“You don’t look like a farmer,” he said to me. I smiled and laughed and gave my go to response, “Oh, I just clean up good.” I am used to comments on my appearance and shrugging them off. I am after all a woman, and if you are a woman you know that outside commentary on our appearance is just part of daily life. We learn at an early age that this is just how it is. I often wonder what life would be like if I wasn’t continually reminded by strangers that I don’t look right for the part I am playing. How would it feel if I could walk into a meeting with colleagues without worrying that I had on too much makeup for a farm bureau meeting. “Does this lipstick shade negate my experience in the dairy industry?” is an anxiety that my male colleagues will never suffer.
The “You don’t look like a farmer” comment is often given to me in the cadence of a compliment. It isn’t one. I don’t know how telling someone they don’t look like the role they want in society is a compliment. Every time I hear it, the subtext screams at me “you don’t REALLY belong here.” I wonder sometimes if I hear it enough that I will start believing it.
What the heck does a farmer look like?
I used to play this game with my preschoolers that I taught a few years ago. We would sit in a circle and I would have them close their eyes and tell them a story with scant details. The goal was to have them use their imagination to fill in the blanks and then see what their little minds would come up with.
“Close your eyes and picture a field full of things growing. Is there a person there tending to them? What does the person look like? What are they growing?”
Afterward I would have them draw what they had imagined. If I used the right words, the students often would draw a person that was their own gender. The girls would draw girls and the boys would draw boys. If I didn’t use the right words, if I said “farmer” instead of “person growing things” the children would usually draw a man in overalls. Already they had gendered the word inside their sweet little minds. A little baby prejudice had somehow taken root in their heads.
When I play the game with myself, when I close my eyes and try to picture a farmer, I get a very specific image. It isn’t my father, although he is a fine farmer, it is the person who I grew up hoping to be just like, my grandmother. She was beautiful, fun, and caring. She also could just make stuff grow. My grandmother farmed for 30 years with my grandfather. She was master of the local grange. She was a member of the local cooperative extension. She was beautiful, and outspoken, and brilliant. This is what she looked like.
The first thing anyone comments to me about my grandmother is how beautiful she was, and she indeed was. I wonder how many times she was told she didn’t look like a farmer in her life. I wonder how many meetings she attended worried that her dress would take away from her opinions. I wonder if she felt like no one would take her seriously because she had baked the cookies for the same meetings where she was presenting on the issues facing farmers in her day. I feel sad sometimes that I never asked her these questions. In fact, I didn’t really know the role my grandmother played in the community fully until after her death. I had no idea she was such a big deal to other people, she had just always been a big deal to me but for different reasons. She grew the sweetest corn, she could heal broken bird wings, and catch the fattest trout. She was magic, and she was a farmer. I will never know how she felt about the comments on her appearance or her role as a woman in agriculture in rural Maine. But I do know she never gave up, and that’s all I really need.