E15: Woman and Unbiased Parenting: Virginia Mendez, Childhood Unlimited

[00:00:00] Section: Podcast introduction

[00:00:00] Overdub: Hello, welcome to The Story of Woman, the podcast exploring what a man-made world looks like when we see it through her eyes. Woman's perspective is missing from our understanding of the world. This podcast is on a mission to change that. I’m your host, Anna Stoecklein Lau and each episode I'll be speaking with an author about the implications of her absence - how we got here, what still needs to be changed, and how telling her story will improve everyone's next chapter.

[00:00:34] Section: Episode level introduction

[00:00:35] Anna: Hello, friends. And welcome back. Thank you as always for being here. So in 2013, Disney released one of its most egalitarian films to date- Frozen, which features two strong female leads, but 59% of all the lines in that movie are spoken by male characters. Another fact pointed out by today's guest is that of all the children's books published annually, 57% have central male characters while only 31% have central female characters. 

And beyond this basic representation problem, our world is just extremely gendered with strict rules for who gets access to which colors and emotions, hobbies, and careers. And we see all these play out in everything from films to books, to clothes, and even the language we use. So, raising a child in this environment beyond those limitations placed on them according to their gender is gonna be an uphill battle. My guess today is trying to change that. I am speaking with Virginia Mendez author of Childhood Unlimited: Parenting Beyond the Gender Bias.

Virginia is a co-founder of The Feminist Shop, an ethical brand that educates on the topic of feminism. And she's a public speaker who creates bespoke events for feminist parenting, bias at work, and unlearning what we know. She also speaks at schools. So if you are a teacher or a parent or you know of a school whose students and teachers could benefit from these types of sessions, and let's be honest, what school wouldn't, uh, get in touch with her because she is fantastic at what she does. And the whole world could really use this training. And in addition to Childhood Unlimited, Virginia has also written a series of children's books called Mika and Lolo. 

In our conversation today, Virginia and I talk about what the gender bias is, why it matters, how the stereotypes that feed into it are absolutely everywhere. And what we can do as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and anyone else that comes into contact with little humans who are shaped by all these messages about who a girl is and who a boy is. 

Her book is called Childhood Unlimited because this is exactly what the gender binary and these stereotypes that go along with it do. They put everyone into two different boxes. So every person is limited in what interest they can have, what personalities they're supposed to develop, how they decide to live their lives. And the only way to overcome that is to break down the stereotypes and expectations and ensure every person has access to what's in both of these arbitrary boxes. 

I get into the neuroscience behind stereotypes and the myth of the female brain and the male brain in episode three, where I speak with Gina rippin about her book, The Gendered Brain, so check that episode out if you haven't already. Gina is also featured in Virginia's book, alongside a multitude of other experts. 

And through it all, as you will hear, this is not about getting it right. A hundred percent of the time. That's not even possible. And it's not about judging or blaming or making excuses. It's about just starting to notice, to increase your awareness of the otherwise unconscious, ingrained messages we are exposed to every single day and then start making whatever small changes that you can, because just like all these small seemingly harmless stereotypes, add up to a big unequal world. Small changes also go a long way in helping to overcome them so all of our lives can be unlimited. 

Lastly, for less than a cup of coffee, you can access some bonus content from my conversation with Virginia on Patreon, where you will hear things like how Virginia approaches dressing her two children in this highly gendered world and what her five year old son thinks about his grandma's new purple hair. There's a link in the show notes, but for now, please enjoy my conversation with Virginia Mendez.

[00:05:17] Section: Episode interview

[00:05:18] Anna: Hi, Virginia. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here today. 

[00:05:22] Virginia: Thanks for having me very excited. 

[00:05:24] Anna: Yes. I'm super excited for this conversation with you and to talk about your new book Childhood Unlimited. So to start, can you just give us a summary about what this book is about and why did you decide to write it?

[00:05:40] Virginia: So this book is a conversational and not judgmental book that explains the impact of gender stereotypes from very early childhood. It is full of personal stories and science, but in a very easy to digest, as well as interview with experts and especially things on what to do. 

So, I guess this book for me was the possibility to encapsulate all the conversations I was having with other parents around me, that I was realizing that it was making an impact. So I spend an insane amount of time researching for my own parenting journey. Like I know parenting, it's important for me and I want to get it right. And you wouldn't not get everything right, but this side of parenting which is gender bias, feminism, that's one part that it's really important. And so I researched a lot. I make sure I parent according to my values and I was having these conversations with people around me and I could see the impact they were having on how much it was impacting them.

I was like, how can encapsulate these? Because I can not go around just stopping every person with a pram. Hi, have you realized that? So I thought like, okay, this is my opportunity to have those conversations in a written shape. And, you know, just to start put the light on those things for people to see them for themselves. 

So this book is a journey about, okay, this is the data, this is what is happening, this is why matter, this is how we solve it, but all you know, we won't get it right, let's not panic. I feel like as a parent myself, there's this pressure to getting everything right. And we carry so much guilt about like, what if, you know, that was the one thing that was going to make my child happy or I ruined it. So I think it's more about we're fighting a beast, probably none of us are going to get this perfectly right, but let's just be a little bit better. Let's just try and let's just make small changes. And I think awareness just facilitate that so much. Once, you know, you can not unknow, and it makes It much easier to act accordingly.

[00:07:54] Anna: Yeah, I loved, how you pointed that out in the book, how there's nothing abnormal about being biased. You know, you mentioned throughout the book that none of this meant to make people feel guilty, that we're all products of this self-fulfilling stereotyped world, but it's just about starting to recognize and increase our awareness of those stereotypes.

And who is it for? So the focus is on children age, zero to five, is that right? And is it just for parents?

[00:08:23] Virginia: It is zero to five because my kids are well, they're four and five now, but they were around that age when I started. So I have Eric, Eric is five now, he was three and a half when I started writing the book. And then Nora is four. I talk a lot about them in the book because I think it's important that people get to know me and my family on how I lived and experienced these things.

