Greater diversity (in the right identities)

24 Jan

In “Do All-Girls Schools Breed Feminists or Mean Girls?” (http://healthland.time.com/2013/12/18/do-all-girls-schools-breed-feminists-or-mean-girls/#ixzz2rLE5ZrPT), Eliana Dockterman cites a Canadian study that challenges the social and academic advantages of single-sex education for girls, and documents international research and anecdotal perspectives as counterpoint to this controversial study.

In her penultimate paragraph, Dockterman asserts:

Yet what little data we do have on the effects of separating girls and boys indicates that girl-only groups would allow for greater diversity in identity. Studies of preschoolers have found that girls are more likely to play with “boy” toys when boys aren’t present. As Damour puts it, all-girls schools often allow for more versions of what it means to be a girl. “In an all-girls setting, girls spread out into some of the space that’s otherwise taken up by boys at school. In the classroom they are louder and more expressive.”

Greater diversity in identity, eh? It struck me that the evidence for this is girls playing with “boy” toys or not wearing makeup:

“The girls will say we don’t have to worry what we look like when we get up in the morning. And then they’ll laugh about that,” says [Barbara Wagner, Head of the all-girls Marlborough School]. “They’ll say we don’t have to look good for someone else. The girls who wear makeup to school — it’s more noticeable here. Girls show up pretty natural and pride themselves on how little time it take them to get ready before they come to school.”

Both of these are certainly different expressions of gender from what we might consider traditional girl identity (after all, that’s why we call those “boy” toys, in the first place). Which makes me wonder: how inclusive are girls schools that “have done a lot to combat these expectations and stereotypes” when it comes to more traditional gender identity among students? Wagner’s observation would seem to indicate that within the culture of Marlborough, there may not be greater diversity when it comes to makeup wearing: it may just be that what’s acceptable has shifted. Now, you need to look  “natural” in order to fit in. This raises questions for me about who defines “natural” beauty: what skin color, hair texture, shape and size set the standard for beauty just as they are, whom the natural beauty movement favors, and who is proud not just about not wearing makeup, but about not “needing” it. And regardless of how beautiful a girl perceives herself to be or is perceived to be, if choosing to wear make-up (or playing with dolls, or deciding to get married instead of going to college) means losing the esteem of your peers, then what are the girls as a group learning about diversity and inclusion?

To be clear, I’m not presuming to know or critiquing what Marlborough or any other all-girls school is teaching. In fact, I think the question of whether “greater diversity in identity” is available to girls–and to boys and to kids who don’t conform to either identity–is a whole society issue.

If, as we applaud girls for choosing non-gender conforming toys and eschewing makeup, we also cultivate or tacitly encourage intolerance for gender-traditional choices, then, I would argue, we’re not cultivating greater diversity in identity. We’re just swapping out the roles and scripts that define the options for “good girls.”

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