I read recently about a Dunedin intermediate that listened to its students when they said everyone should have the option to wear pants. The Principal decided why not ditch all gender rules and just have uniform options for everyone. It’s a great idea to have choice but do students really have ‘free choice’? I get that it gives girls the option to wear pants, that’s great but do guys feel just as excited to wear kilts or culottes? (does anyone get excited about culottes?) It is an important step and great that a school leader listened to students.
My experience of gender norms in schools goes way beyond uniform. I think body hair is the gender marker for most children, especially for girls. If girls have short hair at primary or intermediate they are constantly asked ‘are you a boy or a girl’ – the correct answer is ‘yes’ in case you ever get asked this question. I did all the time when I was at primary school, it never bothered me but it got a bit annoying at times, so I would just tackle harder in bull-rush or soccer and let my actions do the talking.
High schools are a bit tougher on the gender thing. I’m not sure why young adults need to be clothed in gender coded clothes for their education. I still don’t understand why pants are so scary for girls schools or why boys schools panic over guys with long hair. Because a gender ‘neutral’ option is a boys option. This is my point. Society is still basically scared of males being feminine or expressing femininity. Guys have such limited gender expression beyond masculinity in our school cultures and uniforms (including hair regulations) don’t help.
So I hope high schools start following the lead of primary and intermediates but I secretly hope we move away from uniforms completely. There are other ways to express school pride, identity and unity beyond making everyone look the same. That is not valuing diversity, it is fear of difference.
Well, term 4 starts tomorrow and it is Mental Health Awareness Week. I was wondering what wisdom I could share as a counsellor working in a school. By that I mean, what can I say that isn’t already googleable (no…that is definitely not a word).
Maybe that’s a good point to start with. There is sooooo much information online about mental health and unhealth/illness, that sometimes I wonder if young people actually come and talk to me with their diagnosis already sorted for them thanks to some online questionnaires. Not that this is bad or wrong but I get the feeling sometimes EVERY bad feeling or upset is being searched and the worst case scenario picked out. But I also acknowledge how distressing feeling intensely anxious, depressed, or hopeless can be. For some people it is a daily struggle to keep going and I know they are often the ones not talking to someone, not reaching out and quietly suffering.
I think it’s important to realise feeling sad, angry, upset, worried, anxious in themselves is not a mental health diagnosis. Stress is also really normal, and freaking out over exams, feeling overwhelmed by stuff is part of the roller coaster of life. Sometimes I wonder if the happiness bar has been set too high, everyone expects to be feeling good, happy, ecstatic, sweet as. But I reckon a more accurate description of a good mental health indicator is if you feel ‘meh’ to ok-alright. That’s kind of the base-line for most people, but for some reason people start freaking out if they aren’t happy, joyful, excited and loving life 24/7!
So I want to put some balance back in the picture of mental health. Freak outs about speeches, exams, performances, other things like that are common, normal things. Feeling tired, worn out and mentally fatigued after a term of manic internals is understandable. Breaking down, being devastated, upset, by things like death, illness, any sudden grief or loss is healthy and natural.
My hope for this week is that the conversations about mental health acknowledge the vast range of normal emotions – including the not so pleasant ones, because without them we get out of balance and that is where the trouble begins. Dealing with abuse, bullying, harassment, significantly impacts on mental health. Worry about gender or sexuality as well, so if you are worried about any of those things yourself or about a friend – talk to someone, try a school counsellor – just take one for a couple of test drives and see how it goes. Or contact someone like youthline.
Hope everyone has a great first week back.
I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern throughout my life with how people react to me. People often assume that body image just relates to size and shape, but my experience has to do with my hair.
Being the child of a hairdresser it seemed natural I would at some point do some experimenting. My first radical change came at university and my brother did a similar experiment. I got dreadlocks and my bro shaved all his hair off. Both of us noticed the immediate effect on how people reacted to us. I had the better deal I think. I had complete random strangers – with dreadlocks, smile, say hi, want to talk about music and life and just generally I seemed to gain entry into groups without needing to do much. My brother however found female shop owners avoiding eye contact, refusing to serve him and generally perceived as a threat. Needless to say, going out for coffee together was interesting.