But, yeah I feel like that's something I can talk about because I feel confidence that I know enough about it. I've seen it on my own kids. I've done the research, I've done the homework. And also, because I think people underestimate the value of those years. I think even as a parent, whenever I was getting books on the topic, they were like, how talk about those things with your preteen or, you know, whenever they're 10, whenever they're 12 or whenever they're teenagers, but you know, I wanted to get it right from the beginning because I know how hard it is to unlearn things and how much easier is if you just get them right. And you just not, you know, buy into the lies straight away.

[00:09:30] Anna: Some people might ask though, isn't that a bit young? You know, do you really need to consider all of this that early? So can you talk to what you have found in terms of how early this type of awareness should be considered with parenting and with.

[00:09:47] Virginia: The problem is that people think they are too young to do this, but they are not too young to avoid it for me, it's about making sure our kids are not limited by the things that we are doing. So the problem is that we need to start as soon as those limitation starts, we can not start after because by then they are already falling into that trap.

And it start as early as when the kids are in your tummy. I mean, the kids like bias, pre assumption and expectations and the way we refer to them or the way we talk about them, they start even before they're born. The way we feel like, you know, a kid that kicks a lot, it can be either a great footballer or very temperamental and dramatic if it's a girl or the way we feel like we need to be prepared to decorate a nursery different or the way we just go and buy all them baby clothes and all those things in various specific, you know, color shapes, laces, textures, depending on the gender. So the problem is those things to start that early. So the solutions need to start as early for them to be as effective as possible. 

[00:11:02] Anna: Yeah, those things start that early and unbeknownst to a lot of people, babies absorb that information from really early days, you had Gina Rippon and your book who is a neuroscientist. And we had on the podcast who wrote The Gendered Brain and she talks about, and you talk about in the book, the neuro-plasticity and how our brains, since the time that we are babies are receiving this information even when you think that, you know, they're just a little helpless baby, actually they're incredibly aware individuals that are absorbing all of these messages from the time they're born. If not before.

[00:11:39] Virginia: It's also the way the brain, in those early years, it's whenever everything is replicating so fast, they absorbing information at a huge, huge speed, but they also have to let go information at a huge speed because they don't have capacity to maintain all. So it's that idea of what we don't use, we lose. So whenever we start stimulating kids in their spatial awareness or in their care and awareness, what messages we're saying to the brain about, okay, this is going to be something important, we really need to reinforce those paths versus nah, no, w we need to make choices and this didn't make it.

So, yeah, I think whenever I was writing about it, I imagine it as a bit of a Marie Kondo with a skills like the brain is like, okay, this is bringing joy. We're going to keep it. This is not, but the joy is external. The way that we get celebrated, the way that we get encouraged, what it's put in front of us. So yeah, we were sending very clear messages to the brain about what do we need to keep and reinforce and whatnot. And that shape us. 

[00:12:44] Anna: Absolutely. So the subtitle of your book is Parenting Beyond the Gender Bias. So what exactly do you mean by that? You know, there are all types of gaps that we hear about pay gaps, education gaps, pleasure gaps. So what is the gender bias that you're referring to here?

[00:13:03] Virginia: I'm referring to all of those, because all of those are part of the way we become different because of our gender and the way we are treated differently, we are expected different and our life experiences are different and are very much defined by our gender. Because the thing is that it's all part of the same, all those bias that you were saying, from pleasure, gender, like ability bias, all the things that impact gender, they're all come from that same nuclear of we are different. We are very different and that justify excuse and promote that we are treated differently. And that causes all those problems. I mean, if you talk to people about any of those gaps, they will find out an answer based on, because we're not really like that, or that's because women don't ask or that's because this happened.

It's like, but why. Why women don't ask, or why are we not perceived like that? It's because women choose to have kids, but why? And if you keep asking, but why, but why, but why? I think you get to that ultimate nucleus, which is like, we have been expected to be different from the moment we're born. We were defined and shaped under the idea that we're so different and that justifies and that create itself, all those big difference down the line.

So whenever we just say, oh, well, it's just natural, we're just excusing ourselves from keeping asking, but I wonder why, I wonder why women are always the one that does. I wonder why are we more caring? What is behind? So I think the book is trying to get to that point. It's trying to get to that. Okay, is this a self-fulfilling prophecy and we can actually dismantle it.

I mean, it's a puzzle and once you start taking the pieces out of it, you just see how it works. Like, oh yeah, I see that that is connected with that because all those pieces are connected. That's the way it works. We see a picture and it seems fine, but then once you start unlocking, it's like, oh yeah, I can see how that piece was connected with this other one, because it's all part of the same narrative. 

[00:15:13] Anna: Absolutely. So let's look at some of those pieces. So at the heart of this bias, at the nucleus, as you say, are these stereotypes. And you know, most of us are going to be familiar with what these stereotypes are, but because this is an exercise in awareness, what are the kinds of stereotypes that you're talking about? Can you give us some examples?

[00:15:35] Virginia: Well, for example, girls are more mature, more caring, more dramatic, more emotional. Boys are just more simple and, but you know, more loyal, more rough, like a smarter. Girls are hard workers. We have those ideas of what being a girl is. So it's just that, that idea of this is who we are and taking away that, well, this is what a person is in a context of a society, but we are much more deeper, but we tend to reduce people to, okay, well, I know who you are because I first spotted that one thing of you, and I'm giving you a lot of other characteristics, skills, values based on a perception I've got from you based on your gender. So I am telling myself the rest of the story based on that one thing. Doesn't make sense.


[00:16:32] Anna: What would you say to someone who was thinking, well, those are just stereotypes, right? You know, we don't actually think that all women are nurturing and all men are aggressive, those are just stereotypes. So what exactly is the harm?

[00:16:47] Virginia: Well, the problem is that even if we don't think that each and every woman is, we do act as if and we judge them and we treat them in life as if, and we create systems on a structures based on those premises. So. Yeah, we do expect women to want to stay at home with their kids in long maternity leaves, all of them, because they're nurturing.

We create systems that cater for a predisposition and an idea that we've got what a woman is and what a woman wants. And we are denying the fact that a lot of that, even whenever we do want those things, are they really choices, or is that, that we've been told that that's the way we do this? But also what about the people that want something different and how that is penalised or how we're not creating those spaces?

