As a child, I had a problematic relationship with gender. By problematic, I mean No Relationship At All. Perhaps different familial circumstances would have produced different results, but alas: I was the first child of my generation. With only a younger sister and no males to be placed in opposition to, I was raised by parents who raised a child, not a girl.
My father, born in late 1950s Canada, is the eldest of four boys. His mother a widow, they were raised almost primarily by her and her sisters. I see my father and uncles as healthy, well-adjusted men, who cook, clean, see woman as equals, and also engage in all manner of traditionally masculine pursuits like hunting, fishing, DIY, and NASCAR. I once spent twenty minutes with two of my uncles discussing who has the best meatloaf recipe. My dad used to sew a lot of my Halloween costumes.
My mother, born in early 1960s Britain, with two brothers and a sister. Her parents were a perfect nuclear family, my grandfather working, grandmother at home. My mother felt very heavily the burden of being “raised a girl.” My aunt and one uncle became adults with the most problematic mental states imaginable. (I won’t elaborate.) I know my mother internalized so much because I see it come out sometimes in the strangest of ways. When I once mentioned that if I truly wanted a child, even if I were single, I would have one, her immediate reaction tore into some deep well of repressed conservatism. “A child needs a mother and a father!” she argued. As shocking as it was to hear her make such a statement, I realized then that some injustices are so subtly ingrained that those exploited have to rationalize the sheer unfairness somehow.
But I was lucky to have escaped much of this in my early years. Sure I played with Barbies. I loved to build characters and ongoing narratives. It was a precursor to writing, really. But I also loved dinosaurs and wrote my first story about one. I hated wearing dresses and wanted my hair cut short because that’s just what felt right.
And I loved hockey. I used to watch it with my dad. I would go to games with my grandma, back when the Canucks were at the Pacific Coliseum. I wanted to play hockey, but it was expensive and back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no girls’ leagues existed. So I used to play road hockey with the boys.
So I finally arrive at the actual point of this post. I had a gym teacher in elementary school who used to (I’m assuming on days he didn’t feel like actually teaching) split the gym in half with a row of benches. On one side we set up gymnastics mats, on the other hockey nets. The girls did gymnastics, the boys plus me played hockey. Nothing seemed unusual about this. A lot of the boys were the ones I played with in the street. Most of them played in leagues, which I didn’t, so they were better than I was. But in a situation such as this, where the gender divide was rendered literal, even the boys who didn’t play at all were drafted. I ended up being somewhere in the middle skill-wise.
Finally, at one point, prompted by what I can only imagine is boredom or misplaced concern, the gym teacher pulled me aside. Hockey stick still in my hand, I left the game. One of my friends called out: “Don’t take Ashleigh! She’s our best defenceman!” (I am still proud of this.)
The gym teacher, a middle-aged man with a moustache, asked, “Don’t you want to do gymnastics with the other girls?” I didn’t. My parents enrolled me in gymnastics a few years earlier and it ended badly. Hockey was the sport to aspire to. All of our heroes were hockey players. And I had a massive crush on Pavel Bure.
“No!” I replied, indignant, but suddenly embarrassed. It seemed like I had done something wrong. It had not occurred to me that I was on the wrong side of the divide. The realization was blinding and confusing. At that age, I never thought to question a teacher. Whatever he was saying, it must be true. I went back to playing hockey that day, but it was not the same. I’m pretty sure that was the last day I ever did.
In the years to come, I gained enough perspective to realize how wrong it was of my gym teacher to say that to me, even if he thought he was doing the right thing. In the years to come, so many other little moments like that would build and build, forming a great heap of gendered expectations.
But that was the day I truly realized what it meant to be a girl.