I then grew my hair long for many years and just blended into the generic background. That was until the start of this year when I got over it and went for the full chop. People were surprised but positive. So then I decided why not go really short and messy, to the edge of respectable margins of femininity.
That was my cucumber moment. People just freaked out like in Cats vrs Cucumbers on youtube. People who weeks before would say hi, talk to me stepped aside and looked at me suspiciously, they stopped short of hissing but I might have detected the odd growl. I could tell I had crossed the line and fallen out of the respectable image others held of my gender – people, like those cats saw me differently and I was a little perplexed for a while. But now I’m ok with my new cucumber status. Because I actually tried the cucumber thing with my own cat, I was all primed with a camera to catch out but he didn’t freak. In fact he was rather disinterested and looked at me like what is this thing doing here that looks like it could be food but isn’t. I suspect my cat has never encountered a snake unlike some of the other cats in the USA. So being a cucumber itself isn’t the problem, it’s the association with threat and fear.
So I’m embracing my cucumberness, I might even become as cool as one.
Addictions are kind of like phobias. Many people think they have a phobia and tell everyone, when really, they just have a strong fear response – me and spiders for example (or anything with more than 4 legs). But those who know they have a phobia or could be addicted, don’t talk about it. I think the word addiction is in danger of being over used sometimes, much like phobia.
My friend Philip blogged about the addiction to certainty and how opening up to uncertainty is a way we can perhaps start to create a different culture that is open and flexible. I think there is an addiction that is similar, the addiction to being right. This is slightly different to the fear of being wrong that Kathryn Schulz talks about, but is more of a commitment to obliterating anyone who has an alternative version of something. I’ve noticed ‘right addicts’ in my own life and think I might have nearly become an addict myself – it kind of runs in my family. Right addicts in my personal experience never consider the harm their addiction causes to others. Speaking for myself, I found being around this form of addiction ate away at my confidence and sense of worth as nothing I said was valued.
I’ve noticed this in other contexts such as the rise in the use of the term ‘conspiracy theorist’. This is a relatively recent phrase, first coined in the early 20th Century but picking up it’s negative meaning in the 1960’s with the CIA deploying it in response to anyone questioning who shot then President John F Kennedy. Since then however it seems that the term conspiracy theory is used to mock, put down, and attack anyone who doesn’t agree with you.
The addictive aspect of being right also drives people to search online for evidence to back their case – ‘I must prove I am right’. It can set up a ‘them and us’ mentality bringing people together in ‘like minded’ groups to get high on taking down or attacking someone elses ideas. I’ve seen it on social media and it’s pretty ugly. But like most addicts, they don’t see any harm in what they are doing, and insist on their right to be right.
There are some groups who will see their addiction as healthy and important in terms of knowing The Truth. Two groups who have been trying to win over more users of their version of being right are scientists and those who are religious (I’m generalising). I’m not sure I want to get caught in their turf war, but sometimes I think how amazing it would be to hear either of these groups say ‘we need to revisit this idea it might not be quite as it seems’.
Maybe quantum physicists are like the addiction clinic, helping those from strong points of view on reality to understand both could be right. Me, I’m happy to be a conspiracy theorist, I find it more interesting to consider there could be more to something than what I first believed. I don’t mind getting new information that challenges my thinking or perspective. But to even question how do we know what we know, or don’t know – that is a real rush.
Today I talked with four different young people about some pretty big stuff. Three guys in a row were trying to figure out how to talk to family about what there were going through. One had already tried and had been told they were ‘wrong about themselves’. Another had shared parts and the third was wondering about how to ease Mum and Dad into the bigger picture.
Seeing a counsellor at school can be pretty daunting, so it was really great when one guy said ‘wassup bro’ as he left in a friendly acknowledgement to the other guy waiting to see me. It was a simple transaction of recognition that left me feeling at peace and sad that others might be out there without a support network.