And same with boys. We don't think every man is aggressive or it's violent actually, but we justify when they are, we give it a sense of like, well, you know how they are, or we tend to hide it, or we compare them with others that are worse, but you know, this is not a big thing because look what these other ones do or look at. So we are creating again that justification and that environment of well it's what it is. And the problem is that even if we don't think we think that every woman is in a way and every money is in another, the reality is that we act and we expect things and we justify things unconsciously under those expectations. And that was one it's problematic because it's unconscious. 

[00:18:21] Anna: Yeah, it's very insidious because it's so deeply ingrained and unconscious. And when we think of it consciously, we think, oh, well, it's just a stereotype, there's no harm. But it's everything that's going on that we're not aware of. And that's why one of the biggest themes throughout your book, and as we've already mentioned, is just awareness, bringing this out into the light.

And also, as we've pointed out, how it's not about judging people or making anyone feel guilty, it's also not about judging the choices themselves. It's not that pink is innately bad or trucks or dinosaurs are or whatever, but it's about presenting a whole range of colors and activities so that kids can benefit from what each of them has to offer. And then in turn, eventually adults can as well, everyone can have access to what's in the other box, if you will. What's on the other side. exactly as you say right now, it's just such a strong binary and we're limiting, you know, childhood limited.

[00:19:23] Virginia: We do, and again, on that limitation follows our through life. Like there are choices that we make that are not really choices. And again, it's nothing wrong or right with them. It's just the fact of, we don't realize that it's not a choice or we need to at least admit like, okay, well, I choose to wear makeup for example, because it makes me feel pretty. But I also choose it, understanding that for women, there is a big expectation of being pretty. How pretty is a currency for women, how, you know, there is these extra expenditure, there's extra time invested, I think, and then I can choose to do it because it empowers me. I like it. I feel better, but I think in order to be a proper choice and an informed choice, it's important to understand the context. Because it's very easy to say, like I just, I just like it. It's like, well, you like it in the context of everybody celebrates you. When you wear it, everybody around you is wearing it. Everybody expects you to you're treated better when you do. 

But I think, I feel like there's a resistance as a society to understand certain implications because we feel like we've been told who we are and what we like. And we don't like to hear that. We don't like to think, oh, what if the person that I've become, it's a result of a lot of stereotypes. And we all want to believe that we're unique and we can make our own choice. And we have made our own choice, but in a very limited and in a very stereotyped society. So there is a lot of power in deconstruct all that, and then make your choice again, if that's what makes you happy by all means to make the choice, but do it from a space of, I understand where this choice come from and I choose to do it because ABC. So I think that's what I want to give to kids and to adults, is that deconstruction and that just giving them the power back of doing the things without those limitations. 

[00:21:26] Anna: Love it love it. So we've talked about what the stereotypes are, how they start from the earliest of days, how insidious it is, and it goes with us throughout life. But I want to talk about how these messages and stereotypes are delivered and reinforced. And you break this down in your book under categories of books, TV shows, films, clothes, language, toys. So I just want to kind of ask an open-ended question to have you tell us about some of these, how are these messages delivered and reinforced.

[00:22:03] Virginia: Glad you act as the question is just everywhere. So for example, yeah, the categories, I choose our books in which if you get a book now, you get things like the difference amount of male presence versus female presence. Things like animals, inanimated objects, obviously people.

So the kids are reading from like every children's book that male is that default, men are the normal. And even whenever women are representated, tends to be like the little butterfly, to me, you drop it, the mother, the teacher, so we get that idea of, you know, females are carers and they are small and they are dainty. And then there is the prey, the tiger and the lion. and, and, even there was this experiment that whenever they did not have a gender, the mothers even tend to just associate with a male. And I see that with Eric. Like Eric and I are in the park and I said, the other day, oh, this, this dog, and I said like, oh, he's very cute. And he was like, or she. And I was like, or she. But it's just very unconscious, like male. We live in a world in which male is the neutral. We assume, you know, male is neutral and women is a disassociation and that's so present in books. 

So yeah, books keeps reinforcing that idea. And there's a lot of studies that I bring about the percentages and even tips or things that I do with my kids, which I automatically change all the genders in the books and how uncomfortable it is because you're like, and then daddy was cleaning and their mum left for work and then you realize the over presence of male when you turn it around. And it's like, and she, and she, and she, and she's like, it's a lot of she here, but you wouldn't have seen it with he because we're so used to it with in it. And it's very similar with, I go then to TV shows and how, again, main characters, the way, you know, girls are niche.

So you got your TV shows for everyone. And then your TV shows for girls because they're about girls and who would want to watch that except girls. Or the presence of one various stereotypical woman or girl, obviously lashes pink in a group of males. So everybody get a personality, you get the clumsy, the smart, the brave, and the girl whose whole personality is being a girl. Um, and we don't see that. We just, we're so used to that. 

I then explore things like toys and how they nurture certain skills. So spatial awareness versus caring, the way we don't give dolls to boys, or we don't give Legos to girls, but now we do, because they're pink, and now that we've made pink legos we can give legos, you know, but it's all those things about boys are being given toys that do encourage and nurture spatial skills. And then we're like, they're just not really better. It's like, why are they naturally better? Have they been more in touch with those kinds of things?

So, yeah. My goal was just, if I get every topic one by one and section it, and just go through those things, then you get that sense of like, wow, it is everywhere. It is really everywhere. And, and especially in the life of a child. We have language, we have clothes, we have toys, we have books, we have media. Like that's how they are shaping the world. That's how they are understanding who they are. Who am I expected to be? Who my parents are, who the world around me is. And whenever the way we present it to them is the same, and it's very narrow, they're going to think that's the truth because why wouldn't they? Because it is really everywhere. 

[00:26:02] Anna: It really is. And like you said earlier in the conversation, once you see it, it is so hard to unsee. So, uh, just a warning for everyone. I mean, that is, that is kind of the point, but it's one of those things that it's like, it's so deeply ingrained and unconscious until it's not, then it's just you. And because it is everywhere, then you just, you see it everywhere.

And I didn't even know there's a name for that phenomenon, shall we say, that you described of the group of male buddies accented and by the one lone females, called the Smurfette principal. Cause I guess in the Smurfs like you say, everybody has their personality and then the girl's personality is literally just being a girl.

