Sunnie Kahle is just like most 8-year-olds. She enjoys school as much as she enjoys play. She loves seeing her friends each day and coming home to a loving family.
But Timberlake Christian School found a glaring problem with Kahle. Though she’s a good student with excellent behavior, Kahle did not reflect society’s expectations of femininity.
Sunnie Kahle is a girl. But to Timberlake Christian School, she didn’t exactly look like one. Her jeans and loose-fitting shirts, her cropped hair and distaste for girly activities frustrated the school’s administration.
New York Daily News reported that Timberlake Christian School wrote to Kahle’s grandparents, stating that they will not allow Kahle to re-enroll unless her exterior appearance changes.
In the letter, Principal Becky Bowman admitted that Kahle was a “bright girl,” but argued that she did not abide by biblical standards in the way that she dressed, and thus did not deserve a place at the school.
“How do you label a child, eight years old, or discriminate against an eight-year-old child?” Carroll Thompson, Kahle’s grandmother and legal guardian, told WSET.
Thompson’s outrage is warranted. Institutions such as Kahle’s school should not have free reign to encourage intolerance. Though private schools are usually given the authority to dictate their own dress code, that should not qualify as a blank check to make an innocent girl, or anyone for that matter, feel so inferior. Furthermore, Timberlake Christian School has no place to assume and criticize Kahle’s sexual identity — after all, Kahle is only 8 years old.
Backlash against the school’s actions has been severe, with dozens of news outlets covering the story.Readers have taken to defending Kahle’s looks and chastising Timberlake Christian for its evident prejudice.
But Kahle’s case illuminates a greater problem — the prevalence of gender stereotypes and their negative impact upon us. Every day, we see people’s narrow-mindedness toward those who do not conform to expected gender stereotypes. Both men and women, from birth, are conditioned to behave in certain ways: Little girls are encouraged to wear pretty pink bows in their hair and little boys are taught the value of blue light-up shoes and lightsabers.
Granted, change has begun in small ways. According to The New York Times, toymaker Hasbro has started marketing play weaponry such as bows and arrows and Nerf guns to young girls, attempting to shatter the stereotype that acting tough is a man’s job.
But the bigger problems will not cease to exist when we continue to tell young boys to “man up” when they do not play rough, even going as far as to ridicule a child who does not seem to enjoy what his or her peers typically do.
If a boy wants to play with a kitchen set rather than a football, it shouldn’t matter. If a girl wants to collect Hot Wheels rather than Barbies, it should make no difference.
In a way, I speak from personal experience. Though some of my peers took dance classes and art lessons, I loved playing video games with my neighbors and playing basketball in the sun. I’m grateful to have open-minded parents who never questioned my future or my character based on these activities.
The way I see it, we can all relate to Kahle’s struggle. We have all felt misunderstood at times and we’ve all been judged by our covers alone. It’s now up to us to slowly eradicate the conventional standards society has set for others.
Ultimately, insulting those who veer from the supposed norm does no good for the world; we’re not going to solve any problems or find any progress by molding individuals into our notions of each gender. Instead of encouraging young girls and boys or men and women to behave or dress in accordance with societal expectations, we should focus on cultivating characteristics beneficial to each person’s future. Intelligence is not measured by the amount of mascara one applies each day; compassion is not measured by the quality of a suit and tie or skirt length.
In fact, our judgements of people’s exterior appearances often reflect gross misunderstandings. Kahle cut her long locks to donate to a cancer patient, according to ABC News. But at the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter for what purpose individuals dress a certain way. Frankly, it’s ludicrous to dictate how others should dress or behave if their actions cause no harm.
In Sunnie Kahle’s eyes, there’s a look of love and gentleness. If there’s one thing to take away from this story, perhaps it is the message that regardless of what she wears or who she loves one day, Kahle will be a better person than many of the individuals in this world — and remembering this will help us read further, rather than stopping at a cover.
Rini Sampath is a sophomore majoring in international relations. Her column, “Leaning In,” runs Mondays.