Pedicures for Men and Ice Cream for Toddlers: Thoughts on Stereotypes

The discussion about stereotypes comes after the dialogue.  I just wanted to show how a random conversation got me thinking about stereotypes:

 I was sitting alone in McDonald’s this morning, catching up on the news with my e-reader (for which I needed the internet), when from a neighboring table I heard a woman say, “Honey, you’re not supposed to be sad.  It’s a treat.”  I looked over and saw a woman with short, curly grey hair holding a small plastic spoon to the mouth of a two year-old boy.  He had blond hair that dangled down to his blue eyes.  A tear traced down his cheek. The boy turned to me and raised his eyebrows, as if wondering where I had come from.

“I’m trying to get him to eat ice cream,” the woman said, “but he’s having none of it.”

“Has he eaten ice cream before?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.  I’m his grandmother.  I’m trying to ruin his appetite before I give him back to his parents.”  She smiled.  “That’s what grandparents are for.”

“You’ve got that right,” said a woman at another table.  She laughed, and added, “And we love them for it.”  This woman sat across from a boy who looked to be around twelve years old and who had the broad shoulders of a middle-school linebacker who would likely fill out to become a giant in just a few years.

The grandmother coaxed two spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream into her grandson’s mouth.  He raised his hand to the plastic spoon and helped his grandmother guide it toward him.  Now he smiled.

“I’m taking my son to get a pedicure with me,” said the woman with the twelve year-old.  “We get them together.”

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or serious, so I said nothing.

“More men are doing that nowadays,” said the grandmother as she raised another spoonful of ice cream to her grandson’s mouth.

“It’s true,” said the mother.  “His friends on the football team tease him, but he tells them they don’t know what they’re missing.”

“I know a few guys who get pedicures, or at least manicures,” I said.

“You should try it,” said the mother.

“She’s right,” added the grandmother.  “It’s relaxing.”

I do know men who have gotten manicures and pedicures, but sitting in McDonald’s, contemplating whether or not I would seek out either of these services myself, I didn’t know how to respond.  We all confront moments when we’re asked to lift something from an old category and place it into a new one.  I think of getting a pedicure as something women do, but for most of human history no one got pedicures, so why not men, now?  Because it’s not “manly,” but manliness is another quality that we define differently over time.  A lot of men file their nails and style their hair.  Does that make them unmanly?

This whole conversation just got me thinking about the power gender stereotypes exert on our lives, how they influence who we become, what we do, and what we think we’re capable of doing.  A study was conducted several years ago in which two groups of college students took a math test.  To one group the proctor read the standard instructions for most standardized tests.  Think SAT or GRE.  To the other group the same proctor explained that men and women typically perform equally well on the test they were about to take.

In the first group, the men outperformed the women.  In the second group, the men and women performed equally well.  What’s the difference?  The hypothesis (pretty well borne out) is that women in the first group went into the test with deeply internalized stereotypes about the supposed superiority of men in all things mathematical.  Anxiety springing from the stereotype itself impaired performance.  Women in the second group were told that the stereotype was false, thereby alleviating their anxiety and removing it as an inhibiting factor in their performance on the test.

These kinds of studies have proliferated over the years.  Many of them tackle racial stereotypes and reveal them to be as harmful and distorting as gender stereotypes (which seems pretty obvious).  I’m sure I summed up some combination of various studies here, but the general point remains: stereotypes affect us in ways we’re not always aware of, and the worst stereotypes have a way of sneakily contributing to the result they predict.

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

10 Responses to Pedicures for Men and Ice Cream for Toddlers: Thoughts on Stereotypes

  1. skippingstones says:

    Interesting! I already have a question on my Query list about how gender contributes to our own ideas of who we are (based on how I felt when someone called me a “he” in response to a comment; mixed feelings I had about that).

    Love how people talk to strangers, and how those little moments sometimes trigger big thoughts.

    PS: I’m on my phone at work. You are a problem for my productivity. Please stop being interesting during work hours.

    • I need to check out that query! A lot of the weirdest and most memorable conversations I’ve ever had were with strangers. 🙂

      Just so you know, when I’m AT work I’m incredibly dull, and when I’m not at work, I have rare flashes of… non-dullness. Hundreds of people can attest to that.

      • I haven’t done that Query yet, haven’t even asked the question of anyone yet (so many questions, so few weeks in the year 🙂 )

        I have been on your Facebook page. I do not believe you are dull at work, Senior B.

  2. Patti Ross says:

    Very thoughtful! I agree that so many hidden assumptions impact our behavior and our acceptance of labels and activities as “right” for us. One of the oft-referenced studies is the one where blue-eyed kids were given more support and eventual power and control over the brown and green-eyed kids. Sad how quickly the “class divisions” emerged. Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron” is set in the future where anyone with abilities must tolerate physical constrictions so they are like everyone else–if you are naturally graceful, you are not a dancer but must wear weights and irons to keep you from moving well. The barriers we place on ourself! I used to use that in college writing classes to help stuents look at the barriers they have placed on themselves. These stereotypes are all around!

    And I may be the one who called skippingstones a “he.” I did it to someone not to long ago–and cringed after the fact when I noticed it. Decided a reply to say sorry was not needed, but. . . . Looks to the long held correct pronoun antecedent that singualr should always be “male.” Bull, if you ask me–so I try to go plural or alternate or something. Just another level of stereotypes and expectations.

    Thanks for being thoughtful and provocative.

    • I love Vonnegut, but I haven’t read that story! It sounds fascinating. What I love about the best science fiction is that it creates a space for experimentation with ideas… The author gets to toy with the variables of life and societies and imagine how things might be different. I like your approach to teaching!

      I do the same thing with “he” and “she.” I alternate. This is really stupid of me, but sometimes I don’t feel right using “she” because it’s like I’m trying to speak for a gender that isn’t even mine. I know, I know… that’s not at all the point of using “she,” but I still trip myself up sometimes. Of course, if I feel that way, I can only imagine how female authors might have felt “having” to use “he” because of tradition. Amazing how stereotypes and class/power structures find their way into language itself.

    • Hahaha!! Patti, if you did that on Dendrochronology (or Today I think…, maybe), then it was me 🙂 – we were talking about the Thankful pages. That was way back in June when Harold and I started doing that.

      It was no big deal, really 🙂 ! At first I laughed, and then I had a moment of what am I doing wrong that projects this, and then I laughed at myself for even asking that question. I was as much amused at my own thought process as anything. I mean really, I go by skippingstones and at that time I really didn’t divulge very much about myself at all. I think a lot of it goes back to what you two were talking about and using (assuming?) he automatically.

      Also, a sorry reply was definitely not needed. I even wanted to apologize for correcting you. I guess we’re both just nice people 🙂 .

      Nick (I always want to call you Nicky when I’m laughing, but I won’t do it, not ever), your blog is becoming quite the message board of late. I hope you don’t mind.

  3. pattisj says:

    Times are certainly changing, and the envelope is being pushed in all directions as people challenge the system and stereotypical behavior. Men in our country didn’t always wear earrings, women didn’t get tattoos, e.g. It used to be the barber shop for men and the hair salon for women, then came the unisex salons. Many changes…

  4. Pingback: Inspiration Monday XX | A New Day Dawns

  5. This was delightful. I love how you start with a conversation.

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