And I know Paw Patrol was another one that you mentioned in your book, which is very popular and there's so many shows like that for children and for adults that follow that guidelines that we just think nothing of it, yet if it was reversed, it was a group of gals and one boy in there, we would probably all be like, oh, what's that boy doing hanging out with that group of girls?

[00:27:06] Virginia: Or we will be probably like, oh, this is a show for girls, because nobody else will be interested in the show because you know, girls get to all have a range of personalities and awkward. Um, so you know is just, but Yeah, it's exactly what you say. Once you see it, and then you start looking at it's like, how did I see that? Like, it was just, it wasn't even hidden. And so whenever I get upset now, well upset, well, I do get upset let's be honest watching some of the things, and I'm like, I can't believe nobody in Disney, nobody, so these people earn a fortune, you know, they have like teams for literally the detail of the hair of the character, but nobody in that production team, nobody in the direction team, nobody in the marketing team, nobody spotted that that was wrong. And then Chris, so Chris is my husband, and sometimes when I get all ranty, he's like, well, you didn't see it either. I mean, it took you to see it for you to start seeing it. 

[00:28:08] Anna: Yeah.

[00:28:09] Virginia: So sometimes I need to remind myself, like, it's normal not to see it, but it is also very angry when you do like the people in charge don't like, come on, people can do better. And that's why I feel like there's a lot of call of action, for the parents. And then I'm always referring to parents, but I guess when I wrote this book, I thought, grandparents big problem because, you not a big problem, but they, they have a big impact in the kids, teachers, early year practitioners, all the people that are around children, if they had that kind of intention and that awareness that will be, you know, more, more impactful.

But as a customer, we do have a say, we consume better things. We buy better books. We choose programs for our kids that are better. We buy better clothes. And those things matter because people like companies just want to sell. And if they keep selling us those things and we keep buying them, they're going to be like, well, I'm just giving you what you want. So the power of saying like, no, I do not want that. Not only because I don't want my kid involved in that, because I want to send a very clear message to the people producing these that I don't want that, not for my kid and not for any other kid, because this is how we become the society that we are. 

[00:29:34] Anna: All right. So we've talked children's books, TVs and films, toys. Another category, which might be surprising for some, maybe not for others, because this is becoming more of a talking point I feel is clothes and not just pink and blue, we're all kind of familiar with that, but the slogans and designs and then the shapes. Can you talk to us about those? What are the differences that you found in your research and how does that fit within the wider context of everything we're talking about?

[00:30:08] Virginia: Yeah. Like clothes are really a rabbit hole. Once you open the box, they like the clothes one, it's really bad. So, yeah as you said, it's not only being blue. And I do make a point of explaining in the book why the pink and blue things started. But things like slogans and, and again, it's some of the slogans very obvious and they're awful. Like I remember with the latest world cup football, they made a slogan for girl that was goal digger. 

[00:30:36] Anna: Oh, God for like a little baby.

[00:30:38] Virginia: Yeah. Like, ewwww, like it's a game of words, it's like, yeah. But no, or, you know, those kinds of like lock your daughters for little boys. Like, okay. So there's so many slogans that are obviously wrong. Fine, but the problem is those that are allegedly okay. So the way boys get genius and, leader's, hero super something, girls get keep dreaming, smiling, happy.

You know, it's like the narrative again, the way those things perpetuate. So even food, I found the food one really interesting, like food boys, get all the saturated, like pizza, hot dogs, like barbecues and girls get all the candy and sweet things, you know, like you would never put a boy in a cupcake t-shirt. That's ridiculous. 

[00:31:32] Anna: Everybody loves cupcakes.

[00:31:34] Virginia: Like everybody, but it's almost like, yeah, but not in a t-shirt for a boy. And it's like, how absurd, how absurd, but we know like if I also you a t-shirt with a cupcake and I told you, who is this for? You would know, just kind of know in you that it's like, no, that's not for boys.

Or even the way, whenever we do actually cross those lines, we need to overcompensate in others. So you get dinosaurs for girls, but they are like with the lashes, you know, closing their eyes looking peaceful or if there are prey again, they like in the puppy cute version with like a flower, because you know, you won't get a girl tiger except it's a baby, cute baby tiger. So all those things, the way we design some things are very obvious. Once you start seeing them, it's like, okay, what are we telling the girls. 

And then you can go even deeper to the shapes. So the bodies of the boys on the girls are very similar until pre-puberty. Identical. And I always point out they share nappies. If there were some thing that would be different, it will be probably that one where it's like, this is where the genitals are, but no, like nappies are fine, but everything else apparently is not. So the girls clothes tend to replicate adults clothes. So girls get sexy clothes from very early stages. One of the things that I really noticed is swimming, costumes like girls. 

[00:32:59] Anna: Swimming suits for our American listeners. Just a quick translation. 

[00:32:59] Virginia: but yeah, so you'll get girls are Nora has those on hand me downs with bikinis like, I'm not going to cover Nora Nora and Eric test is chest is identical, but they're telling me that I need to let her be wet in her chest, because you are wed whenever you get out of the swimming pool. So I just get her obviously they're the bottom of it, but The way underwear covers their bum in kids it's different. Like girls underwear it's really smaller shorter, it has all these lace, all these unnecessary little things. There's more flimsy. Like the texture, like boys' clothes are much more sturdy, practical, logical. On the other side, girls, all the sequins and things that ask you to be touch. You know, we just get girls more used to be touched by a strangers or to be comment on, Oh that looks good. You know, they're clothes that are much more exciting on their eyes.

So it just makes it very easy to people interacting with them to comment on the clothes, while you're not going to comment their gray joggers. Hi, you look awesome in those gray joggers and random brown t-shirt. So again, the conversations those clothes promote are very similar. I know everybody likes to be told they look good. And we like to be celebrated. So girls realized very early that the things that they are more celebrated for, they're more encouraged to do. They can create more of an impact on people around them are around their beauty and around the way they present to the world.