The thing is I’m working at an ‘all girls’ school and these guys are all on their own unique journeys of gender identity but all of them see themselves as male. It is interesting listening to what their main needs and concerns are about school, compared to what I hear teachers and parents sometimes naming as the ‘big issues’. Sometimes they overlap but I’d like to share just a couple of simple things that have come through generally from school students. This is by no means a checklist but might help as a starting point:
- Understand that how someone identifies in terms of gender/sex does not determine their sexuality. Who people are into might change, it might not. There is no ‘formula’ for balancing it all out into some kind of common expression.
- Asking personal questions about people’s bodies and ‘parts’ and whether they are going to have (or have had) surgery is not cool – neither is trying to ‘feel’ what’s down there! Looking up horror stories online and sharing can be traumatic and upsetting. Asking what pronouns or names people prefer is a more respectful and easy way to show acceptance and support. You can also look at supporting someone to talk to a GP about options, for example, getting onto hormones that help the body change gears and become more like the preferred sex/gender.
- Recognise they are the same person so, if they come out as trans*, they do not get some other downloaded identity and show up the next day a completely different person. Keep calm and carry on what you talked about the day before – also respect their privacy – do not tell people unless they have said it’s ok – but I’d still be careful.
- Get some GOOD information – go to the RainbowYOUTH website or check out whatever local LGBT+ support services you have. Remember, if you go to overseas sites for information, it might not apply to New Zealand.
- Finally – for parents: Young people want to protect parents from hurt and upset, but they also want your support and it’s ok to be confused, not understand or not know how to respond. Something I encourage any parent to do is to notice the clues young people give about the sexuality or gender and not to dismiss them. ASK: ‘Are you questioning your sexuality?’ ‘Are you questioning your gender?’ Hugs are a good response and so are tears – hugs also allow you to talk while not looking at the person, a handy and often overlooked benefit. Get support, again RainbowYOUTH has excellent resources. Maintaining privacy is really important. In my role as a counsellor, one of the biggest differences to the well-being of young trans people is parent support, and there IS support for parents.
While big changes like bathrooms and uniform options are important, it is in the daily trans-actions we have with each other that respect and support are generated.
Today I was at my local supermarket. It’s a small local one and it reminds me of home. I love how food shopping is an opportunity to see diversity at work in the community.
On my way in I stopped at the dairy section and I pondered cheese with a woman, who was equally baffled by the price of 1kg block. While a man walked through crying and talking to himself, I looked up and he had found what he needed, happy again. Onto the checkout and I nearly run into the same guy, but he’s talking to one of the assistants who is trying to figure out what he needs. Children look up at me perplexed by this loud grown up, I just smile like its no big deal. As I pay for my chocolate and broccoli (not planning on cooking them together), I overhear the checkout person behind me say ‘you are short $1.20. I turn and ask ‘you a bit short man, can I help? The look of gratitude transcended words, as I handed over the money I notice the complete lack of acknowledgement of my gesture of kindness…which is exactly what I hoped for.
No flash mob cheering me, no hashtag, just a nod to the checkout operator, a smile back at the same kids who smile up at the loud guy with a beard who cried. In the end it wasn’t about me and my offering of small change to make up the deficit, it was the small changes I saw in people that makes a difference, that erases any deficit.
I’m confident most people will realise that puberty brings on changes, and one of those is growing body hair. It should be a choice to shave or not shave body hair. When I say ‘choice’ I also understand there is pressure to present your body in a socially acceptable way, I wish it wasn’t that way. There are also cultural aspects to body hair and some if has very significant meaning. Given our multi-cultural society here in NZ and being in the 21st Century, I do find it strange that schools can have rules about where hair is permitted to grow. Students in New Zealand still face strict uniform requirements around hair length and facial hair (if male…I’ll come back to this).
