I was hiking the other day when I passed a mom and her three-year-old on the trail. As I marched past, the boy turned to his mom and asked, “Is that a boy or a girl?”
I’ll admit it: I laughed. My hair was pinned to my head with sweat and I wasn’t wearing any make-up, and I am someone who went as a surprisingly convincing Mr. Roper for Halloween back in grad school.
It wasn’t too long ago my own daughter and I were in a McDonald’s drive-thru* and she yelled a similar question about a gender-indiscriminant employee with hopefully bad hearing. As children (and who am I kidding, as adults, too), we learn the world by compartmentalizing, making short cuts to determine who and what people are and to help us organize how we see things. When my daughter started getting a handle on whether people were boys or girls and how she could tell the difference (according to her, only girls have eyelashes), she decided girls were clearly superior. All her stuffed animals were girls; all her friends at pre-school were girls; she liked the girl cat better than the boy cat. When I pointed out that her dad was a boy and her grandpas and Barry, she was willing to make exceptions, but wanted it known she wasn’t too happy about it.
It reminds me of this comedian I saw on TV years ago who took his kid to the pool where there was a large woman. The kid makes up a song about her: “She’s a fat-fat-fatty, she’s a fatty-boom-ba-latty.” The comedian went on to explain, “She’s not the biggest woman in the world, but she’s the biggest woman in his world.” At what age do these categories–boy/girl, fat/thin–start to take on more weight, to mean good/bad, ugly/pretty?
I passed the mother and son–and here I am categorizing too; how do I know she was his mother?–before I heard her reaction, but I hope she wasn’t too embarrassed. On another day, hiking with my daughter, she insisted on wearing her princess costume that her Aunt Crazy gave her. Someone stopped us on the trail and said, “Look at you, such a beautiful princess!” and when the woman had passed my daughter turned to me and said in her loud whisper, “She thinks I’m a princess, but I’m just a real person.”
*I realize that this is at least the third time in six months I’ve mentioned going to McDonald’s. Jesus. I’m glad this post at least mentions exercising, too.