And they do get more compliments when they were in the sequins, fluffy and exciting thing. Then whenever they were in the practical warm clothes. So which one are they going to choose? And then it's like, well, is that what she wants? That's what she's choosing. It's like, well, yeah, she's using it in the context of all the role models that she has on TV look a certain way. You know, they have these gowns, they have these things, the things that she gets celebrated for the guests that it's associated with fun and excitment and celebration. It is a choice. Yes. But is it a real choice? Not really. So yeah, things like shoes, shapes, textures. So I got really deep in all those different things because you never see a t-shirt at the same whenever you go at night. And every time I go to a kid's shop, I'm like horrified, just horrified about like, that's not okay. It's just not that one thing. It's just the mix of everything. Sending a very, very loud message. 

[00:35:19] Anna: Yeah, I would definitely encourage anyone the next time they go to the store, just look at the difference in the slogans in the animals and everything that Virginia is saying, you know, the fact that they're shorter and tighter and everything that you say in that

[00:35:41] Virginia: Women like pockets! 

[00:35:43] Anna: I know, I mean, we know that this is a problem for adult women, but even children, little girls don't have pockets. And the boys do like w why, why do all these clothing designers refuse to give women pockets? I don't understand. Drives me nuts. And then yeah, the practical element is not only that the girls are getting these reinforced messages about what's important, what people value and them, but also boys are encouraged to have this comfortable and active lifestyle. You know, you write about how the clothes are just even restricting and making it harder for girls to kind of hop around the playground and move around because their clothes are a lot shorter and tighter, which just makes all of that a lot more difficult. 

[00:36:26] Virginia: And even, and the shoes are a big one. The shoes that we give to girls are not made to run. They're not made to be active. We're starting to get heels to very small girls. 

[00:36:35] Anna: My God. 

[00:36:36] Virginia: Yeah. And then we are surprised. We say like, boys are much more active. Boys are much more outdoors. It's like, well, I wonder why the girl in the fluffy dress and the, you know, the uncomfortable shoes is not feeling like climbing and they do, they do, you see a lot of girls climbing in those outfits, but it's like, it's not the ideal outfit and it will be more difficult for them and they will be worse.

And also they get more penalised for destroying it. Oh, you're ruining your dress, and again, those are unconscious messages that they will be receiving and they have to choose, you have to choose between, you know, being pretty or climbing And can't have both or, or not at the same level.

[00:37:19] Anna: And his t-shirt says, jump, dive, flip, whatever. And her t-shirt says, sit pretty and smile.

[00:37:27] Virginia: Yeah, smile. A smile is a big one, like, because every woman loves to be told to smile, right. 

[00:37:32] Anna: We love it please more of that. 

All right. And moving on to language. You have a chapter on language and you write about how we don't clarify pieces of information about people we are talking about, unless it's relevant for that topic, with the exception of gender. You know, you write about how, if someone's telling a story and says that person did this or that person said that, instead of women or men, you kind of feel like there's this gaping hole in the story and that there's some important information missing, even if gender has nothing to do with what that person is talking about. So can you talk to that point? Is that just our conditioning? And also why does it matter? You know, I imagine there could be some people listening that might think that's a bit over the top and say, well, why can't we just include an extra descriptor when we're talking about people.

[00:38:29] Virginia: I don't think it's about not being able to, I think it's fine. It's just understanding that need, it's understanding why we would never say, oh, I, the other day I was talking with this blonde person in the street and everybody would be like, why do I care that they were irrelevant? Or like, oh, there was this short person the other day. And like, it will just feel like that does not add anything to the conversation, but the things that we do say it's because we feel that they are adding something. It's not only gender, gender is probably one that we do the most because we always talk about man and woman, girl and boy, it's extremely persistent, but you will do it consciously whenever you think it adds something.

So for example, I live in Northern Ireland. I imagine if you make a point here of saying, I was talking with this person, Irish person or these Protestant person, you will be associating a certain amount of expectations, or you're just trying to say, okay, well that is relevant to the story. You will understand better the story once you have that kind of information while maybe in other places of the world will be like why do I care? But with gender down there, we do it all the time because we feel like we need it. So I don't think there's any problem per se in saying it it's about questioning and challenging why we feel it matters. And we do and Eric is very good at always using non-gender words. And I find myself like but who was it, you know, like, oh, this person was telling me the other day, person in the shop or all these kids, I was playing with this kid and we were playing this and I was like, I find myself finding like, who was that kid? But it doesn't matter who was that kid? Like the fact that I feel it matters because my brain wants to fill the gaps, my, my brain who wants to give importance and wants to like, I'm going to fill the information that I'm not having with expectations I have. You know, that kid being a boy or being a girl. And then the story is going to play my brain and in my head, based on those preconceived ideas that I have.

And in a world in which we're trying to be more aware that gender is a spectrum, I think those things are particularly damaging because you know, the fact that we feel uncomfortable whenever gender is not a specified, it makes it very difficult for people that don't live within that binary to access without having to constantly out themselves, if it makes sense, like, everybody's expected to be boy or girl with a certain thing. So if you're not existing in that space, you're the one that has to carry the weight to get there, explain that you're not. And then while, if we just assume that people are people and their kid that my son was playing with is just a kid, then, you know, it will be a much less heavy way to carry for them.

I think that's where we should all be go in. And again, it's not about blaming anyone for doing, it's about sitting with the uncomfort of why we feel it matters. And what if it didn't how much free will all be if it didn't matter. And if we were all just the person in the shop. Nobody's taking anything away from us because we are the person in the shop. So why don't we just feel comfortable with that. 

[00:42:02] Anna: Yeah, I think it's, that's just a great point and really the fact that it feels like it matters, says a lot. The fact that it feels like you're missing this information, says a lot about our preconceived ideas and what's going on in our head unconsciously, when people are telling us things.

And you write about this new thing that you're trying, trying to live your life as you would like Nora, your daughter, to live hers. And you know, that sounds, I don't know, maybe like an obvious idea, but when you break it down, I don't think this is what most people, especially perhaps women do. So can you tell us about this, this new thing that you're trying out.

