Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Gender Bender

Yesterday I wrote a post about bullying between my own children.  One of my friends, Amanda, asked me when I would address the "J. Crew controversial ad".  Another friend chimed in about her opinion as I quickly scanned my brain for info about J.Crew and what in the world could be so controversial about getting dressed.  So naturally, I did what any person would do--I googled it.

Oh yeah, I thought, NOW I remember.  The horrific, terrifying photo of a mother with her five-year old son, painting his toenails pink.  The horror!  The trauma!  The wickedness!  No wonder I forgot.

In all fairness to J. Crew, they went out on a limb to publish a photo of a mother painting her kindergarten-aged son's toenails pink.  Lots of us do it, but most of us don't immortalize the occasion through photographs.  In fact, some of us might be willing to do just that, as long as junior doesn't leave the house.  I remember when I was around six or seven and my younger brother would clip all my barrettes in his hair.  This was during the letter people days, and my brother was a busy kid.  My biggest memory is of him jumping up and down on the couch as he sang heartily, "Mr. M...with the Munching Mouth!"  Barrettes flying in his hair as he joyously chanted the "m" phrase, he was the seventies version of gender exploration.

When my own son was four, he dressed himself for school one day, and when he appeared I stopped dead in my tracks.  He had on his construction worker-style boots, olive colored shorts, a tee shirt, and a polar fleece vest in bright yellow.  I don't recall if he actually was wearing the construction hat or if I imagined it, but I do remember thinking somebody had lost a member of the Village People and needed him back, pronto.

I'm an early childhood educator who thinks nothing of boys who try on heels or slip into dresses; who has no concern over girls who hammer tricycles or flex their muscles.  Yet here stood my son, not only visually screaming "I can't coordinate my clothing by either color or season" but also making quite a statement through his choices.  And the mother in me, the fear of what people would think of me if I let him go to preschool this way, won out.  I made him change into something more traditional.  He wasn't pleased with me, but he recovered quickly and was happy by the time he got to school.

I think the biggest lesson of that little story, though, is that I remember it.  I recall it with a lot of hilarity, for sure, but also with a bit of shame.  In essence, I denied my four-year old the opportunity to express himself that day.  Did I learn my lesson?  Three years later when we were visiting my mother and he asked for a manicure, I consented readily.  Although he chose a clear polish, we all nodded and encouraged him and told him how great it was that he was getting a manicure.  He loved it and showed it off every chance he got.  "I got a manicure," he would tell people proudly, showing his hands to anyone who would look.  The color of the polish didn't matter.  It had felt good to him, it had felt true to him,and he was proud of it.

Within a couple years, he no longer wanted manicures.  Social standards had set in, and the joys that might have stayed true were gone.  He wanted to be like everyone else.

My son follows his peers quite a bit and has for most of his life.  One of the regrets I know I'll always live with is holding that back in him as a preschooler, at a time when it was most safe for him to leave the house in polar fleece, shorts, and construction worker boots.  I often wonder if the message he got from me early on is "you need to be like everyone else" instead of "who you are is good enough."  Because when we talk about gender expression in young children, that's the issue we're talking about, isn't it?  Does it embarrass us when a boy wants to play with dolls or a girl won't leave the block area?  Do we question children's sexuality if they're drawn to clothing that's out of the ordinary?  Or do we wonder if it's a sign of things to come if a girl cuts her hair to the scalp or a boy grows his out?

Who we are sexually is not equal to our gender, nor is our gender equal to our interests.  One can't predict the other.  Many beautiful women are lesbians as many handsome men are gay.  Similarly, one of my best friends is a marathon runner who has participated in some of the most difficult marathons in this country.  She's a strong, amazing woman who excels in business and  I know a man who is a trained singer with an amazing voice.  He excels on the piano, and is married with two children.

People are more complex than their gender or how they express their gender. In other words, you can't tell a thing about a person by his or her nail polish...other than a color s/he likes.  Personally, I'm into wines.  On my fingernails, not in my glass, thank you.  I've known some children who are into rainbow nails.  My daughter is into split nails.  She's found she can paint one hand well but not the other, so it's rather normal to see her with one painted set of nails and the other unpainted.

Maybe she's got a split personality.  Or maybe?  Maybe she just knows what she does well.


  1. Thank you! I wish everyone could take a child development class so they could see and hear that safe, age-appropriate exploration at this age does not damage or predict a child's future. You're awesome Michelle!

  2. Amanda, writing this reminded me of the fact that all parents make mistakes and this was one that I really regretted with my son. Social norms set in with him shortly after this and he's never dared to veer away from that. Fortunately, I learned the lesson and kept my thoughts to myself when my daughter dressed herself in mismatched clothing or wore her purple fur coat (what a find at Goodwill! She bought it with her own money too!). Her dad and I secretly called it the "ho coat" because it had hooker written all over it, but nobody can wear purple faux fur like my little girl!

  3. Michelle, I love this post. When I was growing up, I always wanted to have short spiky pink hair, but I never did it because I thought it might hold me back because of what other people would think. Don't get me wrong, my parents did a great job raising me and encouraged me to express myself (my mom was in love with Alice Cooper and wore a black dress to homecoming in the 70s), but as a teenager in a tiny rural town, hot pink hair in a men's cut would not be acceptable, and I knew it.
    Now I'm looking into getting a tattoo on my upper arm and my fiance's sister said "You're getting a man tattoo?!" Life is too short to worry about what others think, and if getting a "man tattoo" is how I want to express myself, that's what I'm going to do. I just hope that when I have kids, I'll be able to teach them the same thing.