I bet you thought we were done talking about gender for awhile. Maybe you even hoped we were. Maybe you thought that we had exhausted the topic of how gender affects babies who can’t articulate gender for themselves and we wouldn’t have to talk about it again until the child was three or four and asking questions about it. I sort of thought that.
But I should have known better.
Today, I have two vignettes for you beautiful humans, all about how gender, or rather gender assumptions, play out in our lives now that we’ve entered The Toddler Years.
No Shirt No Shoes No Pronouns
For those who might be dropping by the blog for the first time, let me lead with the fact that my kiddo is a little over a year old, is apparently male (I say “apparently” because the way we define biological sex is tenuous at best) and wears a variety of colors, including blue, green, orange, purple, and yes, even pink. I’ve written extensively on the subject of babies and gender here in this blog, and why his mother and I think it is important to give him as many options as possible.
When he started walking, he got a snazzy new pair of sneakers. Since he is actually beginning to show an interest in choosing thing (what to eat first for lunch, what toy to play with, etc) I thought it would be nice if he had a hand in picking out his own shoes. As it happened though, the only ones he was really excited about were a pair of pink glitter covered mary janes, AKA dress shoes. I felt for him, I mean, those are probably what I would pick too! After that he decided he just wanted literally anything that came in a box. In the end, we ended up with a three-tone pair of athletic shoes. They’re pink, blue, and electric green, but of course because they have pink in them they are “girl shoes.” He’s still on the fence about wearing them, and so we’re trying to get him more used to them by putting them on him for short bursts.
So recently, the whole family was at the drugstore, and we had a bit of a wait. He was wearing dark blue baby jeggings and a black and white striped shirt. The shirt happened to be from the girls’ section, and if you looked closely you might notice that it has slightly capped sleeves, which aren’t really a feature of boys’ apparel. But we’ve found that since male is considered the default in our culture, and since so many girls his age are dressed with multiple gender markers (parents add a headband or a flower hair clip, pants are pink and have ruffles) that oftentimes he reads as a boy even when he’s dressed in clothes that would feel too femme for my wife. He also, and this is the important part, wasn’t wearing his shoes.
A store employee, a woman, walked by and smiled at him. “Oh what a beautiful little boy!” she said. My wife thanked her, and that was that.
Soon after, he wanted to walk around, so we wrestled him into the shoes. Then, in the kind of desperation that I’m sure other parents of toddlers know only too well, I ventured to the kids aisle to see if there was a book he could pretend to read. There were only three board books.
and Doc McStuffins
We don’t really do the TV thing, but I’ve heard decent things about Doc McStuffins, so I grabbed that one. He was thrilled.
The same store employee then walked by us again.
“Oh are you reading, little one? How precious!” and then, turning to address the grown-ups, “she’s not talking yet, is she?”
“He kind of is, actually,” I responded, and then gave a short list of words he currently knows. I’ve learned from experience that it’s important, in these circumstances, to use male pronouns repeatedly until they hear you. People get extremely embarrassed about misgendering children, and if you aren’t explicit, they often feel you’ve deliberately misled them.
Only she didn’t seem to notice. In fact, we saw her three more times before we got out of the damn store, and each time, we carefully used he/him pronouns, and she explicitly used she/her. My wife and I kept raising our eyebrows at each other, wondering if and when she might catch on, but also not wanting to make a huge deal out of it. I mean, why should it have to be a huge deal? But it just kept happening. It was like, once she saw the pink shoes (they are also blue and green!) and the cap sleeves, and the pink book in his hand, her brain got the GIRL message, and that message wrote over everything else, including our earlier conversation with her, and also what we were currently saying at that moment.
I don’t think most people take it quite that far, but it did get me thinking about how our brains cling to gender expectations, and how we articulate that. One time, I saw an infant in a stroller, wearing a perfectly gender neutral outfit, and yet without asking I exclaimed “oh she’s so cute!” The baby’s father said “actually he’s a boy, but don’t worry, we get that a lot, it’s because his hair is so long.” Was that what I was responding to? I have no idea, but I think about that day a lot as I raise my own kid. Because the fact is that our culture is so invested in the gender binary, that we, without thinking, studiously examine tiny little kids for gender markers, and then we use those markers to decide how we talk to them. In some cases, maybe the gender markers are louder in our brains than anything else. And while we may feel that we need them to assign “appropriate” pronouns (most people still wouldn’t default to using the singular they with a little kid) I always wonder what else we are assigning to them.