[00:42:47] Virginia: Oh, yeah. I love that. I was really excited to add this to this book because hopefully this is not a book about childhood unlimited. It's about everybody unlimited. But yeah, whenever I feel like I'm conditioned, that's what I asked myself, what would I want Nora to do in a specific case? So I don't know, like somebody making a comment about my appearance and I just reply, you know what, the only thing that matters that I like it myself and I really like it. So I appreciated. But, you know, it doesn't matter because I love it. And I was like, how cool would be if like, that's what I would love Nora to do, you know, like that sense of like whatever. 

 So if I wouldn't like that for Nora, why would I allow that for me? And also Nora is watching. My kids are watching. They're learning what a woman is because they see me be a woman in their life. And the power of role modeling is huge. Since I do that, I am much braver and I love myself more. I give myself permission to other things. I tend to be less of a people pleaser. Sometimes I want to say no to something I'm like, oh, I really want to. If Nora is 20 and she's asked to do something she doesn't want to Nora would be like, I don't think so. Like very much I'm gonna pass. So, I think modeling for our kids, that idea of badass, you know, like empowered, secure women, we want them to be, it's really powerful because what a gift for ourselves as well.

[00:44:14] Anna: I love that because exactly as you say, it feels like such a gift for you personally, like to think about it in that way, what would I want my daughter or hypothetical daughter or niece, or this girl that I know down the street, whoever, or this boy, you know, what would I want them to do? And that's so freeing for you as an individual, because it's probably quite different than what you might've done in that moment, what you might've done for yourself, but then also exactly, as you say, the power of role modeling is probably bigger, eh, you know, bigger than, than what you tell your daughter to do. If you're telling her be this way and then you're acting the opposite or a different way, what she going to do? She's going to pick up 

[00:44:59] Virginia: Well, they're definitely like they are watching. And I think, again, that's the key part. Like, you can tell your daughter, but you don't have to do that. I'm doing this, but you don't have to, but it's more powerful if they see you. And

[00:45:13] Virginia: yeah it's a gift for everyone. And please do try that if nothing else, try that at home, because it's so liberating. 

[00:45:22] Anna: Love it. All right. So two big aims of the book that you wanted to get across was why it matters and what we can do next. And we've gotten into why a bit already, but I did want to break it down like you do in the book about why it's important for girls, boys, and trans kids. So to start with girls, if you can just summarize for us why Virginia does all of this matter for girls?

[00:45:51] Virginia: Those chapters were interesting to write because I knew, I want to write about why it matters. But I didn't know how I want to write about it. So what I did is just like a journey in the life of any woman in which all those things are put to air, like, so she's been told these and she's been seen mothers and she's been seeing how the women around her were just praise for being beautiful and selfless and caring and how they've defined their life.

And then, they've seen how their whole life it's been celebrated about do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to get married? Do you have a kid? And how her successes and the way she's been seen defined and the way she sees the things that matter for women like her everywhere around her. And then how all the bias take place at work and then how she gets sexualized and how she's told that girls hate girls and women, don't like women. And so it's about a journey about how whenever you start putting all those things together and all those messages and how she's shaped and how that accompanies, how those things just walk with her. 

And because a lot of people think like I've never experienced sexism, which I find fascinating, never I've never experienced sexism. It's like, no, but you have, it's just that you're don't know because even if you don't think the big things have happened to you, in my work everybody treats me great, is like, yes, but still in your workplace, what is the balance? What are you seeing, who is at the top, whose needs are put forward? So yeah, it was trying to get just that journey of how these matters because this is who we are. And it's only small things. The ones that I say I come on, Virginia just don't make a big fuss about this one thing you say no, but I have to make a big fuss, because again, just another piece of the puzzle and we need to take all the pieces if we want to do it, because otherwise we keep connecting all those things and we need to break that. 

[00:48:01] Anna: Yes. I love thinking about it that way. Like a puzzle, because individually, any of these things that we're talking about will seem quite small, but that's why it's not about that individual choice. It's not about that individual, you know, pink or blue or whatever. It's about how that fits within the context. And, you know, you write that now more than ever, you know, we're telling girls, you can be anything, the sky is the limit, but in every possible way, the world is still telling them, getting married and having babies as the ultimate goal in life as is being thin and beautiful.

And, as we've said, but just to reinforce, there's nothing wrong with being, or wanting those things. It's about choice. And you also wrote, that by convincing ourselves that women are freely choosing those roles, that society gives them, we are excusing ourselves from having to change things. So is that a big part of it as well? That it just kind of continues to reinforce the status quo by saying like, you kind of said in the beginning it's natural. This is just how it is. So we don't have to do anything about it.

[00:49:11] Virginia: Yeah. it's a choice. Do you just choose to be paid less? Because it's like, but it is because, and that's actually things like Jordan Peterson says, it's like, oh, they just choose these roles is like, no, we don't choose the roles. You know, women just happen to be less ambitious. They just are more maternal. They just. No, it was because we have been told what we want and also the choices are very limited. Give me good childcare, give me, you know, give me a society in which I can both be a good mother and have a career and time for myself. The only ones that had it all until now were men because somebody else was doing all those things.

So let's create a society of core responsible individuals and a better system with childcare and with flexitime and which people stopping reinforcing that heterosexual parenting with kids, you know, that's the ultimate goal. Let's break the system and then there will be choices. And then we will still have maternal mothers. I'm not saying women are not maternal. Fathers are paternal, you know, like, but we will have choices. They will look so different. 

[00:50:29] Anna: Absolutely. Speaking of father's bank paternal, you write that you find it even more complex and difficult to educate and parent boys. So can you tell us why that is? And then again, why does all of this matter for boys?

[00:50:44] Virginia: I think it's very intuitive to say to your girl, break the mold, be a pioneer, go there and make a fuss and don't let anybody tells you anything. But it's very difficult to tell your son, somebody else was talking shut up. Nobody asked for your opinion. You know, like this is not all about you. Because we feel like we're de-powering them. Like, Like, because we have in our head, the idea of success for men is still being a leader and very good at work. And I think we feel like am I taking away that happiness and that success. And am I filling it with things that society value less? And you are, like the reality is that you are nurturing things that society are gonna not appreciate at the same measure, but that's why we also have to change this society.

