that sexualizes women’s bodies no matter whether they wear Victoria’s Secret or a run of the mill Sport’s Bra. It’s the breasts that are sexy and the bra just increases this natural sex appeal and so women are naturally more sexy than men (the female body is supposedly always sexy because of a woman’s breasts). By this theory, there is a  need to keep this sexy nature under control.

Breasts are always tempting to men and therefore evil, but to dissuade this perpetuation of rape culture being featured prominently in the media, when bras aren’t advertised as sexy they are portrayed as funny. The only reason bras can be played as humorous is because they are directly linked to women and not only is it okay to sexualize the female form but it is also okay to portray the sexualizing device as necessary and evil.

 

I’m not suggesting women go burn their bras as signs of the patriarchy and oppression, but use the word. Take back the word bra to mean support or however else you define it. If we can own the word feminist we can take back the word bra. Bras are not synonymous to Victoria’s Secret, they’re not a measure of your worth, they’re not designed as a gag to make fun of women, and above all they are not evil.

A woman’s body is not evil and there is nothing to be ashamed about.

*NOTE:For more information on wearing bras and why women should or should not wear them, check out this link:

http://www.007b.com/why_wear_bras.php

Why are nipples sexy?

I play frisbee on a regular basis with my older brother and some of his friends. I’m usually one of two or three girls out of approximately 14 people who show up to play. It’s summer. It’s hot. I understand that a few of the guys want to take off their shirts. It’s a different story when they joke about one team being  ‘skins’ because then automatically myself and whoever else happens to have been born with female anatomy are excluded from said team. Our ability to play is no longer a factor.

Which leads me to question why do nipples exude sexuality? A woman could walk around in pasties and although she wouldn’t be considered ‘decent’, it’s a whole different story when her bare breast is entirely exposed. It’s one inch of a person’s body that is only sexy because it on the end of a woman’s breast.

If nipples are only around to serve as a feminine attribute that justifies the notion of the nurturing mother breast feeding her child, then the cartoons have it right. Cartoon men do not have nipples.

But I didn’t know that when I was a child. I would draw women with no eyebrows and men with no eyelashes.

As a child what did I know of nipples? But I knew (though I couldn’t tell you where I learned it) that certain features were masculine and certain features were feminine. If you messed that up your drawing was worthless because who would be able to tell if you had drawn a lovely woman or a handsome man?

Based on this cartooning logic there is only one solution to the nipple problem: nipples should be exclusive to the female just like eyelashes so no one can ever be confused again.

But in all seriousness, it’s one thing to pick me last when playing frisbee because, as a woman, I’m not as strong or fast a a man. It’s something else entirely when the sexism goes from being unintentional unconscious perceptions to blatant ostracism based on anatomy men and women both share. I’m not asking women to run around topless to prove a point, but I am asking men and women to question why it is acceptable for a man to bare his nipples to the world and for a woman to need to cover up.