The Halter and the Crop
Growing up on a farm, the fact I was a girl did not ever seem to define my work with animals. In the barn, my parents assigned tasks between my younger brother and me based on our age and physical capabilities rather than our gender. Mine was by no means a gender neutral upbringing--I was often forced to wear my grandmother’s hand-made dresses. I was given the doll for Christmas when my brother got the toy tractor--but these differences didn’t translate once we were in the barn. Working with animals was a democratizing force, and the cows didn’t care who was a boy or girl. My brother and I got crapped on, kicked at, and nudged by them the same way. We were both just “kids” on the dairy farm.
As farm kids, we were further acclimated to agriculture through our regional 4-H program. There wasn’t enough interest in my hometown to justify a local program, so my parents had to drive us almost one hour away to our county Farm and Home Center so we could attend the monthly meetings. Through 4-H, I learned how to connect with animals in ways that were different from my everyday interactions in the barn, particularly through the use of formal showman tools. I learned how to use hair clippers to groom cattle and leather show halters to lead them in a ring for formal competitions. When I wanted to raise pigs, I learned how to use crops (or, “bats”) to move them at the fairs. These objects became associated with special events and happy memories. They symbolized staying overnight at the fairgrounds, wearing white show outfits, and being rewarded for my care of animals through trophies and ribbons. I looked forward to show season every year that showcased and rewarded our family’s work on the farm.
Though my hometown was very rural, not everyone had parents so dedicated to 4-H. Many of my peers didn’t even grow up around farm animals. I only knew of three other students in my grade familiar with showing animals. So when my middle-school language enrichment class was assigned a public speaking exercise to talk about our interests, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk about 4-H.
During my presentation, I remember getting blank stares from my classmates when I pulled my leather show halter out of the paper grocery bag. I tried to articulate what it meant to lead my cow backward in a show ring. I described how the chain on the halter helped me alert her to my body language and the careful, meditative nature of this relationship. But the enthusiasm I radiated into the room did not bounce back. Panicked, I shifted my focus to my purple pig crop. I remember desperately wanting to bond with my peers using these things that illustrated my passion for animals. I wondered, what was creating the disconnect?
A nervous tension began to fill in the room. Murmurs from two male classmates started to derail my attention. They whispered with a mischievous, high-pitched hiss that pierced my ears. I tried to ignore it and continue with a demonstration. I explained that pigs were harder to show because of their ability to run and move at will during competitions. They required swift movements from their showman that were closer to the ground. As I bent my knees to illustrate the proper stance for leading a pig, there was an eruption of laughter. My eyes burned. I grasped the crop a bit tighter. The pressure kept the tears that welled up from leaving my eyes, and I looked to the teacher to bail me out of the confusing situation. Why was this funny? What was I doing to make this so funny?
The teacher quickly pulled the boys who instigated the outburst from the classroom. After scolding them, she returned to the room praising my work and asking me to sit. My presentation shut down as quickly as it started. Stunned and sad, I gathered my tools and returned to my seat. The boys continued to stare and sneer at me. Confused and embarrassed, I hid my head in my arms on the desk.
After class, the teacher pulled me aside and explained that my 4-H equipment was not “school appropriate,” and this was why my classmates reacted the way they did. She was incredibly vague and her face twisted with discomfort as she suggested, “You’re not in trouble, but you should talk to your parents about it.”
I never did. It was only when I retold the embarrassing story three years later that a high school friend elucidated, “Nicole, I’ve seen that crop before. It looks like a sex toy. No wonder they laughed at you!” My heart dropped.
That same year, my eighth year showing animals, I swapped my crop out for a wooden cane to lead my pigs. I couldn’t look at the crop the same way again. The memories I had using it, that warm feeling and my connection to the animals, were corrupted by that awkward middle school moment. With the leather of the crop and the chains of the halter, pubescent boys had transformed me and my farming interests into sexual objects. After my friend’s revelation, I needed to distance myself from that moment. I became more reserved, and I even began to abhor farming a little. I felt everything I appreciated about it had been twisted into something I couldn’t relate to or even completely understand at that time in my life.
When I reflect on the experience I often wonder if my brother would have received the same sneers and stares. Perhaps the halter and the crop were doomed to be misinterpreted as related to sexual bondage. But more likely, this sexualized reading of the scene emerged because of my gender compounded by my naïve excitement during that presentation. It was a crucial moment in my young life when I realized that my gender could change the very meaning of material. As a farm girl, the way I handled certain tools would never be just about the animals, the farm, or the work I did. There would always be room for comments on my appearance, my sexuality, and my intellectual and physical capacity to perform the same labor as the farm boys. The classroom was not as democratic as the barn.
During college, I found that crop while helping my parents move off my childhood farm. I laughed when the memory rushed back to me. It took time to realize that the day I was confused for a middle school dominatrix was a comment on my strength, not weakness. I was brave to put myself and my interests out there with such enthusiasm. The misinterpretation made by my classmates was about something bigger than me. Gender is a helpful lens for understanding that embarrassing moment, but it was time that helped me transform the pain I felt into something more productive. It is something that makes me proud to have been not only a farm kid, but a farm girl.