Even before I became a mother, I was certain I would raise feminist children. My son would wear pink and enjoy a good cry, and my daughter could like sports or playing in the dirt and know that she’s not a “tomboy,” but, well, a just girl who likes sports and playing in dirt. They’d know we loved them no matter what, even if they were gay or transgender or (gasp!) politically conservative. We’d be a happy little feminist family, and we wouldn’t care about what anyone else thought.
Then I gave birth to twins and ended up with a son and a daughter overnight. I still made an effort to keep the princesses/tutus/monster trucks/superheroes from infiltrating our home, but it happened regardless of whether I'd planned for it to happen that way or not. And then one day I found myself wondering if I'd ever let my son wear girls' clothing and be OK with that and I realized that maybe, without even recognizing it, I was treating my children differently based on my own subconscious gender assumptions about who they were, what they liked, and how they should dress.
I wanted to challenge my gender biases, so I decided to dress my son in conventionally “girl” clothes for a week. Even though my daughter often wore her brother's t-shirts or pajamas, letting my son wear his sister's clothes seemed taboo, even if there was nothing inherently girly about the clothes themselves. To be honest, I don't know if my children see themselves as gender-normative or gender non-conforming, and I wondered if the ways my husband and I decided to dress them would somehow impact them down the road. So I chose to go ahead with this experiment to challenge my own beliefs. For a whole week I picked items that I thought were mostly gender neutral, even though they came from the girls' section, and then went out in the world to see what would happen.
Interaction #1: My Mom Friend
I’m not going to lie – I needed to ease into this a bit. Even though I knew it was wrong, there was definitely a part of me that felt like it was unfair to put girls’ clothes on my son on purpose, and for a while I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
My husband, the man I’d always known to be progressive and super open-minded, actually felt like his son shouldn’t be wearing a cupcake t-shirt.
I decided on a royal blue t-shirt with a red heart and the words “love wins” written around it. It had some gathering at the shoulders, which you never find on boys’ clothing, but I thought overall it was fairly gender neutral. Why couldn’t a boy be a proponent for love winning, anyway? (Also, he looked really freaking adorable in it.)
I paired it with some shorts and we headed out to run some errands. I ran into my neighbor/BFF outside, so I let the kids run around a bit in the yard while we chatted.
“Are you wearing your sister’s shirt?!” she asked my son, laughing.
“I probably wouldn’t have noticed except for the girly shoulders,” she explained to me with a smile.
My friend didn’t seem to think much of it beyond it being cute (she told me later that she assumed I just hadn’t noticed that it was a girl’s shirt), but I was secretly excited that she’d actually said something, as I thought maybe it was the kind of thing people would notice and then silently judge my mothering skills. I also had to wonder if she would have found it less cute if he were a couple of years older — kind of like how seeing a baby run around naked is adorable, but after a few years, that same naked kid would just make people feel kind of uncomfortable?
Interaction #2: My Husband
By day two, I’d pretty much gotten over my hesitations. My son was too young to care about any of this, but I was still proud of us for our tiny act of social subversion. I dressed him that day in a t-shirt covered in pink and orange cupcakes, which I thought was a great gender-neutral-in-the-girls-department example. (I mean, who doesn’t want to wear cupcakes on their sleeve?)
It turned out my husband disagreed.
“You can’t let him wear that out of the house,” he said. My husband, the man I’d always known to be progressive and super open-minded, actually felt like his son shouldn’t be wearing a cupcake t-shirt.
“Um… you’re kidding, right? Look how cute he looks! Plus, this is a nice t-shirt! Kids love cupcakes! It’s gender neutral!” I began to launch into a diatribe about rape culture and our responsibility as parents to raise emotionally well-adjusted boys, and by the time I was done, my husband relented.
“OK, OK, it’s not that girly. Cupcake shirt it is.” (I would have been more annoyed at this, except I was pretty excited to let my son out into the world rocking his awesome t-shirt. OWN IT, CHILD!)
Interaction #3: Strangers At An Outdoor Café
By day three, I was ready to kick it up a notch. I found a grey t-shirt (neutral!) with some kind of purple dog-like creature on it, complete with a pink bow. I couldn’t wait to let him wear it. And, unlike yesterday, my husband didn’t even flinch.
I’d picked out a t-shirt that I thought should have been pretty gender neutral — navy blue and purple polka dots. On him, though? I admit it looked pretty feminine.
We went to the library to return some books, and then sat down for a cup of coffee and a muffin at the outdoor library café. When you have twins, it’s pretty common that strangers will stop and ask you lots of questions, and I wondered if maybe someone would ask about my son’s attire. But all that really ended up happening was that the kids got to run around and I got to sit and have a latte — which, actually, made for a pretty fantastic afternoon.
Interaction #4: Kids At The Indoor Playground
Day four was a scorcher, so I opted to take the twins to an indoor playground where they’d get to burn off energy and stay cool. Since the playground we went to attracts kids from a fairly wide age group, I wondered if any of the other children would comment on my son wearing girls’ clothes. I remembered that once at that playground, my daughter had been playing with an older boy when his brother shouted out, “why are you playing with her? She’s a little girl!”
