A Ramble on Speech and Language

I loved The Little Mermaid as a little child, and part of my heart breaks to think that, if I ever had a child, I would have to think twice before allowing them to fall in love with these and similar classics (Disney or otherwise). So unquestioningly did many of us accept the roles of men and women fed to us through these movies, it didn't seem in the least bit offensive that a young woman should seek to obtain a man's love through her looks alone (although one should not, of course, "underestimate the importance of body language - ha!" - Ursula the Sea Witch).

They're not all that impressed with conversation,
True gentlemen avoid it when they can,
But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who's withdrawn,
It's she who holds her tongue who gets a man!

As tongue-in-cheek as Ursula's words may have been, nevertheless, the story doesn't evolve in a way which ever puts them into question. The prince does, indeed, appear to fall in love with Ariel because of her meek temperament, innocence and beautiful looks - not her conversation, interests, or any deeper aspect of her personality - which is as problematic in its message to boys as it is to girls.

This is, of course, an adaptation of a classic story. Both the original story and the film are now somewhat outdated. Yet, the way we value men and women can still be quite different from each other, and I experienced an exaggerated version of this when I lost my voice on my own journey to another land.

My three days as a mermaid 

Two weeks ago, I accompanied my partner to a baby's baptism in Italy. We spent three days with his friends, and friends of friends, all of whom spoke either Portuguese or Italian. I can get the gist of a conversation in Portuguese, but I cannot speak back, effectively rendering me mute for three days.

We had numerous new introductions to people, and either immediately or some time later the same compliments would begin: about my face, my figure, my hair, and so on. I was flattered and grateful for these compliments, whether they really were for me or simply to please my partner (after all, who doesn't like to hear how beautiful the person they're with is?) - they were meant with every kindness - and it was people's way of trying to acknowledge me. Yet, I couldn't help but think how very odd it all was. Were the roles reversed, would people be coming up and telling me that my boyfriend had a lovely figure? Look at his waist, isn't it just perfect? What beautiful hair he has? When he tried to contribute to the conversation through me, and I translated it to everyone, would they answer back or simply reply that he had a gorgeous smile?

I'm left, therefore, slightly unsure as to whether this unusual situation makes people's behaviour towards me unremarkable (after all, there was little else they could say about me - whether I was intelligent, kind, funny, interesting or knowledgeable, they had no way of discovering), or forces a spotlight onto behaviour that in fact permeates daily life for many, but normally goes unnoticed until it's exaggerated in such a context as this.

What I am saying is that valuing women on their physical appearance is so embedded in our upbringing that we can so easily and unquestioningly revert to it. In the absence of anything else to say, it doesn't even feel uncomfortable to go for the lowest common denominator - comments that I suspect may feel a little peculiar to be directing towards a man.

At all levels

It was only a few months ago that I observed highly educated colleagues (all scientists, doctors and technicians) listening with interest to a long string of male speakers during a conference that we were watching remotely, only to begin criticising the clothes of the first female speaker to take the stage. All of these colleagues were female. Ironically, the only male in the room was the one who spoke up and said that the speaker's wardrobe choices had nothing to do with the content of her talk and didn't need to be discussed. So natural was it to these women to judge another woman on her appearance first and foremost that they comfortably engaged in this behaviour by default, even despite the fact that they, too, were women in a historically male-dominated sphere, perpetuating the very attitudes that may harm their own progress within it.

What can we do?

With a little introspection and practice, it is surely possible to question our prejudices and steer away from these defaults. A recent campaign has done the rounds on Facebook, encouraging people to think twice before they compliment a little girl on how beautiful she is. To comment, instead, on an aspect of her personality or engage with her about her interests. This kind of direct instruction may seem patronising, but science has shown time and time again that it really does work. It's no coincidence that sales people and customer service representatives ask you if you are completely satisfied with their service. The very act of eliciting a positive response from a person - making a person speak or perform a a behaviour - makes it much more likely to become a self-fulfilling truth.

It's the same type of mental training that certain politicians must undoubtedly have undergone. I recently watched an interview with Michelle Obama where she was questioned over her friendship with Beyoncé. What was it like to be friends with the star? Obama responded that Beyoncé was a very sweet person, a great mother, and complimented her on her creativity and intelligence. Not once did she revert to complimenting her physical appearance.

Michelle Obama is clearly a fiercely intelligent human being, and surely values others on similar measures. She can't, however, be completely immune from prejudices inherent in our society. As a black woman growing up in the USA, she has arguably experienced these issues more acutely than many of us. But in comparison to those we see today who clearly have little interest in learning about how their words and actions can discriminate against others, how often did she or husband Barack make a faux pas? They are clever and trained politicians, yes, but before any of this, they are good people - responsible human beings. They embody the change they want for their world, and they seek to champion it with their words and actions, in the White House and outside of it. There is nothing to stop us from training ourselves, too, and one real life example of this is my friend Eaches.

On many occasions, even when solely in my company (someone who already knows her and her moral viewpoints well), I have witnessed Eaches stopping mid-sentence to carefully consider how she should phrase her next point. Admittedly, she is a bit of a linguaphile, but precisely because she understands the power of words and the importance of picking the right ones. Being ever-conscience of the power of our words, and practicing being gender neutral in the way we talk to and about both children and adults, is vitally important. Similarly, exposing our children (and adults!) to the right stimuli will help to shape their behaviour in the future. The Peaches&Eaches mission of ethically sourced toys for babies and toddlers that we classify by age and developmental stage as opposed to gender, is part of this overall goal.

September 26, 2017 by Catherine Stowell

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