Yes, I realize calling the most recent incidence of sexism in SFWA a “kerfuffle” somewhat diminishes the importance of the situation, but I’m going to try to make up for that in body of this post.
As you may, or may not, know, I have two daughters. They are 11 (almost 12!) and 13 years of age. They are not considered “normal” by society because they are “geeks;” they are not considered beautiful by society because they don’t look like models; they are not considered equal because they are girls. They are, however, white girls, so they’ll have more opportunities than a lot of people.
My challenge is to make them aware that though they are “normal,” “beautiful,” and “equal” in MY eyes, that they are not necessarily any of those things to the broader society in which we live. The further challenge is to teach them that not only do they not HAVE to be the former two (normal & beautiful), but also that they should, nay, NEED, to embrace themselves as amazing human beings regardless of what society tells them. As for the latter (equal), the challenge is to fight EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE of sexism and bigotry that I come across so that they see that it’s one thing to not be equal, but it’s an entirely more awful thing to take that lying down.
The SFWA kerfuffle is not new or unfamiliar. Women are constantly berated for their appearances: women who don’t fall within our very narrow definition of the “ideal weight” are both fat shamed and skinny shamed; women who wear too little or tight clothing are slut shamed; women who wear too much clothing are accused of being oppressed or prudish or for conforming to patriarchal standards; women who don’t wear make-up are lazy; and women who do wear make-up are false. Let’s not even get started on the life or parenting or career choices of women! Seriously, it will make you ill. And most of us are guilty of one of these, or all of these, whether we intend to or not.
Is it possible to divorce appearance from judgement? I highly doubt it. Our brains use a classification system on a constant basis, originally as a safety mechanism (probably), and we really shouldn’t try to genetically engineer ourselves to NOT classify things into categories, as this ability is often quite useful. The trick is to always be aware of what we’re classifying and whether or not those classifications are actually going to help us a) remain alive and b) evolve.
So, at least until the world magically turns into a better place, what DO I tell my daughters to do? Do I recommend they dress conservatively, but not too conservatively? Do I recommend they try to conform to (albeit impossible to achieve) beauty standards? Tattoos or no tattoos? Dyed hair or natural? Geeky clothes or clothes from Elle magazine? How the hell do I teach them to navigate a society that will CONSTANTLY JUDGE THEM BASED SOLELY ON EXTERNAL MEASURES!?
I honestly don’t know. My hair isn’t dyed an outrageous color; the clothes I wear to work are “professional”; and I constantly struggle with my own perception of myself as not-beautiful. I conform. Constantly. I judge. Constantly. I am not a perfect parent.
There is only one thing I know I can do: talk to them. Talk to them as one human being to another. And when the world judges them and inflicts pain? Be there for them. Every step of the way.