August 7, 2022
There was a clear moment this past year when Dad picking out Cozy’s outfit for the day slammed into “societal expectations.” For the historical record, there is an event in the life of a second grader that sounds like this; “Dad, I don’t like how that makes me look!”
Legendary sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) often referred to Charles Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self.” When “I” look in a mirror, I see “Me.” Me is society’s reflection and I evaluate myself by that reflection. It has nothing to do with who I am, only how they see “me.” I love mentioning to my students how they will never see their own face as it is. They will only see photos, videos, and reflections in mirrors, all versions of their face mediated by some external source. You don’t actually look like what you look like on Instagram. Sorry.
Even the most rugged individual’s sense of self is shaped by society. You’re a mountain man? Society says you have to have a beard, jeans, and flannel shirts. “But that’s just what I’m comfortable in,” says the rugged individual. “You know what’s even more comfortable?” asks George Herbert Mead. “Silk pajamas!” “But that will make me look like a cissy!” says the mountain man. Bam, society.
So me picking out my daughter’s clothes is starting to get filtered through the various mirrors of society. That’s not necessarily bad (“Pick out your own damn outfit,” Dad has screamed), but as we know, “society” is kinda messed up, like a funhouse full of distorted mirrors.
The first mirror is gender. This trip hits girls first. The boys in her second grade class seemed oblivious to what they should wear. Cozy has already been playing at wearing make-up with her friends. She has even said, “That outfit makes me look fat.” (Mom and Dad had a big “family time” conversation about that one.) And the way the fifth grade girls dress at her elementary school dress looks more college co-ed fashion than “kidswear.” According to feminist sociologists, like Carol Gilligan, all of this will be put in the service of attracting boys.
Instead of being evaluated on her brains, her humor, or her ability to build a sustainable fairy house out of a bundle of sticks, society wants to primarily place her value in her “attractiveness.” Gilligan found that the self-esteem of 13-year-old girls plummeted as they began to realize that their worth was not based on what they had to offer the world but what they had to offer boys. The soccer player quits the team to become the cheerleader. Her research was first published in 1982. Forty years later, I fear the creeping insecurities of the 13-year-old girl who is told, “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” will arrive in the gender politics of 3rd grade.
The second mirror is race. Less visible to white girls, BIPOC girls know that white girls set the beauty standards, whether it’s the latest fashion, straight hair, or Instagram make-up tips. My brunette mixed-race daughter has commented, more than once, about wanting an outfit because the “blondies” will like it. Already in second grade, the Aryan girls are the mirror that the other girls are seeing themselves in (and never seeing a blondie looking back at them). This isn’t any critique of Cozy’s blonde classmates. We live in a white supremacists patriarchal culture that puts “blonde girls,” at the peak of the attractiveness scale, but that scale is changing rapidly.
The third mirror is class. Not only are these kids looking up to the wealthy, to keep up with the Kardashians, they (or their parents) are expected to shell out the money so they can “look cool.” The first day of school everyone gets evaluated in their new outfits and the poor kids are always shamed. “Your momma is so poor that when I asked her what’s for dinner tonight she lit her pocket on fire and said, hot pocket.” We can still find Cozy outfits at Goodwill but we are about 60 seconds away from that door closing and it’s gotta be the latest trend OR SHE WILL DIE. We’re trying to give her a bohemian ethic that rejects wealth in favor of a decidedly downwardly mobile artist esthetic. My credit card really needs her to be a beatnik.
All of this is tied to the process of “our baby” becoming her own person. But, as Mead explained, her sense of self is being formed by the culture she lives in and more than once I have been tempted to smash the mirror.
Here comes third grade.