A couple of exchanges this week got me thinking about putting the words why we have notions that certain behaviors prove boyhood (or girlhood), masculinity or femininity. The first occurred when stopping by my friends' store, impish, where I noticed a new t-shirt on display behind the counter that read Boys Can Wear Pink. The color of the shirt: pink. Being a mother whose sons wore pink–during babyhood, because I wanted them to, and later on, if and when they wanted or want to (less over time, although the six year old is at this moment wearing a brown shirt with an appliqué pig sporting pink spots)–I exclaimed, "Great shirt!"
For the next fifteen minutes, a spirited discussion ensued, in part about how clothing has become increasingly "gendered," beyond simply pink for girls and blue for boys. Meg, whose sons are toddler and infant, said, "I like boys in pink, but it's hard to find pink clothes Quin can wear." She went on to explain that most pink/girls' clothing isn't just pink, it's frilly or has bows or other "girly" details her two year-old boy refuses. The three of us glanced over to a no-frills pale pink t-shirt with pink and orange lettering arranged in a jumble of alphabet. One customer almost got the shirt for a boy relative, but ended up without it. In that case, the color stopped the would-be buyer, who was sure the little boy would like everything about the shirt, save for the color. Remy, the six year-old in pink spotted pig, chose another shirt off that same website sale last summer, which had a great photographic image of a bunny, and then refused the item once shipped home, because it was cotton candy pink (in contrast to the pig's spots, pink snuck in like Jessica Seinfeld's book of recipes about getting vegetables into brownies?). To quote Remy, "I can't wear pink." To hear this in context, please picture a blue-eyed boy with kissable cheeks and just about the longest hair in the class, which he only wears flowing down, no ponytails or braids for him.
Never mind historically, pink was the boys' color and blue for girls. Why, we wondered together, does children's clothing seem to be pushing further and further from a kind of gender-neutral attitude into two distinct–almost always stereotyped–wardrobe choices? The notion of "play clothing" seems a fast-disappearing one. That kind of clothing was once synonymous with Oshkosh, overalls, and sturdy, simple clothing that gave little nod to gender. Our conversation, had we all not needed to work, could have continued for many more hours. As it was, we touched upon a number of why questions in short order: why do parents feel uncomfortable putting all colors on all children? Why does so much girls' "fashion" sexualize girls at such young ages (most recent offender I saw in a catalogue: a girls' bathing suit with just a single strap, anything but functional)? Why are toys so gender-driven, too? Are boys, in terms of clothing and behavior too, being into an even more restrictive box than girls these days: one of trucks, trains, dinosaurs, and sports? As if to back up my point, a friend described her brother's frustrating conversation with a customer service person from Hanna Andersson clothing over the phone just yesterday while he ordered dinosaur pajamas for his niece. The representative kept trying to steer him toward "girl"-themed pajamas, although he insisted that his niece loves dinosaurs and so dinosaur pajamas were going to thrill her. Before delving into more and more "gendered" clothing, this company, with its signature striped shirts and sturdy sweatpants, was a great resource for many comfortable, nice looking, gender-neutral clothes (and still offers those choices, if less prominently).
Bubbling over around the Internet is the story of a Swedish couple with a toddler, gender not disclosed. "Pop" has had his or her diaper changed by only a few intimates and wears dresses and pants, and, to the best of the parents' abilities, is being handed toys intended for both "boy" and "girl" play. In Lisa Belkin's post about this on the Motherlode blog at the New York Times this week was this quote from "Pop's" mother: “'We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,'” Pop’s mother told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet last spring. 'It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.'" Belkin talked about how many readers didn't want to disclose (or know) the gender of a baby in utero for a similar reason, that pink or blue stamp. For most people, though, once the baby's out, gender is revealed–generally with pride. Many readers strongly disagreed with "Pop's" parents' choice to withhold gender. The question is what does "real" gender mean for a baby? What about children whose gender is unclear, be it because of obvious physiological issues or because–whether physiological or psychological or both–the assigned gender is or seems to be or feels wrong?
My own experiences raising boys–ages thirteen, eleven and six–is that society has more set ideas about gender than children–left to their own devices–do. My boys do not always, necessarily hew to stereotype, from their long hair (at this point, the middle boy's bob is the only shortish 'do and even with that, he is fairly regularly mistaken for a girl), their relatively gender-neutral clothing, and their interests, which run from ballet to soccer, art, puzzles, games, cooking, opera to Abba and points between. When the girl arrived nearly seventeen months ago, we did not lack for baby dolls; we already had plenty. I didn't want to impose trucks or trains (or weaponry) upon them any more than I would want to urge my girl to care more about home than the world beyond home. So, have I influenced or encouraged their choices? Sure, I have. I think to some degree, all parents do (the love of opera, that was entirely independent). What I know I've done is to talk openly about stereotyping and how I believe it limits people from getting to explore and enjoy a wider range of choices, from activities to clothes to books to friends.
Can anyone–"Pop's" parents or myself included–actually raise children emancipated from gender stereotyping? I think not. I'd contend that the society, which these days delivers pastel and primary hued tricycles to preschoolers, has a lot of untangling of these issues to do: beginning with how to parse gender, sex, sexuality, and from there, becoming much more thoughtful about how to lift gender stereotypes. A number of years ago, Lucien, my middle son, now eleven, had a toddler room teacher during the year of the teacher's transition from female to male. Some (admirably few) parents expressed anxiety about how the kids would handle this change of name and gender identity. The kids were two turning three at the time, and the answer was that they took his new name in stride. Many of the kids thought the female with very short hair wearing baggy pants and button down shirts over her tees was male anyway. I interviewed parents about six months later, curious whether the transition had had much impact upon their child. It turned out that this change barely registered for most, who loved the teacher whatever her or his name was. A couple wondered about whether he got a new birthday–preferably a second one–along with the change in identity.
Perhaps, a starting point to the next round of conversations about all these issues surrounding gender and identity and "real" boys or girls is to open ourselves to the idea of greater fluidity and flexibility. I don't think you take rules and structures and safety away when you affirm people–boys, girls, men, women, those who choose not to identify with those terms–for who they are and what they like and how they want to dress and who they love. To my mind, it does not get any more real than that.