Regular readers will know that I write a whole lot about kids and gender. This isn’t really a blog that’s just about that, it’s a blog about families pushing back against harmful norms that isolate and hurt us, norms that have their root in patriarchal and capitalist ideals popularized by the so-called “traditional family” which is more accurately called the nuclear family. But you really can’t push back against that stuff without pushing back against gender roles. And as I’m currently actively engaged in raising a toddler, I have a front row seat to the way that our culture teachers gender roles and norms early, and aggressively.
I notice stuff, and I write about it.
Recently I published a piece about gender differences in kids’ clothes on a popular parenting site. I don’t read the comments on my work outside of this blog (a practice I encourage all writers to adopt for their own mental health) but I have shared the piece in my own networks, and it’s garnered some discussion. I’ll be honest, I was very nervous publishing it in the first place, because the last time I published a piece about little boys’ clothing I received some “helpful” emails explaining that boys need their clothes to be different in these ways because they’re made of snails and puppy dog tails or whatever. Given that in this newer piece, I admitted to dressing my assigned-male child in “girls'” clothing, and also outright stated that I think these gender differences in how we (as a society) dress kids are harmful… and this is a relatively mainstream audience… I was bracing myself for the worst.
So far it hasn’t come.
What has come, however, is a ton of people thanking me for writing it (you are very welcome) while stating things like “I have two boys, so I haven’t really been in the girls’ section.” Folks were happy to have me name the differences, and to complain about the differences they had noticed, but they weren’t willing (or able) to take it any farther than that. So let me get this out of the way, let me stop inching up to the topic carefully, let me be clear about not just naming the problem, but also talking about how we push back against that problem.
If you are a parent or caregiver to a boy child, or a child who is assumed to be a boy, and you are still picking out/purchasing most of his clothing, I think you should buy him a dress. Make it a pink dress. And I think you should do it today.
Get your son a pink dress.
Why? Because he deserves it. Because little boys are just as deserving of a chance to enjoy a pink frilly dress as little girls are of a chance to enjoy a pair of overalls with a damn train on them. Because our sons are going to grow up in a world that repeatedly tells them not to be tender, not to be kind, not to be sensitive and if we don’t give them a different message no one fucking will. Because if it turns out that you’re wrong about your kids gender, and in two years they realize that they’re trans, it’s gonna be a whole lot easier for everybody if they don’t get the idea of that dresses are off limits. Because most gender nonconforming kids have to beg their parents for the clothes they want, and it shouldn’t be that way, and you know it. Because the very idea that it is somehow shameful for a boy to wear a dress is misogynist as fuck. And he’ll never know that he’s allowed to wear dresses if you don’t show him that.
Kids are smart. Kids are learning all the time. They are internalizing the messages they see all around them. And unless you are raising your child as a nudist, they clothing you put your kids in affects the way they see themselves. This stuff matters. And little boys growing up with no actual exposure to feminine things directly contributes to them seeing little girls as “other” at a very young age. They are internalizing both the subtle and overt messages they are getting from the world that tell them that girl stuff is not for them, and girl stuff is not for them because they are better than girls.
I’m fairly femme. I love wearing dresses and skirts, I find them to be in many ways more comfortable and freeing than pants. I like that they come in fancy and girly options. I like that they’re pretty. I like the way they feel on my body. And I know, as a person who wears both pants and skirts, that the experience of wearing a skirt is totally different — even just on a physical level — than that of wearing pants.
How are little boys ever going to be able to relate to little girls if they don’t even know how different this most basic experience — wearing clothes — is for them? And little boys not being able to relate to little girls is a problem. We know it’s a problem. We know it contributes to adult men dehumanizing adult women. We know that the vast majority of children’s media features white, male, cisgender, able-bodied, assumed straight, protagonists, and kids who fit that description get used to thinking of themselves as normal and everyone else as abnormal. Men get so used to living in this intense bubble of privilege that if it is threatened even a a tiny bit, they often freak out. Some of them freak out to the point of supporting fascism.
There’s lots of things we parents can do about that (talk to your kids about oppression today please!) but one of them is to put your little boy in a dress. If it turns out he’s cisgender and incredibly butch, and he hates dresses and doesn’t want to wear them, he’ll tell you when he knows that! Putting your son in a dress is not forcing him into anything anymore than putting him in pants is forcing him into anything, and if he doesn’t like dresses, you can add it to the long list of stuff that you shrug about and say “we tried it, it wasn’t for him.”
If you’re short on cash, you can find a dress at your local thrift store, or even just make a point to reach out to moms of girls and let them know you’re open to receiving more feminine hand-me-downs.
If you are worried about your kids safety, you can put him in the dress on a day you know he’ll be home all day.
If it makes you uncomfortable, good. That feeling you feel right now is you coming face to face with your own internalized misogyny and cissexism. It feels bad! Confronting it is important, and it’s good for you, and any kids you have. You’re slightly squicked out feeling is understandable, given our culture, but it’s also yours to deal with. It is not fair to make that your child’s responsibility, and it is definitely not fair to deprive your child of things that he may turn out to love just because you don’t want to deal with your shit.
Little boys are missing out on all kinds of really great shit, like the color pink, and hearts, and how cool it feels to spin around in a floofy skirt, and understanding that women and girls are also human beings. And it’s not fair, and they deserve better.
You can start small. It’s just one dress! You don’t have to tell your great aunts about it if you know they’ll freak. But you have to start. If you believe in equality, if you believe that you’d be cool with it if your kid told you they were trans, if you believe women’s rights are important, this is your path.
Do it today. Buy your son a damn dress.
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