Why “icky” is a four-letter word

Originally published November 3, 2016

I was kind of struggling with what  I’d write about today, after a too-late night yesterday and a hard day at work. Then I got into a conversation with a friend about marine animals, and that led to me remembering this piece I originally wrote back in 2013 for a blog I never really used. At the time I was working with a wetlands conservation org in New Jersey, with part of my activities being in their aquarium. I’m not currently doing any work in a marine-education setting (though I hope I’ll get the chance to return to that), and my basic views on this remain the same. So I decided I’d polish up the language a little and finally share it as part of this project.

A lot of the education work I do is at touch tanks with children, and I love doing this. I love the opportunity to introduce them to animals and environments they might not have encountered before, to see a spark of interest as they learn something, and to share my passion for these things. I feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to do this, and I’m always aware that there’s a responsibility inherent in being given the chance to provide education, even informally.

When I’m at a touch tank, I’m often introducing these kids to creatures they’ve never had exposure to before, creatures such as sea urchins, crabs, skates, and sea snails. These are all animals that have wildly different anatomy and biology than the kinds of animals they’re more likely to be familiar with, and can seem very strange when kids first touch them. It’s fairly common for kids, particularly very young ones, to react strongly to how alien these animals look or feel, and sometimes they—or the adults with them—will deem something about an animal “icky!”

My response is always to say, “No, not icky—it’s just unusual/weird/different. I don’t like to say the animals are icky.” I’m especially adamant about this with very young children, and with girls.

Words, especially descriptive words, have a lot of power. The descriptions we use can frame how we think about something for years to come. When we call an animal “icky,” we’re deeming it something negative: vile, off-putting, unpleasant, upsetting, something not to be touched or associated with, something to recoil from. And I don’t want kids associating these concepts with animals that are simply different  or unfamiliar to them.

Certainly, a lot of these creatures can seem very alien. The bodies of sea snails feel moist and squishy, and the way a gastropod’s foot moves isn’t like anything most people have experience with. Sea urchins have such distinctive anatomy that many people don’t even realize at first that they’re animals, rather than rocks or plants, and their upside-down (in comparison to humans) build is pretty much guaranteed to get some squeals from kids. (Want guaranteed reaction from a kid at an aquarium or tide pool? Tell ’em that sea urchins poop out the top.) Crabs have pincers that can be intimidating (even small ones that can’t really hurt a human) and mouthparts that are completely unlike anything a vertebrate animal has, along with multiple legs and a skittery way of moving. Skates have rough skin and a mucus coat, and the sensation of touching those can feel very odd. Even sea stars, which many children are enthusiastic about because of their shape, can be kind of wibbly-making with their tube feet and how they feed. It’s absolutely understandable that people, and kids in particular, might find all this weird. And I’m okay with “weird,” and “strange,” and “unusual” for animals that people don’t have a lot of experience with. Those words aren’t necessarily negative, and they’re an accurate reflection of how someone might regard an animal they aren’t familiar with.

But none of these animals are inherently icky—there’s nothing that makes them automatically vile or unpleasant. When kids hear an animal deemed “icky,” they start to associate that animal with negative things; they often won’t want to touch it or have any interest in it, and that association can spread to other animals and sometimes even to marine life in general. That makes it more likely that those kids will grow up having negative associations with ocean animals, and more likely that they will place less value on marine creatures and marine environments, because the only animals that live in the ocean are “icky,” right?

We can certainly make efforts to dispel these ideas with adults, and that’s part of the education work I do. Ultimately, though, I’d rather keep these ideas from taking root in someone’s mind in the first place. I’d like to help kids see that these marine creatures are not “icky” at all, but fascinating in their diversity and anatomy and biology. I’d much rather get them excited about these animals and enthusiastic about our oceans and looking after them. And thus, I will never call a marine creature “icky” or let it pass unremarked if someone else uses that term.

I also have a particular aversion to using the word “icky” with girls. There are a lot of things in this world that are more likely to be deemed “icky” for girls than for boys. This seems to particularly apply with animals that aren’t considered cute, fuzzy, cuddly balls of adorability, and with environments that involve dirt or mud. We have a lot of cultural constructs that say that it’s perfectly fine for boys to get messy when they do things, to play outside in the mud, and to be fascinated with critters that are slimy or scaly or weird, but that it’s “inappropriate” for girls to be interested in such things. Girls are supposed to be dainty and not muss their clothes and to be frightened or repulsed by animals that have spindly legs or pincers or scales or mucus. Girls aren’t supposed to do things that are “icky.”

But when we tell children this, when we set up this divide about what is and isn’t acceptable based on their gender, we limit them. When we tell girls they shouldn’t do things because they’re “icky,” we shut off avenues of interest. A girl who has been told that she shouldn’t play in the mud or sand because she’s a girl, that she shouldn’t touch animals that are slimy or scaly or weird because she’s a girl, is going to be less inclined to think of these activities in a positive way and to consider hobbies or careers that involve them. And therefore she’s going to be cut off from a huge number of opportunities to act on their interests and abilities. How many potential marine biologists or dive-tour guides or science educators were sent off in other directions because they were girls and were told marine environments and animals were “icky”? I hate to think about it.

By the same measure, when boys hear that girls aren’t supposed to play in the mud or like animals that are slimy or scaly or weird, they’re more likely to make fun of girls who do, which further reinforce those divides and the cultural constructs that limit girls and women. And when boys are told that they’re supposed to like those things, they’re more likely to feel that they’re odd and out of step if they don’t like them, and to fear that they’ll get made fun of by other kids (or even by adults) for not liking “boy” things. It’s not of any benefit to boys to reinforce this divide either.

So for me, avoiding calling anything “icky” is about removing negativity on multiple levels. It’s about normalizing these creatures with unfamiliar anatomy and biology so they’re not scary, and giving kids permission to be interested in them and interact with them—but it’s also about giving them permission to not interact with unfamiliar animals, to take time to learn more, and to not receive any shame or pressure for that reaction. Kids who are encouraged are more likely to be interested, and kids who aren’t pressured or shamed are more likely to give things another chance.

I hope every kid will find marine animals and environments as fascinating as I do. But I want that fascination to be organic, and I want it to not be shaped or tainted by stereotypes that divide their reactions by gender. For me, that’s part of the responsibility of being an interpreter and informal educator, and it’s part of what makes doing this work so rewarding.

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