Toilets and Pink Hair II: What it was really about

I think I have more to say on this topic after reading the feedback on the previous post, so thanks to all for bringing the clarity to me. Perhaps I was stretching it a bit in trying to bring too many topics under one umbrella. So now I’m just going to talk about women and girls and their objectification. While it is true that women do enjoy broad professional and political equality in Argentina, which is to be applauded, they continue to be objectified, their femininity given disproportionate importance, placing them forever on the pink team since the only other option is blue. But what about purple or green or yellow? (Not talking about hair here anymore, folks, so keep up.) Cristina said it herself: “I am not a feminist; I am feminine.” She’s also pumped full of botox and likes to flip her bangs like a teenager while addressing the nation. She embodies exactly what I’m talking about. Professional woman, Barbie worshipper.

For anyone who doesn’t have kids, it’s important to understand where my concerns are rooted when it comes to raising mine here. As adults, we are at liberty to choose the people we socialize with, the ways we go about it, the social norms we will and will not adhere to. If I don’t care to participate in football madness and deal with the barras bravas, I don’t have to; if I’d rather not kiss all 40 people at the birthday party when I arrive, I just don’t. And I can choose to take a positive attitude and focus on the fact that women have successful careers here and try not to look at the massive billboard images of vedettes plastered all along Corrientes. Or that pole-dancing is the most popular thing on TV, viewed by entire families including little girls and abuelitas.

But on the playground, the rules are not like this. Kids don’t get to make those choices; they have to learn the codes and adapt. And my concern is the message being put out there about what is feminine and what is not. And how this message seems to be embraced across society by women as well as men. Ergo, short hair is not feminine. (I suppose pink is, but only in a secondary sort of way once it’s chopped off. The pink hair story wasn’t really about that anyway.) Playing soccer is not feminine, ditto for basketball, etc.; only volleyball and field hockey qualify as school sports sufficiently feminine for girls to play. Go figure. These are subtle, insidious expressions of societal views that are put forward by teachers, classmates and family members of both genders.

The objectification of women is a global issue, not unique to Argentina. However, what I see as women’s complicity in perpetuating the image of extreme femininity here perplexes me. Which brings me back to the toilet issue. In this case a broad dismissal (again, across genders) of women’s “feminine” needs. And yes, while hovering over the toilet is standard practice in public bathrooms, it’s not possible for little girls or old ladies. They have to sit. And their needs are being ignored. By other women.

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Toilet Seats and Pink Hair: Raising a Girl in Argentina

I’ve mentioned my German friends before, I believe? Well, I will now take another example from that endless well of material they provide for the perfect contrast with life as I see it in Argentina. While I’ve never lived in Germany and therefore can’t generalize on the observation I’m about to make, the fact that I know of several cases leads me to believe it may be common practice, at least among university-educated engineers and architect types: German men pee sitting down. That’s right, ladies, never a toilet seat left up, bowl gaping for you to fall straight into in the middle of the night. And no dribble trail. It seems these guys are trained thusly. In deference to us, the toilet-seat down crowd. And proudly acknowledge it to be so, I might add.

In the opening scene of the Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges gets his head dunked repeatedly in his own toilet bowl. In his blasé, very Coen brothers effort to convince the intruders he’s not who they think he is, he asserts his bachelorhood by pointing out that the toilet seat was up, and therefore he couldn’t possibly be the married guy they were looking for. Meaning American men, when left to their devices, leave the seat up; however, they at least give lip service to the assumption that it should ordinarily be placed back down after use if there are women around (which is not to say that they always do. This I can offer lifetime testimony on.)

In Argentina, the toilet seat is always up. It is the standard position. It’s up in photos of bathrooms in homes for sale; it’s even up in public women’s restrooms. After 20 years of living with an Argentine man, I have given up the battle of the bowl, and merely resort to slamming it down every time I go in there. And our teenage son makes it two of them, so there’s no winning. In all honesty, neither of them are remotely machista. But the toilet seat down does not figure, either passively or actively, in their mental scaffolding of ‘rules one should follow.’ (Even Jeff Lebowski acknowledges this.) For all I know, my daughter probably lifts the seat “back into position” after she’s done her business. Which leads me to wonder, if women have a passive role in the whole toilet-seat thing, what does that imply on a larger scale when it comes to women’s role in gender-related notions here?