So I was heartened to hear of a petition started by Kapiti College student Antony McEwan to allow year 13 students to have beards (if they can grow them). The students there can wear mufti and make up but not allow their bodies to do their thing. It got me pondering the meaning of facial hair that is perhaps different to leg hair, or arm hair, even arm pit hair! I’m not sure but I have a feeling it is to do with actually becoming a ‘Man’. It’s a form of body uniforming – keeping all males looking ‘the same’ – even if they are in mufti. I think it achieves this by keeping young men/males appearing like prepubescent boys. They can’t stop voices deepening and besides no-one ‘sees’ a voice, this is about the body and how it is viewed in school.
That also got me wondering about transgender guys. Let’s say someone starts testosterone at 15-16, they’re ready to ‘bro up’ and they are on it for a while and they finally get to facial hair growing (let’s say they are genetically gifted). The last thing he’s probably not going to want to do is shave off that hard earned beard, no matter how patchy it is.
Which is why this is more than just a fight for cisgendered teen guys getting to sport the latest fashion accessory. This is about an expression of biological, social, cultural, and gender diversity. It is time for schools to face facts about facial hair, it happens and it is completely harmless. Razor cuts and burns however – not so much fun, possibly harmful I’m guessing.
Good luck Anthony, and I hope you get your 500 signatures – it could be a close shave.
Pokemon Go has really gone crazy. People are racing all over the place chasing digital characters. Personally, I just don’t get it, I’m just a bit baffled that people care so much. But I respect that others will have a completely different perspective.
While I was trying to figure out my own confusion I started wondering about the idea of augmented reality and whether there could be some seriously practical, perhaps life-saving applications of this amazing technology. It really struck me when I read about an African American guy who was also hearing impaired needing a sticker on his car so that police would know not to shoot him if he didn’t do ‘as they said’. Wow – I mean, I cannot even imagine thinking about making sure the police do not see me as a threat, simply by being me. Could a form of augmented identification be a way of creating a reality where responding to assumptions and fears could be mediated by technology? Not that this is a solution for racism but if it is going to save the life of someone, is that not a good thing?
So here is where I think augmented tech could really help: If people have unique functioning or needs they could wear a bracelet – or some other transmitter – that, as soon as scanned by police, would flash up important information before they even got out of their car. It could even work at airports and other transport agencies, to ease access. To make it more personal and less like some dystopian form of ‘big brother’, maybe people could make up their own digital character that shares important facts, with a bit of their own humour or personality.
Because honestly, seeing the obsession over Pokemon Go is a bit creepy and I’m a bit scared the digital zombie apocalypse has begun. Unplug people, you don’t need Pikachu to help you explore the outdoors, because, are you really there if you’re staring at a screen? I have a new challenge –how many different forms of wheels can you transport yourself on?
That’s my ‘provoke-mon’.
If it sells newspapers or gets people to click a link, it’s usually got something to do with sex. Then if you add teenagers into the mix, everyone has an opinion, especially adults who like to claim ‘they were teenagers once’.
So when I found myself reading a headline today that said, ‘Teens and sex: what’s going on in our schools,’ I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to click the link or keep scrolling. Nothing surprised me about the research, eg. those who have easier access to contraception are more likely to use it and there is a socioeconomic link to those not able to access. But I also wonder about the kinds of conversations that communities and schools with strong beliefs around sex are having.
One of the research ideas that really stood out for me was this:
“Youth development literature suggested one of the best ways to reduce teen pregnancy was by making sure young people were engaged in school and had goals for the future.”
So schools are a form of contraception? Concentrate on getting NCEA and staying in school is as good as going on the pill? Plan your career and you won’t be interested in sex? I’m confused.
Something that has changed since I started high school 30 years ago is the age most students leave school. When I went to school, most of my mates left at 15 and went to work, so they were seen as adults once they left school. Now to get into university you have to finish year 13 (7th form for anyone older than 35) so more youth are ‘adults’ at school.
I’m also still struggling to understand why shame is used as an excuse for not talking about sex. It’s just so lame in the 21st century. Teen sex happens, so how about some media focus on addressing the cultural and social assumptions, fears and beliefs that prevent open healthy experiences of sex and sexuality, rather than statistics and freaking out.