by Oliver Harling, Bellingen, NSW, (with a bit of help from my mum)
Today I am a 14 year old boy, who against the odds, goes to a weekly ‘girls only’ sewing group after school called ‘Stitched Up’.
I love sewing, it’s heaps of fun and a lovely gentle activity, but for me to be attending this group is no small feat. Here I will write about how in my experience, from a very young age, boys in our society are totally ‘stitched up’.
Call it gender stereotyping, or whatever you like, but as a boy there is a narrow way of behaving that is seen as ‘OK’, all the rest and you’re ‘gay’, a ‘fag’, and other derogatory terms (that I’d rather not repeat) that mock any kind of natural tenderness.
My personal experiences have seen some pretty interesting examples of how this works.
Although from young at home my mum in particular, but also my dad, were pretty open (in their own way) to me not having to conform to the ways boys were supposed to be. But in the world outside, I was given constant messages that there was this small box of ways that were OK as a boy and a man and this whole spectrum of things and ways that were not.
At home my favourite toy from babyhood through to toddling and beyond was a knitted doll, called ‘Dolly’. Dolly had a pushchair and a cosy bed and I slept with her every night.
One of my favourite colours was purple, and I was often drawn to pink, depending how and what I was feeling. My parents weren’t perfect, far from it in many ways, but compared to other boys I was treated with more tenderness, which lasted longer.
My early years were spent in a small village in North Yorkshire, we had a wide and varied group of friends and so kids and families that I was exposed to and got to check out and wonder about. I used always to watch a lot. I remember as a boy of about 18 months with a group of friends around to play in the garden, (all of us walking by then) and seeing that already the boys were mostly being treated very differently to the girls. One ‘lad’ kept tearing round (“boys will be boys” apparently) and frequently falling over. His mum would get him to his feet and tell him pretty matter-of-factly, “you’ll be right, up you get, dry those tears”, whereas the girls might get a cuddle and maybe carried inside and certainly allowed to cry.
I remember other parents’ reactions to my choice of colours, toys, behaviour, etc. even in playgroup. Boys played with cars, tractors (which I loved too), they were expected to be rough, fast, ‘cheeky monkeys’, ‘little rascals’ and ‘little terrors’.
When I showed a painting with purple and pink in it, other parents notably cringed and struggled to say something like, “ooh that’s ‘nice’ Oliver, interesting colours”. Eyebrows would rise when I gravitated equally to the dolly corner (with the girls) and tenderly cuddled a baby doll, (though at that young age teddies were still slightly more acceptable).
I noticed even at this age that in winter (North Yorkshire) I did not always want to play outside in the cold, but the boys were already putting on a ‘tough act’ and dashing outside with not enough clothes on with their lips turning quickly blue.
I remember vividly when I was less than 2 and my mum was pregnant with my little brother. Straight after the scan when we found out ‘it’ was a boy, my new little brother, James, my relatives started to type cast him intensely. Whenever he kicked my Nan would say “ohh, he’s going to be a boxer, or a footballer”… and my mum would tease her back a little and say it felt like possibly a ballet move?!
Later I remember my brother’s favourite toy was a hammer (which he was pretty good at using)… but mum did not bat an eyelid when his favourite game with it was to wrap it in a pink fluffy blanket, cuddle it up close and sing it sweet lullabies!!! How our older relatives cringed.
These differences and expectations intensified as the years went by. For example, when I was little my dad was able to be fairly tender with me and gently supported me if I fell over, etc. Then came this magic (actually not so magic) line in the sand where this was no longer OK, and not just insinuated, but overtly stated. I love my dad dearly and I know he’s doing his best, he was raised to be tough and thinks he needs to do the same for us.
But it was a sad day for me when at about 12 years old, I fell hard and badly grazed my hand, I went to dad (by this age trying not to cry) and asked for help getting the gravel out. I was shocked when he told me to ‘man up’ and not be such a ‘p*ssy’!!! My own dad, OUCH!
Just the other day when we were being picked up by dad to go to his house, my brother had made a big effort to love his hair, styled it, etc., dad immediately went into this derogatory rant about how he’ll be “wanting a handbag next”, my brother simply replied that that was a lovely idea.