I worry about these things raising a girl in a Latin country. What kind of subtle messages are finding their way into her psyche? Especially when Argentine women themselves are seeming accomplices to the seatless toilet, the myth that long hair looks better on every woman, the tireless marching on of pinks and blues in baby stores, and the oil-and-vinegar effect at all social gatherings (boys on one side, girls on the other). Please, what are we, in middle school? Oh, and let’s not forget the No-thank you-I-don’t-drink-and-I’ll-just-have-that-piece-of-lettuce-for-dinner contingent. (Not to be misconstrued as my condonement of teenage drinking.) And what if an entire adolescence of examples like these are somehow larger than the 50% of her genetic make-up that came from her mom, who was one of those groundbreaking 10-year-old girls who played Little League baseball back in 1970s? Will she find her way to self-discovery, be loud when she needs to be, try on many different hats until she finds just the right one, eventually realize that it’s not all just about the boy and that it’s OK—no, it’s brilliant—to be different and to be excellent and to be exactly who she is and not what someone else thinks she should be? And that she can wear her hair any damn way she pleases?

My daughter’s hair is pink again. The first time, it was a fashion statement that ended in a bad color job, followed by tears and a very short haircut. Which, if you live in Argentina, you know that the short hair is equally—if not more of–a flagrant statement than any day-glo color. The short hair turned out to be the surprise that taught her how to embrace and celebrate her individuality. It has also unleashed her moxy. The decision to love her short, curly hair, even as she’s surrounded by the cadre of long, flat-ironed heads of her classmates, has turned her into a scrappy defender of the right to self-expression.

The other day she dyed her ends pink again, only this time it was an act of protest against her school’s recent ban on ‘certain’ hair colors. The school-wide protest—Facebook organized, of course—started en masse but dwindled to around 10% when it came down to actually doing the deed (either for fear of sanctions or parental prohibition I presume). My girl not only adhered, she spoke up to defend their position after the whole group was summoned to the director’s office. She proudly told me later that she had lost her fear of the director in the face of the conviction that she and her classmates had good grounds for argument: That while school regulations clearly state the prohibition on things like tattoos and piercings, there is nothing in the rulebook prohibiting hair color. So when the director chose to make the point that dying one’s hair blond or brown was fine because it doesn’t attract attention, while bright colors cause others to do a double-take (bad), Fiona said, “And what’s wrong with that? We’re exploring our identities, and teenagers need to do that outwardly.” And right she is. The way we look is an outward expression of some facet of ourselves. Dying one’s hair blond and ironing out the curls is preceded by a motive (I look prettier like this; I look more like everyone else; I feel more like Barbie.) These reasons are attached to certain personality types. The motive behind pink or green hair is probably more about rebellion or non-conformity or an adventurous nature, but aren’t there just as many of these equally deserving personalities in the world?

As I’ve said before, as a trade-off for more rigorous academics we chose the school despite the fact that it was old-fashioned and strict. So the director is certainly entitled to claim a school ethos that must be upheld and that does not allow for outward displays of rebelliousness. It is part of their policy to make no exceptions in an effort to preserve high standards. I get that. In fact, it even occurred to me that the severity of the school climate is actually an opportunity for students to raise conscientious objections like this one, so all the better. However, it was a bit disappointing that the director couldn’t at least give them credit for waging a well-founded battle against what they perceived as injustice; instead, she opted for ‘blond hair is fine, pink is not and you shouldn’t allow yourselves to be influenced by other students in this kind of thing.’ 1. Double-standard on the color issue in favor of the ‘pretty’ color. 2. Underestimation of protesting students’ ability to think for themselves. I mean, we want our kids to stand up for their rights, and encourage them when they go about it in a civil, conscientious way that promotes self-awareness, right?

It all just made me proud of my girl. She looks fantastic in short, pink hair and knows she has a voice. And it’s a relief to know that she is probably not going to be one of those girls putting the toilet seat back up for the guys.