Sunday, August 12, 2012

Children's Clothes and Gender: What's Our Role?

Have you read the NYT article by Ruth Padawer about gender-fluid children? (Thanks Kristin for the link!) There's a lot going on in the article, and I've seen some really interesting responses.

Over at Sociological Images, Lisa Wade asks some really interesting questions about what it means when the boys who are gender fluid are acting in ways that are hyper feminine:
In contrast, girls, when they enact a tomboy role — and now I’m off into speculation-land — don’t seem to go so far into the weeds. We don’t see girls dressing up like lumberjacks or business men in suits and ties. They don’t do tomman, they do tomboy. There’s something more woman about how some of these boys perform femininity.
Meanwhile, Margot Magowan, author of the blog Reel Girl, was incensed at the author's suggestion that gender-fluidity is only a problem for a boy who wants to dress like a girl and not vice versa. I agree with her completely that the article glosses over the pressures that little girls have to conform to standards of (again, often hyper) femininity. And, as a parent myself, I've frequently experienced people's snide comments and double takes over my daughter wearing, say, blue sneakers instead of sparkly sandals. I definitely don't think that girls' choices are as accepted as Padawer suggests.

I do think, though, that Padawer is right that there's a difference in how parents approach bucking gender trends. I don't think much of putting my daughter in sneakers and a blue t-shirt. I do wonder, though, if I would be as at ease with putting a son in a dress. This isn't because I don't think that little boys should wear dresses. But I would feel more nervous about the public reaction and less prepared to deal with it. I would be more worried about how he would be treated by classmates. I would, in short, be less secure in that choice than I am to let my daughter dress "like a boy."

Which brings me to what struck me the most in this article (though, like I said, there's a lot going on, so this is by no means the only theme).

What's our role as parents in gendered expectations? Not only for children who we identify as gender fluid, but for children in general?
Itty Bitty Baby Dress

The parents of the children in the article obviously have their kids' best interests at heart. They are trying to navigate a grey area in cultural norms in a way that allows their children to be themselves without having too much negative reaction. These are, for the most part, accepting and tolerant people who just want to figure out the right way to handle something they hadn't really thought about. Many of them even ask their children if they would like to be referred to by a different pronoun. But many of the children said no. They still identify as "he," but they just sometimes prefer girl things:
P. J.’s favorite video game, Glory of Heracles, features an ambiguously gendered character that P.J. described as a girl who wants to be a boy.
“Do you feel like that?” I asked him one day at his house.
“No, I don’t want to be a girl,” he said, as he checked himself out in his bedroom mirror and posed, Cosmo-style. “I just want to wear girl stuff.”
“Why do you want to be a boy and not a girl?” I asked.
He looked at me as if I were daft. “Because I want to be who I am!”
 And most of the problems that these children face don't really seem to be a crisis of figuring out who they are. Rather, the problem is constantly being challenged that they have to make a choice. Even these incredibly supportive parents have to fight the inclination to push their children to choose:
I’m not trying to label him, but it’s hard not to wonder what he is, if he’s not a boy and he’s not a girl. Sometimes I worry that not being in a box isn’t healthy, either, even if the box is ‘gay’ or ‘genderqueer.’ I just want to be able to wrap my head around some concept. I know I have to be patient, but sometimes I feel like an emotional hostage, because as his parent, it’s my job to help him be whatever he wants to be, and I can’t do that if he doesn’t know where he’s headed.
This made me think. How often do we do that? How often do we push our children to label themselves (or even do the labeling for them) because it makes it easier to function? After all, we label things so that we can make sense of our world. Those labels exist for a functional reason. It's only when they become mired in restrictive stereotype and prejudgment that they become a problem. But how many labels have I already put on my child? How many times will I push her to choose a path before she's ready?

And how can we differentiate between labeling and providing opportunities? If I call my child "active" and decide to enroll her in toddler tumbling, am I giving her the chance to explore who she is or am I pushing her to be someone in particular? If I decide my child is "smart" and then ensure that I get her into the most academically challenging environment, am I opening doors or deciding her future path?

