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Before New York’s mayor ordered public schools to go totally online in March, my daughter, M, was already dealing with a crisis that had begun at the start of second grade. Her teacher had introduced a points system – sort of like Yelp stars for kids – in which she awarded students points for things like remembering putting their bags away in their cubbies or paying attention during morning meetings. M came home upset almost every day. Because of her quixotic, day-dreaming nature, she had the least points in the class. Kids began teasing her for it.
School is a one-size coat meant to envelop kids of all shapes and sizes. For a lucky few, it is a perfect fit, but for others, it chafes and pinches, or feels so big and strange that they end up losing themselves in it. Elementary school has become fertile ground for problems I hadn’t expected to crop up until middle school: bullying, cliques, premature social media use, peer pressure to have crushes, girl drama, and more.
Thankfully, this year, virtual learning from home has offered M a break from all that, and a chance to return to simply being a young girl.
M was born in 2012, the same year that the phrase “body shamer” was first used in print. From school dress codes to gender-coded media, girls’ bodies have always been the subject of public discourse. In Cuties the controversial, poignant directorial debut from Maïmouna Doucouré, Amy, a young Senegalese immigrant, navigates middle school friendship within a societal eco-system that force-feeds sexual maturity to children through TV and pop-culture. The movie made my heart race; I thought about all the times M posed for pictures with her friends, and someone said, “Now pose like models!” Without missing a beat, the girls would pop out their hips and pout, looking coquettishly at the camera. I thought about the dolls and action figures that were popular with girls of M’s age, with child-like bodies and adult, made-up faces. I thought of the time that, as M passed by, a doorman said: “Hey there cutie, how many boyfriends you got?”
There is an epidemic of “adultification” among girls. Black girls, like Doucouré’s sensitive protagonist, have the worst of it. According to a 2017 study by Georgetown Law Center, adults in the United States “view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers starting as young as five years old.” This adultification bias leads to the misconception that black girls need less nurturing, support and, most importantly, comforting. In Indian communities like my own, I see resonances of this bias in how girls are made to care for their younger siblings, take on a larger share of the household chores, and are shamed, starting as young as five, for not conforming to “feminine” behavior. My relatives once asked me why M wore leggings under all her dresses. I replied, curtly, that it was so they wouldn’t constantly tell M to “sit like a lady” – like they told me.
Quarantine has created more problems than it’s solved, but I’m grateful that it’s offered my daughter a respite from the firehose of messaging she’s received since kindergarten: that she needs to be a mini-woman. For online class, M doesn’t need to perform femininity by carefully curating her outfits. She can get up from her desk as many times as she wants. She can ask me a dozen times how to complete a task without fearing recrimination. If she doesn’t like LOL Dolls, or Roblox, or TikTok, or whatever fad her peers are into, she doesn’t have to feign interest. For a brief time, M’s self-image, her passions, and her joys will be uncolored by a culture that doesn’t want her to remain a child.
We celebrated M’s eighth birthday in mid-October. Masked up, we went for our first trail ride at a stable in New Jersey. It was a perfect fall day; the leaves floated down like flakes of gold. Our group was led by a young woman, Gillian, who had been riding since she was twelve. In the middle of the trail, two horses who didn’t get along decided to go off-road. Gillian was tasked with unsnarling a lively traffic jam of horses and nervous, first-time riders.
In my excitement, I forgot to thank Gillian for being a great role model for my daughter in her practical outfit, and for sorting out a scary situation with confidence and care. After the trail ride, we lingered at the stables, and held out apples on our flat palms for the horses. I looked over at M in her mask and from her eyes, could tell she was smiling. The sun lit up her hair like filaments in a light bulb. My heart sang.
Naheed Patel is a writer who has been published in the New England Review, Europe Now Journal, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Harper Collins India in 2021. She tweets @bookwalee and lives in the greater NYC area
Source: The Guardian
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