At 2-and-half years old, my daughter didn’t really understand what was happening, but it was my first encounter with someone saying something mean about my kid (it was also the first time I’d ever wanted to punch a child in the face, but that’s neither here nor there). Thankfully on this day, there were no nasty comments — in fact, a few older girls went out of their way to help my little duo make their way up the stairs and down the slide. But I couldn’t help but think that things might be different in a few years’ time, when my kids would be the older kids, trying to fit in with their peers, feeling self-conscious about anything about themselves that made them seem “different.”
My friend never brought up the polka dot t-shirt, but I was still pretty self-conscious about it. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was doing something unfair or even mean, like setting my own child up to be laughed at.
Conjuring this image in my head was a reminder that it would be up to me to show them that being different is OK, that they don’t have to feel bad about it (and also that they should never make anyone else feel bad about it either). At that moment, envisioning my toddlers as big kids with more self-awareness, it felt really important that I was sticking to this experiment.
Interaction #5: The Toddler Play Date
For day five, I’d picked out a t-shirt that I thought should have been pretty gender neutral — navy blue and purple polka dots. On him, though? I admit it looked pretty feminine. I’d made plans for a play date with a friend who also had a toddler, and I actually considered changing him into something more boyish. But wasn’t my hesitation the entire reason why I was doing this experiment to begin with?
My friend never brought up the polka dot t-shirt, but I was still pretty self-conscious about it. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was doing something unfair or even mean, like setting my own child up to be laughed at. And I couldn’t help but think that, if my son were older, I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do this experiment at all.
Originally I thought it might be interesting to do this experiment and see what other people had to say — whether they would judge, or make comments, or laugh. But what ended up being much more interesting was what I had to say about it, and the ways in which I felt I should be proud or ashamed or embarrassed on my son’s behalf.
Interaction #6: Swimming With Dad’s Best Friend
On day six, one of my husband’s best friends came to visit for the day. We thought it’d be fun to take the twins swimming (since you need at least a one-to-one ratio to take squirmy twins to a pool), and I saw this as a good opportunity to get an outsider’s take on this.
So I sent my son swimming wearing his sister’s pink swim top.
I’d originally intended to stay away from anything overtly feminine, and there wasn’t really any misunderstanding about a hot pink floral swim top being for girls. But I was also curious about what he’d say (and I also couldn’t happen to actually find a swim top for my son), so I went with it.
“Cool shirt, guy! I’m liking the hot pink." This was a much better reaction than the one my husband had on day two. “I couldn’t find his swim top,” I explained, even though that wasn’t exactly the reason.
I didn’t have many expectations when I began this experiment. I thought maybe it’d be interesting, maybe it’d make for a good story. But now that it’s over, I’m surprised at how much it matters to me that we did this.
As a fourth-grade teacher, Jamie turned out to have a lot of the same views as I did about how unfair it is boys learn that they shouldn’t like “girl stuff.” I hadn’t expected him to be so game about seeing my son in a girl’s bathing suit, but it was pretty awesome that he was.
Interaction #7: Just A Boy And His Mom
By the time we reached the last day of the week, I found myself feeling pretty self-reflective about this experiment. I took the twins to the park — my son in yet another polka dot-esque t-shirt — and even though we didn’t see even one other person there (it was a small, quiet park geared towards the toddler crowd), it occurred to me that it really wouldn’t have mattered if we had. Originally I thought it might be interesting to do this experiment and see what other people had to say — whether they would judge, or make comments, or laugh. But what ended up being much more interesting was what I had to say about it, and the ways in which I felt I should be proud or ashamed or embarrassed on my son’s behalf.
As I watched him climb the jungle gym in his pink and purple t-shirt, I realized my goal as a feminist mom wasn’t to have a son who would grow up and wear pink on the regular. My goal as a feminist mom was to let him know that he can always feel comfortable being himself, no matter what that looks like. The same way I’d want him to feel OK liking “girly” things if that’s what he really liked, I’d also want him to feel OK liking masculine things, so long as it came from him and not from societal pressure to be a certain way.
It was fun to see him playing in his feminine t-shirt, totally oblivious to what this week was all about. I thought about what it might be like one day to tell him about this experiment, and I was curious to see what he might say about it. Maybe he’ll think it was pretty cool? I hope, at least, that he won’t be horrified that I wrote about him wearing his twin sister’s clothes on the internet. You know, fingers crossed.
Did I Learn Anything?
I didn’t have many expectations when I began this experiment. I thought maybe it’d be interesting, maybe it’d make for a good story. But now that it’s over, I’m surprised at how much it matters to me that we did this. I was surprised at my own feelings some days — I hadn’t anticipated feeling embarrassed, and I especially hadn’t anticipated feeling guilty or like I was doing something wrong — and it definitely got me thinking about the types of lessons my children will learn as they get older and more aware of the things they aren’t supposed to do or wear or like.
It makes me sad to think about how little I will realistically be able to actually control about that — I know at some point I’ll probably have to suck it up and buy the superhero backpack or the toy trucks and cars — but actually taking the step of dressing my son in pink and purple and flowers and polka dots instead of actually just talking about how parents in theory should totally be able to do those things showed me that there is probably a lot more I can control than I even realize. Other boys might say things to him, and he’ll probably get a lot of gender-loaded ideals from the rest of the world, but he’ll still come home and be part of our family every day, where he will hopefully learn that kindness matters and judgment is hurtful and unfair, and that all human beings are valuable no matter what they look wear or what they look like.
But maybe, if nothing else, he’ll know that his feminist mom loves him just the way he is. Even with a superhero backpack.