The Gender Police (page 8)
Working on this book led me to reflect on my own early experiences in schools and what might have been different then, when school shootings were comparatively rare. When I felt excluded at school, I didn’t fantasize about an attack on my tormentors. I wanted to tell everyone why I thought they had certain values wrong. I wanted to improve my environment, not destroy it. Gender, though, was also at the core of my own difficult experiences in school.
My troubles began on the cusp of adolescence, when I became a “girl” instead of a kid in my local public elementary school. In fifth grade, pressure to demonstrate typical gendered behaviors began to permeate our school days. Competition and backbiting replaced what I had previously experienced as a positive and enjoyable school environment. Until then, I had been perceived as popular and had been voted president of my class every year.
Now suddenly I was the class pariah. A girl in the class had started making comments about me, saying I had too many boyfriends and telling different boys who she believed liked me that I liked a different one better. Like many girls across the country, I had my first experience with what I refer to in this book as slut bashing, in which girls or boys question the sexual legitimacy of a target and then lash out at her with vicious names conveying that she is worthless.
These unpleasant experiences continued in sixth grade, and the negative social culture changed only slightly when I went to a private middle school. I quickly discovered that I didn’t have the right clothes, the right look, the right gestures, or the right things to say.
I was dismayed by the flood of new rules and expectations and realized that I needed to change everything about myself if I wanted to be accepted in this new environment. The gender prescriptions in private school were not only strict but expensive. In public school I needed Keds and then Pro-Ked sneakers; now I needed pricey designer jeans (Sassoon or Jordache), and I was expected to go on shopping “dates” with certain girls to be included in after-school social events and activities.
It was a lot of work to become a “popular girl” in this school, and everyone seemed to be striving to achieve this goal. But even when I wore the right clothes, talked to the right girls, and hung out with the right crowd, I felt somehow disconnected. I felt alone as I struggled to be accepted by a group of people who were themselves working hard to be included.