I talk a lot about examining assumptions–about questioning dearly held beliefs and common truth(isms), and about learning to see the world through a different and sometimes much more accurate or perceptive lens. This principle works for everything from training animals to writing books to running countries. Some things are just taken for granted. But should they be?
Assumptions are everywhere. They’re in the food we eat–what it is, how it’s prepared and packaged–and the clothes we wear. When I shop for food in Tucson, I’ll find long aisles of Mexican and Hispanic foods and ingredients, but try to find a can of Boston brown bread or a proper whoopie pie. The assumption there is that a high percentage of shoppers are Hispanic or prefer those foods and flavors–and it’s pretty accurate. But it’s still a given. Tucson, food, tortillas/salsas/masa/chiles.
I can be guilty of assuming myself when I share a recipe that calls for those ingredients, and the person I’m sharing it with lives in New England. She’ll have to go to a specialty grocery to find a can of chipotle chiles or a good tortilla. I just have to go to the nearest supermarket.
Then there’s the gendering of food. That’s a book-length rant all on its own. Girls eat low-fat this and low-fat that and diet something else. They’re constantly practicing food asceticism, and they want tiny, tiny portions with every calorie counted. Guys on the other hand want tons of fat and carbs, giant portions, and lots and lots of beer. Heaven help the guy who just wants some yogurt and a salad, or the girl who chows down on a burger with a big side of fries. Guys are supposed to have a healthy appreciation for food. Girls had better not, or Society Disapproves.
Clothing is just as heavily gendered as food, with many of the same assumptions. Women’s clothes: cheap, shoddy, flimsy, ridiculously overpriced… When I can buy a man’s shirt with twice the fabric for twice the quality and durability but half the price, I’m seeing how the industry views women. They’re not very bright, they’ll buy anything pink or frilly, they’re slaves to the latest fashion trend, and they’ll pay a lot for a crappy item because hey, not very bright.
They’re also not expected to do much while wearing these clothes. The seams won’t hold for much activity, and the fabrics are not designed to be sweated into. The assumption is that the wearers will stand or sit around looking sexy (hence the skimpy and flimsy part, not to mention tight). These are clothes for decorative objects rather than functional ones.
Of course men’s clothes have their own assumptions. They tend to have a much narrower range of accepted or acceptable colors and styles. They’re sturdier and much less expensive, as men are expected to live active lives, and not to be as amenable to frequent shopping trips to replace worn or damaged garments. Your manly man buys his handful of shirts and slacks and tighty-whities and expects them to last, as opposed to your girly girl, who is always at the mall looking for something new, shiny, and of course sexy.
The parade of assumptions carries into athletic clothes, though being a woman isn’t quite as annoying there. At least a sports bra won’t slice a rib open if you bend at all.
But there’s the assumption that a woman who Does Sports must necessarily be extremely thin–all over–and quite small. In horseback riding clothes, that adds up to a whole lot of outfits for tweenaged girls, and up until recently, very little for anyone of adult size or girth (and next to nothing for men in the US, because it’s assumed that men don’t ride, or if they do, they’re cowboys, so they’re buying jeans rather than riding breeches).
You can look at a rack of clothing and get a pretty good idea as to what the people who wear that clothing are supposed to be like. Likewise a supermarket aisle. The range of choices is calculated to play not just to the demographics and culture of an area but to the overriding assumptions of that culture. It both expresses and reinforces those assumptions.
And it starts early. Before a baby is even born, the assumptions are set. Boys: blue, sturdy, practical, designed to be moved around and played energetically in. Girls: pink, frilly, pretty, designed less for movement and energy than for quiet sitting while talking about boys and fashion, or playing with dolls (for boys, it’s “action figures”–so many assumptions in that name). He’ll be eating nice big portions, but she’s all too likely to be On A Diet by the time she’s able to say the words. Because girls are always On A Diet.
Assumptions. They’re everywhere. They can be terribly hard to fight, and the repercussions can be painful, as when a man wants to wear a woman’s dress, or a girl wants to play rough and make a lot of noise. Still, it’s important to be aware of these things that are not in fact innate or biologically determined–it’s all culture and conditioning. That way, we can take a stand against the more pernicious manifestations, and help shift our cultural assumptions in a more positive and constructive direction.