Obviously, these things are less rigidly binary than "boy" and "girl." But, really, they're equally socially constructed. What it means to be "boyish" has changed drastically over time (pink, historically, has often been a masculine color, for instance and children of both genders used to wear dresses for years).

I guess at the end of the day this article made me really aware of just how much power we potentially have as parents over children being "who they are." For at least a few years, we have almost complete control over what they wear, what television shows they watch, what activities they do, what toys they play with, and who they interact with. I think that gender fluid children challenge the assumptions that we make with how to use that power, but I think that challenge should also make us consider how those assumptions work across the board.

Photo: debcll


  1. Did you look at the pics from the gender fluid camp or whatever it was called? I think they were all boys in dresses but in some of them it could be a girl or a boy. What it made me realize, what was so beautiful about it, was that children really are gender-fluid and until they start picking up what adults or their peers are saying/thinking about gender, they can sort of just be human for a short time.

    1. Yes! And isn't exploration of all the different ways we can express ourselves such a great part of being human?

  2. I don't have sons but if I did, I don't think I would be "at ease" with putting him in a dress for school. I would encourage boys to play dress up with all the costumes as we just did when my girls cousins were over. I also spoke with my kids preschool about encouraging the girls to dress up in the workers and fire fighters costumes and the boys in the dresses.

    Margot Magowan

    1. That's where I'm at, too. I want to say that I would have no problem with a son putting on a dress because I believe that it's not a problem, philosophically and value-wise. But I also know that--especially in my little Midwest, conservative pocket in the world--it would make for some real problems, practically.

      I think that dress-up is a good place to start because it's a realm that we can really recognize the "play" element of and maybe we can just let kids have fun there without trying to ascribe any identity statements on them.

  3. this is so tricky because preventing a boy from wearing a dress to school gives in to the predjudice of others but there is also an obligation to protect kids from that kind of persecution. so...what do you do? regardless of what we do, kids learn about gender expectation very quickly in preschool. once they are old enough to understand possible consequences they can be part of making the choice of whether they want to stand up to it. i have always just tried really hard to listen and follow my kids(now 11 and 15) when it comes to figuring out identity/sexuality issues and interests.i've also worked to point out that sometimes people have narrow views and that we don't have to conform to them. that way you can make room for the idea that its ok to be different. at least then they always feel like home is a safe place to be the self that they are discovering.

    1. I completely agree. And I love that last line "they always feel like home is a safe place to be the self that they are discovering."

      We can't be (and really shouldn't be) the only influence in our kids' lives, but I think we can work hard to make sure that the influence we do have is welcoming and open.

  4. I like your post. I do think though that sex, gender and sexuality are areas where there may be too much discussion of "identity" rather than conduct, preferences, behaviour, etc. We want there to be a clear link between what we "do" and what we "are" when it comes to gender. But I'm not sure how helpful that is (and I think the boy quoted might have been saying something like that). Although I hear where the mom is coming from, I actually disagree with the quote about wanting to know where your child is headed. Perhaps I can say this because my children do not (yet) challenge this categories in such a strong way, but I actually try as much as I can to focus on action, and to leave aside questions of identity, outcomes, goals, etc. As my friend once said, "it's that I LIKE chocolate cake, not that I AM a chocolate cake eater." At the same time, I am someone whose identity is not the constant subject of scrutiny (I am white and in a heterosexual partnership), so it may be a bit too easy for me to say "leave things open." Just a few thoughts. Thanks for the interesting comment.

  5. Great points! I think about identity a lot, and I think that identity can be an empowering thing when we're able to figure it out for ourselves. But when it's being placed upon us by powers outside of us, it can be very limiting and intimidating. I think you're absolutely right to bring up issues of privilege when it comes to this. A higher level of scrutiny inevitably leads to less room for self-definition, which can make those limits all the more apparent. And when we're talking about children--people who are still learning what they like, let alone what that means to their larger sense of self--it's certainly something we should think about before we get so eager to tick certain boxes.