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.