And then there is the boys’ clothing department, have you ever checked it out? In all the Target and similar stores there is always about twice the floor area for girls’ clothes as boys! And trying to find an item without a scull on it is pretty near impossible. If not sculls it’s surfing, ‘sk8ing’, etc. This too gets worse with age, whilst you’d never dress a baby boy in pink, though might put a girl in blue, toddler boys get ‘cheeky monkey’, ‘I eat worms for breakfast’, and ‘If I can reach it I can wreck it’ (to name just a few of the highlights from our UK relatives), but by the time you’re a teenager you might be blessed (cursed) like my dad was with a Bart Simpson shirt of ‘underachiever and proud’ right through to the very foul logo I saw on a 16 year old guy the other day ‘suck my d**k b**ch’. Really guys, the world is getting out of control. How are we raising our boys?
Even when people recognise that there is an issue, the solution is often worse than the ill. For example all the year 5 and 6 boys at my old primary school (and apparently many primary school across Australia) got made to do this ‘great new initiative’ called ‘rock and water’ that was meant to show boys how to become adult men. The ‘rock’ standing for being hard… So hard that one activity was to punch our big male teacher as hard as we could in the stomach!!! And this is helping us to become better men?
So against the odds, me and my brothers are finding our way in a world which is telling us to be tough, hard, unfeeling, rough, violent, dishonouring of women and girls and ourselves, into football, porn, etc. etc.
The ‘tough act’ I mention earlier that from a young age I saw boys going into to survive had gathered such pace over the years, till today, at high school it’s pretty awful. I see the new year 7 boys trying to speak with a put on deep, hard, ‘tough’ voice; walk tough and make sure they look like they just do not care; swear constantly; say foul things about girls; and generally be as naughty as possible. Most boys in my year only have one broken lead pencil to do their work for fear of being seen to be ‘taking care’ and being called gay. Heaps of coping strategies come in: some get right into sport (football etc.) to hide, others choose the ‘nerdy’ path and get into the academics and their study, high-balling the A grades, others just find it all too much and get super fat on multiple daily custard tubs and mammoth iced coffee, anything to not be seen and numb the pain, others choose sex and drugs. We have a cannabis dealer and grower in year 7. Guys are bragging from younger ages about their sexual ‘conquests’, there are even cases of ‘splitting’, cos sex is meant to be like porn these days, ‘hard’ and ‘fast’ and to be a ‘man’ you’re meant to actually make the girl bleed!!!!
And then, there is ME.
Most of my friends are girls who I admire and respect and we all love each other. I love taking care with my work and using stacks of different colours, a sure definition of being gay! I talk ‘normally’ in the true sense, not in the most common sense, but just as me. I walk as me, no tough guy act. Apparently when I bring a pasta salad to school that I made myself with broccoli and olives, that’s a ‘gay lunch’. In cooking class I was the only boy who could cook (quite well) and was brave enough to show it. Most boys made as big a messes as they could and behaved like idiots for fear of being called gay, (which I clearly was). I always make eye contact with people and this is definitely ‘gay behaviour’. Just for clarity, I’m not actually gay, but I am choosing to just be me as much as I’m able. In short, having me around, just bucking the trend and being myself is pretty threatening. I get flack constantly for my way of being me. I don’t pay much attention to what people call me at school and I am finding ways to support myself to be what is actually ‘normal’, but just incredibly uncommon. In this Universal Medicine and Serge Benhayon have been the hugest support and inspiration and I can’t thank them enough for showing me how possible it is to just be me, that men are naturally tender and that there is a strength in gentleness.
And so the sewing group?…
Well it went like this. I saw the sewing group advertised and thought, “great I’d love to go to that”, but then read it was ‘girls only’ and felt pretty bummed, but frankly by now was not into being told what I should and shouldn’t do as a boy. So I wrote a loving letter to the group of older ladies that went something like this:
I was sorry to read that you do not allow boys into your group, as I would love to come along and have fun sewing. Please consider that I’m sure you’d all like your daughters, grand daughters and great grand daughters to be able to have true ‘gentle’men in their lives, but by excluding boys you are in effect telling boys they ought not grow up to be the ‘gentle’men you would like to know….
In view of this: Please let me know if you might be prepared to make an exception and let me join the group?”
And so, after reflecting on this, I was warmly welcomed into the group as the first and only boy.
I cop heaps of flack from other guys and some girls too, but ignore it. Even though the old ladies are always trying to choose masculine ‘boyish’ fabrics for me with sculls on etc., (thinking they are being considerate), they love having me there and are beginning to embrace my own choice of floral or otherwise fabrics. The group loves having me and my tenderness along, I am a true asset to the group and I have heaps of fun too, I even made a gorgeous floral dress for my 3 year old sister.
Thanks Universal Medicine. I might go to ‘Stitched Up’, but I’m sure not ‘Stitched up’ like the majority of the other boys I know and meet!