Stereotypes are funny things. We know some are based on ignorance and hate. When there was an influx of Polish immigrants competing for jobs around the turn of the 20th century, for example, other disgruntled workers claimed that “all Poles are dumb.” Some stereotypes are based on what is perceived to be true. Many Asian cultures place a very high priority on education, so the “Asians are smarter than everyone else” stereotype was born.
Whether good or bad, “fact” or fabrication, stereotypes are unfair because they are shortcuts. True, some white people can’t dance, but I’m dating a white boy with the most amazing sense of rhythm I’ve ever seen. “Positive” stereotypes are just as bad because they place unreasonable expectations on people who happened to be born into a certain family. How would you like to be the Asian kid who sucks at math?
So this week, I’m going to do my civic duty and tackle a “positive” stereotype that is pervasive, unfair, and — perhaps most importantly — affects me personally: girls are neat and tidy.
I cannot begin to describe how untidy I am. You’re fortunate that you’re reading this article in print because my handwriting looks like it belongs to a third grader on a sugar high. My room looks like a combat zone in which it was strategically viable to plant a land mine in an underwear drawer. Sometimes — and I know this may shock readers — I do not smell good.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t try to be neat, but my childhood attempts always ended in failure. When my classmates and I had to cut out pictures for collages, mine came out looking like they’d been attacked by paper clip-sized wolverines. It was depressing because I thought I was the only messy one; I eyed the other girls’ papers enviously, marveling at their flawless bubble letters, complete with perfect tiny hearts dotting their I’s. Sometimes, in secret, I would practice “girl writing” in my journal, desperately trying to reproduce that beauty. No matter how long I spent, my little hearts came out looking like butts.
I thought I was one of an unfortunate few, although girls I knew well all seemed to have secret sloppy habits. But it wasn’t until I began to frequent various online humor communities that I began to suspect the opposite. A common topic was the horrific sights and smells found in public restrooms, and there was no shortage of input from people who had at one point been forced to clean them. On multiple occasions, the consensus was that the ladies’ room was much grodier. I realized they could be onto something. I’ve experienced disgusting bathrooms from middle school to Angell Hall: paper everywhere, water in places it should not be, and God knows what sorts of bodily substances in and — if you’re truly “lucky” — around the toilets.
But since I’d always assumed that men’s room had to be 10 times worse, I decided to run an experiment. My boyfriend and I visited a series of public restrooms in his hometown and took notes comparing the nastiness of the men’s and ladies’ rooms. The worst thing we ever found in the men’s room was water around the sinks and a scrawled assurance on the wall that “TOY STORY 2 WAS OKAY.” Meanwhile, the women’s rooms were filled with unflushed toilets, soggy paper strewn about, and some truly horrible sights that I’m confident you don’t want to read about.
Of course, this isn’t enough to prove that women are the grosser sex (and according to my guy friends, the men’s room can be nasty, too), but it certainly goes to show that we’re capable of being vile. But why, then, did all of the girls seem to be so perfect when I was a kid?
My theory is that, while some ladies (and dudes) are naturally neat, girls are conditioned to act like we’re cleaner from a young age (as it happened, I had a slight motor disorder that prevented me from doing so). But as someone in a recent discussion on the humor website Something Awful put it, people are “completely inconsiderate of anything they do” in public restrooms. Hey, you’re busy and you’ve got to go. No one’s going to know if you don’t flush!
I’m not sure if I truly believe that women are naturally messier than men, but we’ve certainly got the potential. It might just be that after a day of pretending to be pristine princesses, the anonymity of the restroom is the girls’ chance to be a slob.
We should probably stop that. It’s nasty.
Eileen Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org