Gender in the playground

I am in the classroom tidying up with a pupil named Ellen. One of the advantages (and difficulties) of being a relatively young teacher is that sometimes children will talk to you in an unguarded way. You get to hear what they really think about things, which is usually fascinating and frightening in equal measure.

Today is no exception to that particular rule. Ellen is telling me that she is giving up chocolate for Lent. When I commend her self control and ask if her family are religious she looks at me with amusement and tells me that really, she just wants to lose a bit of weight. Sensing my perplexity she elaborates on the statement with disarming, resigned honesty. “I would be more popular if I were thinner,” she sighs. Ellen is 10 years old.

During my experiences on the supply circuit I have been into a vast number of primary schools. And I have come to believe that there is a major and universal problem with the self-image of the little girls that populate them.

We concoct this vision of utopian childhood at the cost of neglecting the facts; girls are already learning to hate themselves and their bodies before they even make it to double figures

Most of us want to believe that our primary schools remain havens of childhood innocence; skipping ropes, clapping games and a sense of gender blind comradery (or at least immature antipathy between the sexes amounting to nothing more sinister than the “boys are icky” argument).

As recent media coverage has highlighted, we concoct this vision of utopian childhood at the cost of neglecting the facts; sexual bullying is rife in schools at primary level as well as secondary, and so perhaps it is unsurprising that girls are already learning to hate themselves and their bodies before they even make it to double figures.

Of course, pressures and mixed messages bombard young girls from all angles. The survey ‘Under Ten and Under Pressure?’ jointly conducted by Girlguiding UK and The Mental Health foundation last year, found worries linked to self image ranging from the predictable weight and appearance anxieties to fear of judgment for simply not having a cool enough phone or the latest iPod.

But children are not born with some kind of innate desire for such things. Babies wail for food and attention, not the latest iPhone. Yet these insidious influences constantly assail pre-teens… make-up, heels, thongs even have become badges of honour and maturity – we’re selling sex to children barely old enough to grasp the concept. Soft core pornography has crept into the classroom in the guise of Playboy branded stationery and in every direction you look teen magazines, TV shows and music are teaching girls that to be young is simply not enough. You have to be beautiful if you want to be loved.

They don’t call it grooming for nothing, and it starts with the indoctrination of ‘pink’ for girls from infant-hood onwards. Or so say the organisers of Pink Stinks, “a campaign and social enterprise that challenges the ‘culture of pink’ which invades every aspect of girls’ lives”. They argue that by the time they reach their teens, female children have a life-time of learning to become sexual objects behind them, so perhaps we should be far from surprised when 10-year-olds start clamouring for the latest porn star t-shirt, or worrying that their legs are too short, their tummies are too big or their breasts are the wrong shape.

Sexism is still a dirty word in education

These kinds of attitudes hurt children of both sexes, not least because they leave them bereft of positive examples of male-female interaction in the media world they tend to worship and adore. But though they lack the words to articulate it, it seems obvious in some of the schools I go into that the boys know things are weighted in their favour, at least in the short term. By 11, they have already learnt that calling a girl fat effectively finishes the argument. It doesn’t matter whether she is actually fat or not. It has become a code word which makes it clear that since female self worth is built upon looks, it is easily destroyed by male indifference or antagonism.

Part of the problem is that, in the past, those most directly able to affect change, the policy makers, have rather tiptoed around the idea of gender. It’s just about OK now to talk about sexual bullying, as long as the idea of actual sexism perpetrated by primarily male children against primarily female children remains invisible. Even the Panorama programme on the subject was given the gender neutral title Kids Behaving Badly. Equally, it might be acceptable to discuss the unique pressures faced by modern children, but to examine the different effects of these on boys and girls is still seen as somehow divisive and taboo. It would appear that sexism is still a dirty word in education, even though sex itself clearly is not.

But for children like Ellen, that simply isn’t good enough. Why should she already be consumed by worries about the way she looks rather than the kind of person she is? Why should she ever?

Hopefully though, the tide is turning. The recent round of shocking and depressing conversations regarding state of play in our schools might just signal some kind of real catalyst for change and action.

In the meantime though, teachers and parents have a role to play in stemming the tide and providing school aged children with more positive ideas and models about their own potential. So when the boys in one of the classes I am teaching declare that “girls can’t play football” we arrange a mixed-team match. And as I watch Ellen and her friends giggling after the ball I hope that how they look is the last thing on their minds.

Photo by darkmatter, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Kate Townshend is a writer and school teacher who tries very hard to teach values of equality alongside the rest of the curriculum