For the most part, my son has lived his life a stereotypical boy. He loves trains and so many of his toys automatically get turned into a gun. I'm declaring these things as inherently or definitively male, but that's the way they've traditionally been classified and my son fit right into that narrative. But my husband and I wanted him to know he had freedom to pursue anything that interested him, so he expressed a lot of interest in "girl things." Pink, My Little Pony, and clothing, for starters. But my son doesn't wear dresses anymore and, as a feminist, I have some feelings on that... and maybe not the one's you'd assume.
Let's start at the beginning, because I always, unfortunately, have to clear a few things up. It's not that my husband and I were secretly hoping for a girl and therefore wanted to encourage our son to put on dresses and bows. We weren't foisting tutus onto him despite his protests. We also didn't discourage any of his tastes, interests, or clothing choices that were "typically male." In short, we weren't, as some people may accuse us, performing some sort of bizarre sociological experiment on our child. To the contrary: we just didn't limit the things we presented him or the things we allowed based on the fact that he was our son.
So pink toys were offered right alongside blue ones, princess costumes with pirate ones, and dolls with cars. And, most of the time, social norms prevailed... and that was totally fine by us. And when he wanted to put on his "fabulous Elsa dress," that was fine, too. We just kind of let him be him and did the best we could not to impede that based on our views of gender expression or identity.
Around kindergarten, however, pink gave way to yellow as his favorite color. Screen time was dedicated to Pokemon over My Little Pony. The fabulous Elsa dress remained untouched until it was entirely taken over by his eager little sister. Part of this was a natural shift (kids have different interests all the time) but part, I came to discover, was unspoken social pressure and good old fashioned misogyny influencing into his worldview. The bubble of the gender-fluid utopia his father and I sought to provide had popped. Society had crept in and made him feel shame and conflict over the aspect of himself that loved pink and princesses and wearing poofy dresses.
It came to a head a few months ago, though. We had a talk about the root of his anxieties and I assured him that not only was he was free to like anything he liked, but that his family would always back him up.
I feel that, at this point in the feminist struggle — when there's still so much to do — sometimes it's not about subverting everything all at once. Sometimes awareness and questioning is a good first step.
Things have gotten better since then. His disdain over femininity has eased, and he doesn't get upset if his sister picks TinkerBell for movie night (he'll actually watch happily and then play Pirate Fairy with her when the movie is over). And he's conceded that, actually, he does like pink. (He has specified the exact shade as "bossy pink," and I'm still not exactly clear on what it is, but I consider it progress from earlier this year when he'd steer clear of anything vaguely rosy.) Dresses, however, are still a no-go. If he and his sister are playing dress up and I ask him if he wants a "girl" costume he looks at me with an expression that is equal parts scandalized and embarrassed. "No! No way." He just doesn't like them anymore.
And as a feminist, I observe his shunning female garments and I think to myself.
No, really. It's OK. Because, as a feminist, while I strive for an equitable world free from misogyny, I realize that there is absolutely no aspect of society that has not been touched by sexism. As such, there is no way to keep someone completely free from it. There are going to be crappy cultural norms that my children internalize and buy into. We all do it, and I know I certainly have. I love high heels and I don't feel comfortable wearing anything that exposes my armpits without shaving first, and I would feel deeply uncomfortable dressing in a particularly male or even gender neutral way in public. Those concepts certainly didn't occur in a vacuum and are, in their way, problematic — high heels are super bad for you, body hair is perfectly normal and natural, and my gender is not determined by my clothing. But I do like heels and I don't want hairy armpits showing, and I feel most at ease expressing my gender through exclusively feminine clothing. I feel that, at this point in the feminist struggle — when there's still so much to do — sometimes it's not about subverting everything all at once. Sometimes awareness and questioning is a good first step.
I want him to know that he gets to pick which "rules" he follows.
When my son was genuinely distressed about not being "allowed" to like pink and feminine things, we questioned and discussed it together, which led him to a place where he was more comfortable saying: "Screw you, society: I'm going to be me." But when it came to wearing dresses, society sunk its hooks in deep and he's now firmly team "pants only." We've talked about it, we've established that there's no such thing as "boy clothes" or "girl clothes," not really, and he agrees. "Boys can wear girl clothes and girls can wear boy clothes... but I just want to wear boy clothes."
Like anyone else's preferences, my son's are influenced by the society in which he lives. It would be naive to assume he'd never get caught up in the gravity these "rules" and expectations exert. But what's most important to me at the moment is that he knows it's an illusion: these rules aren't rules at all, and they're entirely arbitrary. As he gets older and can get a better handle on loftier thought, we can get into the idea of why the rules are what they are — men aren't "supposed" to wear women's clothing because women are considered beneath them and everyone must adhere to a strict gender binary for... reasons?
I want him to know that he gets to pick which "rules" he follows. If he realizes that truth and decides that, for the rest of his life, he's never going to slip into a sparkling princess dress ever again, that's totally fine. I just want him to be aware that the option is always available to him, and to be critical of the reasons he's chosen what he has.