But yeah, so it feels a little bit counterintuitive. You kind of feel like you always wanted to protect your kids. You want your kids to melt and still being a man or a boy, it feels like an upgrade. You know, girls get all the time, like praise for being boyish. Oh my daughter, she's so tough tomboy. But you don't get any mother just say , oh my God, he's so feminine to my son because he's like, Hmm. So we tend to protect our boys. We just want them to be kind, but also leaders. We want to be themselves, but avoid pink and you know, the things because all their kids are gonna make fun of them.

Or again, things like learning that the world does not turn around them and it's difficult. And I get it like sometimes with Eric, I have to tell him, like, it doesn't matter your opinion, or this is not about you or somebody else was talking on. And I do that more with Eric than with Nora. And Chris and I have this conversation like you are, you know, you do those things more with Eric than with Noah, is that fair? And I'm like, well, yeah, because if I were living in an island, then it will be, you know, it doesn't matter but I don't live in a vacuum. And I know that Nora is going to learn the lesson because the world is going to tell her in very logical ways to shut up. But somebody has to be that person for Eric in an intentional way. Somebody has to tell him like, it's okay, his manhood has to look in a different way or can look in a different way and give him that a space.

And to be honest, I could not be any prouder of Eric. Like Eric is more feminist than me. Eric is like, again, he's five. He goes to school with pink trainers. He doesn't care. Like people used to tell him like the first day somebody said some comment and he's like, no, I don't care. He generally doesn't. He's like, well, I know that everything is for everyone or he'll talk about his emotion. And he'll say things sometimes like mom, I'm very upset and I don't want to talk about my emotions now, I don't want to talk about feelings now. Can we talk about feelings later.

And I think you have to be much more intentional with boys. because But the same way I try to make a lot of effort into them realize that they're white in a world that is designed for white people. We joke about isn't it weird like I, again, in the show there was nobody that was Black or now that I have my new book of Mike & Lolo, there's characters of different ethnicities. And we talk about that, like, you know, like mommy didn't realize in the first book that everybody was white and isn't it sad that there's kids that, you know, maybe they're Black and they don't see themselves in these books. And how would you feel if there was never one character with you and you have to be intentional because it's so easy to just go in the world, just thinking that, being white it's the default, being a male is the default, being body able is the default . So I think there is a job as a parent to kind of break those things and let them know like. Nope, you know, there's people that don't get that. And what can we do? Maybe we should buy more books that have them so there's more people doing these kinds of books for those kids because you know what we buy matters. So having those conversations, it seems more difficult because as a parent, you always want to, you know, celebrate and empower and create the sounds. But I don't think we can have a healthy self-esteem if we don't have knowledge and awareness of our own privilege, and we are able to put that in perspective and we go with the responsibility that it comes with. 

[00:54:51] Anna: Absolutely. Yeah. I thought that was, great points that you had in the book and that you've just drawn out now about how it feels quite intuitive for empowering our daughters, but it doesn't always translate the same way for our boys because we're so focused on empowering them in this world, as opposed to, what about the boys that are going to grow and to men? And, you know, you write that it's not just about educating them, not to be perpetrators, but we need them to be allies and not be enablers or bystanders as well, which it sounds like your son is well on his way towards which is 

[00:55:28] Virginia: I'll write the second book in and say my how things have moved forward, let me tell you. 

[00:55:34] Anna: Yes. We'll see. We'll see how it goes. Um, okay. And then what about trans kids? You had a chapter dedicated to them as well. So what did you find in your research about why all of this matters for them?

[00:55:47] Virginia: I think this was very important chapter. And I think it's powerful to have this in this book because parents won't buy books about trans kids because we all assume our kids are not trans or non binary. Why will I buy a book about this? If it's irrelevant for my case. So I felt like, hopefully I got parents that are not even thinking about that. And then they just get to this chapter and then they learn a little bit more and they get to be good allies for all the kids. I think it's important. 

And I talk about that in the book, like, I don't know if my kids will be, you know, trans and when I say trans I obviously meaning the umbrella of non binary, gender queer, whatever, but I know that either their friends or themselves, or other their kids that are going to be my house will be because it's just the statistics. And what an important role I have as an adult to create a safe space for those kids.

I find myself having a lot of conversations about gender identity and transgender kids. And I think there's a lack of information. I think people don't even understand the difference between sex, gender, or sexual orientation, which are three different things. So I use that chapter to start assuming that people don't know anything, like, please don't be offended if you know all these, because I realized that people, a lot of people just don't.

So just breaking those concepts in an easy way to digest it. And it's also, I call a action of compassion. I think if nothing has, especially in early years, just be kind and be compassionate about those kids and about those adults, let's stop thinking that there's a problem to fix. Let's stop thinking that there's going to be a problem. And I know it's a scary, whenever people tell me, oh, so you would not be angry or you wouldn't be sad if your kids were trans. I would we be worried that I am not up to the task. I will be worried that they're going to be living in a transphobic society.

I would not be disappointed. I would not be sad. I mean, I would just be worried that they are going to have it tougher, but the solution to that cannot be making it even tougher for those kids. It's like break them. It's like you have to double up on compassion and kindness and be there for them because you are aware that the world out there it's gonna eat them. So your job cannot be, I'm going to break you before the world breaks you. The world is like, oh my God, I'm gonna, be here for you and understand it and educate myself and give you a space to be yourself and celebrate who you are and bring joy and bring that a space because I think, I think it happens out of fear. Like parents are scared and the way they transmit that fear is by becoming part of the problem. 

I don't think you can make your kids trans. I don't think you can make your kids gay. I think your kids are who they are and your job as a parent is just to get to know them, try to make them a good person, grow with them, learn with them, give them all that space. So this is a chapter that is important for me, especially in UK where transphobia, is racing at a speed that we cannot afford. And it's just a call of action of compassion and kindness. And can we just learn more and know more? 

[00:59:20] Anna: Yeah. It's so important to, like you say, create space for whoever your children are. So by including that, getting people to think about, oh, actually I don't know what gender they might be, you know, let them, tell me, and kind of creating a space for that, a safe space. Exactly as you say. Okay, so that's all the cost to the individual, but you also, write that there is a large cost to society. So can you tell us about that?

