Children are like angels. Not clean, not innocent, but genderless. I’ve learned more information about angels in my 12 years in Catholic school than I care to account for. For instance, did you know that the fifth rank of angels controls the weather? Me either, and I have my doubts. But I digress.
Children, from my experience, are born with little sense of gender identity. I grew up with two little brothers as my only playmates. However, there never seemed to be a gender gap. No one was better or worse because I liked fluffy purple sweaters and they didn’t.
There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to play when you are a child; at least there wasn’t for me. I played with my fair share of Rescue Heroes and train tracks and Hot Wheels. As we grow older, we’re told that boys and girls are different. Going to a Catholic school, I was conditioned to look different and have different tasks than my male counterparts. Through my intersecting identities as a woman and a Catholic, I can reflect on specific gender norms I learned growing up and was expected to follow.
When I was five years old, I got my first makeup set. The glorious glitter lip gloss and bright blue eye shadow entertained me for hours. My brother Thomas, at the angelic age of three, would willingly be my model. After he was glamorized with only the finest dollar-store clip-on earrings money could buy, I would throw a purple feather boa around him and we would march downstairs. My mother would laugh and take pictures as he modeled and twirled around.
This wasn’t girly. It wasn’t discouraged, just like racing Barbie’s purple Corvette alongside Thomas’ monster truck wasn’t “boyish.” We were playing dress up, experiencing a ritual that is deemed “normal” for children. So why, once my brothers graduated to the first grade, was my dad scolding them for asking me to paint their nails? Why was this suddenly not OK? My dad would call them “girly” like it was an insult. Suddenly, I lost my favorite playmates.
First grade began the uniforms. Oh, the horror! For the next 12 years I would never stop hearing “pull your skirt down,” “don’t sit with your legs open” or “button up that blouse.” Any obvious sign that I had curves in my body was deemed sinful. If you were a woman, you better damn well be feminine, but don’t show your ankles … we wouldn’t want boys to actually realize that you’re a teenage girl or anything. Girls, of course, were permitted to wear pants, but they were unflattering, uncomfortable and socially unacceptable. The status quo was wearing a skirt, rather a plaid kilt. The pressure to fit into the “correct” gender category was immense.
The curriculum included eight semesters of theology, one of which was morality. Every day there was a new argument about Catholic teachings. My teacher “proved” that Jesus taught that women shouldn’t be priests by picking only male apostles. Unless you were the Virgin Mary or striving to be her, you were comparable to Eve and her freaking apple. Each day brought a new and equally crazy lesson. The girls in the class would protest, and often debate would ensue. But alas, you can’t change what Moses wrote in stone. Alas, girls can’t be priests because, you know, Jesus said so. I think this is when I realized that there’s a serious mistreatment of women in my religion. As much as I identify as Catholic and have no intention to change that, I recognized that my peers have internalized this inexplicable view that women are subservient to men.
The worst was vocation day. I remember dreading it weeks in advance. The boys would go off with the priests and tour whatever seminary we were at. There was a pool table, a bar, a TV and video games. Here was your stereotypical man cave for these pious young men. Who the hell wouldn’t want to be a priest?
The girls would wait for the nuns and sisters to come talk to us. Now don’t get me wrong, they were always the sweetest and most selfless women I had met. They dedicated their lives to the poor and needy, and didn’t just pray, but were actively working in the community. However, they presented the veiled life as boring and restrictive. They were forced to wear modest clothing, covering anything that even hinted at the notion that they had breasts or hips. The sisters weren’t allowed to drink, watch TV or, for goodness sake, give sermons! They couldn’t stand at the pulpit and proclaim the Word — that would be putting them in a position too powerful for their fragile female minds to handle. Nuns had to stay in their place, and, honestly, their lives seemed unimportant compared to the men.
We play dress up as kids and never truly grow out of it. So many adults today put on their masks, hiding their true identities, afraid of the consequences the truth could bring. We need to learn to restore the cherubic innocence we had when we were young, when gender didn’t matter. If we could live in a society where we could be our truest selves, with the masks off, well wouldn’t that just be Paradise?
Veronica Day is an LSA freshman.