I am actually being completely serious. I found the most amazing tampon commercial today. Admittedly my plan was not to get things started with a commercial for feminine products, but this ad just grabbed me this morning and I thought, “Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing I’d like to blog about.”
Feast your eyes:
One of my most foundational beliefs as a teacher is that we need to empower every student equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, in my albeit limited experience, the evidence of gender bias against female students is a constant, heavy, and silent weight in most of the classrooms I work in. In no way is this a comment on the skill or lack thereof of any particular teacher I have worked with. The reality of the academic culture in which young girls mature today is one that tells them that their male counterparts will most likely be quicker and smarter than they will, that the skills they develop are intended for different long-term applications than the skills of the male students, and that their academic achievements are really just secondary goals to seek after once they have assured their sexual desirability in the eyes of their male peers. There is a general consensus that the phrase “like a girl” means “not very well” or “weakly” or “hilariously bad.” The network of beliefs, misconceptions, and genuine ignorance that supports this devastating reality for our young girls is vast and has diffused into every nook and cranny of the lives we lead. The image of the empowered female student is illusive, apparently contradictory, and seemingly impossible to project or explain to the courageous and gifted young girls who enter our classrooms. That image only grows more translucent and insubstantial with age. Despite and because of these overwhelming odds, I find myself desperate to find ways to give each of those girls access to identities as strong, smart, and powerful young women.
Doug Buehl’s book, “Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines” discusses the academic identities students inhabit while in our classrooms and how teachers have the humbling and critically necessary capacity to impact those identities. “Academic identities can be fluid rather than static, and the instructional context can make a dramatic difference for developing and shaping students’ conceptions of themselves” (Buehl 8). Buehl goes on to investigate “the crucial role of language and dialogue in their [the students’ academic identities] development and maintenance” (8). Students are hearing verbal and nonverbal dialogue in every facet of their lives that suggest the female lack of potential and inherent inferiority. They may even be hearing it from themselves; Buehl discusses that many student identities are formed based on what students are telling themselves about their own performance, work, and potential. This leaves a mighty responsibility on the shoulders of the aware and passionate teacher. We can “reinforce or challenge” what students are hearing about themselves (8). The cues we give, the words we choose, the behaviors we exhibit are all means of communication with our students. They all act towards forming those students’ identities.
For me, one of my foremost goals is to ensure that all the signals I send to the female students in my room are those of confidence: an unflinching confidence in their ability to perform and in their capacity to overcome the odds stacked against them. Practically, this means encouraging the crowd of silent, but studious girls in the back of the room to share their input and work with the class. It means silencing the chatty male student when he interrupts a silent, halting contribution to class by one of his female peers. It means celebrating the bold and courageous female student who demands that her opinion be considered.
Gender roles and biases are complex and they absolutely hurt and repress for both male and female students; I clearly don’t mean to say that all my male students are patriarchal maniacs (although I most definitely have a few of those). But the pressure placed on young girls specifically is daunting and tragic. This tampon ad nails it. And it nails what has to happen: a redefinition of femininity. Our girls need “like a girl” to mean something good, fierce, and worthy of attention and we need to work to make that a reality. For what it’s worth, Always, I will buy my tampons from you.