When I headed to the cash register with a lipstick, as well as our other items, our new friend said “oh did she pick that one out for mommy?” And I found myself wondering, much later, if the same question would have been asked had she assumed (or remembered) that our child is male.
Which brings me to our next story.
We were taking the kid for a walk in the stroller, when a woman sitting on a porch said hello, and then followed it up with “what a cutie! Say, how old is that baby? Seven months?”
My wife and I both suppressed chuckles. Seven months? It was my wife who answered her, “Nah, more like fourteen.”
“Fourteen? Well, she’s just a tiny little thing, ain’t she! Er, or he?”
We stared at each other.
When our child reads as male (which is most of the time, honestly) people are constantly telling him what a “big boy” he is, and how large he is for his age, and how you can just tell he’s going to be huge. And while I’m sure these comments have always been somewhat gendered, I usually don’t think about them too deeply. The thing is, he has been on the larger side for his age most of his life. When he was around six months old, he stopped being able to receive hand-me-downs from babies we knew who were six months older than him, because he was currently wearing the same size as them anyways and their old clothes wouldn’t fit him.
As we walked away, my wife said “wow, I’ve never heard that one before!”
“I actually have!” I replied. And then I realized, that the last time my child was called tiny by someone who had just asked for his age, I was out with him alone picking up supplies for his birthday present, and yeah, he was wearing “girls'” pants. I looked down at my kid in the stroller, sure enough, the size 2T pants he was wearing were bright pink.
People only call him small when they think he is a girl.
And it actually makes absolutely no sense. Look, if people expect girls to be smaller (and according to the weight charts, baby girls are, on average, just slightly smaller than baby boys) than if they think my kid is a girl, he should look even more surprisingly huge to them, right? And yet, the opposite is true. They assume my kid to be a girl, inquire about age, I tell them, and they reply with “oh she’s so tiny!” Then, when I say “actually he is in the seventy-five percentile for boys weight for his age” or whatever, they dig their heals in. They are convinced my child is small, and nothing I say will sway them, so I just shrug and move on. Now that I think about it though, the really odd thing about these exchanges is that once the person knows my child to be male, they no longer say “tiny” affectionately. No, they suddenly sound worried.
It’s almost as if being small, being diminutive, is considered a characteristic of femininity in our culture. Little girl, big boy, girls are small people! So they attribute that characteristic, and it’s related adjectives, to my child, without really seeing him. Because girls are small. Then, once they realize that their gender assumption is incorrect (well, maybe it is! My kid could be a trans girl! Literally none of us know yet!) they can’t back down on the size thing. So instead they assure themselves, “no, I’m positive that baby is to small to be a year old.” That part makes a certain amount of sense. Who wants to admit their implicit bias? Who wants to admit they thought a person was one size, but now that they know that person has a penis, they can see that they are a totally different size? Nobody.
We don’t want to think we’re sexist. We especially don’t want to think we’re sexist when it comes to children. We are deeply invested in convincing ourselves that we treat boys and girls the same, yet we almost never actually do. My parents came very close to treating me the same they would have treated a son! My mother was practically famous for the level of tomboy she achieved in childhood, and she sure wasn’t going to push her girls to be feminine. And yet, a son would have been pushed harder to play sports. A son would not have been told he would make a beautiful bride one day.
I had to look up the stats on toddler sizes for this post, because writing this, it feels like I’m losing it. It feels a lot like gaslighting, and I find myself questioning my own perception of my child. “Well, maybe he’s not that big.”
I looked it up. He hasn’t been weighed in a bit, but he was exactly the average size of a fourteen month old boy two months ago. A seven month old girl, which is what that woman guessed my child was, weighs at least five pounds less than my kid.
So here we are. My child is growing and changing. He loves throwing a ball as hard as he can at the hardwood floors, and he loves cuddling his baby doll and giving them their bottle over and over and over again. The older kids on the block love playing sports and other “boy” games and I am bracing myself to end the world of childhood athletics way sooner than I could ever possibly be ready for.
But I also can’t stop noticing this stuff.
I don’t want to turn this into a blog about my kid’s gender. Partly because it’s his gender, and he is the one who gets to decide what he wants to do with it and how he wants to talk about it. But I do want, and on some level I think I need, to share my gender related observations. Because if you just accept it as normal, if you take it as a given, you are going to miss things. And what the hell is that doing to our kids?
Ok, next week we’re talking about food.