[00:59:49] Virginia: Well, I think we're leaving so much talent on the table. We are missing out on excellent fathers. We are missing out on excellent man that should be caregivers, nursery teachers, and bring that to the table. We are definitely missing out in women being entrepreneur, given more money from venture capital companies and creating those companies.

I think by limiting p eople and narrow who they are we are stop exploring the talent that as an individual we could have and how that will impact in the society, because that is what society is. The society is the addition of all of us. And if all of our has come bring our best, a more unlimited and best version to the table, it will be a benefit from all of us.

So, yeah, I think that is also a responsibility that we have. We're leaving, you know, women with better spatial skills, scientists, mathematicians, and all those interested in STEM. How great will that be for the world? How great would it be more men in the schools, more men, in all those areas that are reserved for women. And yeah, I'm excited and I think we're going in that direction and I am excited to see how the next year's, you know, unfold. 

[01:01:14] Anna: Oh, good. I'm glad you have optimism there. Because you're exactly right, there's huge benefits to just changing this for societies and for the world. Sorry, I have a So then how do we begin to unpack our own biases and stereotypes? As we've mentioned, there are action steps at the end of each chapter, and we can't get into all of those today, but what are some of the biggest ways people listening can get started today?

[01:01:31] Virginia: Just to stopping and looking around and just do a small exercises of... the easiest one is just to change gendered things. Like So I owned the feminist shop on one of my favorite slogan is, would you say to a man? Because a lot of the thing is that would you? Would have somebody said that if I were a man, would that have happened if I were a woman? How will this exact same situation played if it was different? And again, it doesn't have to be, you know, like, so what, okay. So what if somebody wouldn't have say that, but like, let's forget the for what for a minute, let's just focus, in this first exercise let's just focus on would our life will have been the same? Would our toys will have been saying, will our choices will have been the same ,would the same situation. So a star having that exercise of awareness of like, how is me being a woman or me being a man playing a part in this. And again, it doesn't have to come morally judging. Just realize that, oh, it does make a difference. And then see, what happened from then and what feelings that trigger and what allowance you can make yourself or what changes? Because a lot of the times we don't realize that we are part of the problem. Would I have said that two a man, would I have say that? Would I have touched this person if it was not, you know? So yeah, just to start asking the question proactively, like dedicate even two minutes about your day, what things in your day to day were shaped by the fact that you are who you are? 

[01:03:14] Anna: Yeah, I think that that's really great points of just noticing, not judging, not wishing. Yeah. And not getting defensive, just, just noticing and recognizing, and not even like needing to necessarily read into it about, oh, well, well maybe it didn't need to be that way or that, just noticing and swapping the gender, as you say, like, I like doing that as well if I have a thought that arises just swapping out, if this had been a different person, would I have thought that thought or how might have that interaction felt different? 

And I liked one exercise that you mentioned in the book was just to journal about all the stereotypes that you spot during the day, just taking note of them, writing them down as an activity for yourself, but also for your kids. I think you said that you have your kids do this and that just encouraging them to notice as well. And it's certainly gonna make unlearning for them a lot easier in the future. Um, If people take one thing away from this conversation with you today, what would you want it to be?

[01:04:21] Virginia: I want it to be there's hope. That's always the thing. We can change thing. Small changes are much easier than we're thinking and small changes bring bigger changes and then make us part of the change to somebody else. And there is a big domino effect. So I, am very angry, but also very hopeful person. I like when people get excited, I love some of the feedback I got from the book is like, I'm actually excited now about all the things that can be done. I'm excited about sharing these with all others and get them first started. So if there's one thing is that we have a monstrous amount of work to do, but it needs to be small and exciting and hopeful. And I think it is. 

[01:05:13] Anna: Love it. Love it. Okay. And then to end just some rapid fire questions to wrap up. What does feminism mean to you?

[01:05:22] Virginia: Feminism is real equality of opportunity and space for everyone to be their best selves in whatever aspect. So big shout out of intersectional feminist. If it's not intersection, we're doing it wrong. So just create a system and a society where everybody is celebrated and invited to be their true best self. 

[01:05:46] Anna: What is the story of woman to you?

[01:05:49] Virginia: The story of woman is reclaiming the vision of the world that belongs to us in a different way. Like, it's just telling our side of the story and the feelings and reclaiming a world that made us a side character and see how we can say it from our point of view. 

[01:06:12] Anna: I love it. Uh, What are you reading right now?

[01:06:15] Virginia: I'm reading Period Power, I can highly recommend. 

[01:06:18] Anna: Ooh, yeah, Maisie hill? 

[01:06:21] Virginia: Yeah. Oh my God, you have to have her. And then I need to hang around with her and my best friend because I am literally 

[01:06:30] Anna: Um, I'm trying to have her so if listening.

[01:06:33] Virginia: Hang with me and do this podcast. 

[01:06:38] Anna: Um, any other than your book, obviously, any recommended reading that you have to share with our listeners?

[01:06:45] Virginia: Gina Rippon a hundred percent love her. Well you have a lot of great people, Farida, of course, Clementine Ford I love. But it's a tricky question because I sell over 500 titles in the book and I kind of probably recommend all of them. So just to start with what interest you? You know, don't go with the, this is what I have to read. Just this, like, this is the one that I'm excited about reading. I want to know more about it too. Yeah, don't try too hard. 

[01:07:14] Anna: I like that. I like that. Uh, so what are you working on right now? You've mentioned your website, but, uh,

[01:07:20] Virginia: Yeah. So I founded the feministshop.com. I've written the children's book Mike & Lolo, so I'm working on that. But my most exciting thing is I'm building a signature program for schools in which I want to be talking with parents, teachers, and kids about all these to get everybody on the same page and having multiplied and exponential impact. So if you want your school on board, just give me a shout and see if I can sell it to the principal. 

[01:07:49] Anna: Amazing. And where can we find you?

[01:07:52] Virginia: So the femininistshop.com. So yeah, virginia@thefeminustshop.com or any social media or yeah, I am very easy to find. And I always respond. I get super excited whenever people reach out. So please do reach out. 

[01:08:09] Anna: Amazing. Thank you so much, Virginia for your time today was such a great discussion. 

[01:08:14] Virginia: Thank you for having me.

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Virginia Mendez
Virginia Mendez
Author of Childhood Unlimited