Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Androgyny in Children

My son has long eyelashes...
and he wears all the colors.
I've been thinking about this (and compiling notes) for months, but until now, I didn't know how to write what I wanted to say. Then I got all fired up after reading this article from The Frisky about how Dr. Phil advised a mother of a son who liked to play with "girl" toys to steer him away from his natural preferences and to buy him "boy" things instead. The author quotes Dr. Phil as having said,
"Direct your son in an unconfusing way. Don’t buy him Barbie dolls or girl’s clothes. You don’t want to do things that seem to support the confusion at this stage of the game... Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.... Support him in what he’s doing, but not in the girl things." 
Basically, Dr. Phil told this child's mother to stop accepting him for who he is and try to force him to conform to traditional gender roles. I sincerely hope that this child's mother does not listen to Dr. Phil's advice and decides to, instead, encourage her son to explore whatever interests him.

I take serious issue with medical professionals on television who don't provide accurate and balanced information. Dr. Phil, like Dr. Oz, has an obligation to his viewers to present information sans personal biases and phobias. I think it's wrong for medical professionals to imply that being gay is "not normal" or something for parents to "worry about" with respect to their children.

Furthermore, what's the big freaking deal, anyway?! So the kid likes to play with dolls. Personally, I hated Barbie dolls as a child—because they looked so fake—was that supposed to be cause for concern from my parents? I think Amber Strocel has it right: we parents should encourage our children regardless of their sex organs to develop and express all aspects of their personalities.

Children learn through play. If we tell them that boys play with trucks, kick balls, and run around getting dirty while girls play with dolls, dress up and sit quietly in the corner looking pretty, we're telling them that it's shameful to deviate from these imposed norms. We're telling them they are not free to be themselves. We're telling them that it's not OK to explore different things.

My husband's favorite diaper cover: the "Rose" color.
I find this cultural obsession with gender particularly disturbing when it comes to babies. Jaymz and I did not find out the sex of our baby before he was born, in part because we didn't want to end up with a bunch of gender-stereotypical clothing, toys, and baby gear for our child. I understand wanting to dress your little girl up in a cute dress or dress your little boy up to look like Dad, but do you have to do it every day? It's a different matter when the child is old enough to express preferences about their clothing choices—but until then—what's so wrong with them just looking like babies? Young children, and babies in particular, are inherently androgynous. They have no secondary sexual characteristics to distinguish them from each other. They have little to no hair. Their bodies are squishy and floppy and their voices are all pretty much the same pitch.

Sometimes people think Daniel is a girl...and I usually don't correct them. I don't really understand why it's important to parents that people know whether their kids are male or female. I've even heard mothers remark at how upset it makes them when someone mistakes their daughter as a son. What I don't understand is: Why?

When a random person comes up to me and says, "Your baby is so beautiful!" I say "Thank you!" When someone says, "Aww, she's so sweet" I say, "Yes, I know!" When they say, "How old is she?" I say, "Eight months." Sometimes I'll say "He's eight months," but I never walk away from the interaction feeling upset or offended that they didn't know my baby is a little boy.

It doesn't bother me one little bit, but it does bother lots of other parents I know, so here's a quick tip: if you're asking about someone's baby, don't use gender-specific language, no matter how sure you are that the child is a boy or a girl. (This is kind of like how you should never ask someone when she's due, unless she has told you that she's pregnant. That woman who looks about ready to give birth could have had her baby yesterday—or several months ago—and you might make her feel bad by asking.) Instead of using gendered pronouns, say something like, "What's your baby's name?" or even "How old is your child?" Chances are, the baby's caregiver will respond in a complete sentence: "She's six months old!" If your curiosity isn't satisfied with their first answer, consider at least using an inclusive question such as, "Do you have a son or a daughter?"

I only wish these purple pjs still fit him!
In a time when we know that some peoples' genders do not match their body's sex organs, I feel like I should err on the side of caution and not put too many labels on my kid before he's able to tell me more about who he is. Odds are, he'll turn out to be a heterosexual who identifies as male, but I'd rather not assume that's who he is. Also, I like how the more "gender-neutral" clothing looks on babies. I don't want my child to be dressed to the hilt every day in gender-stereotypical garb, announcing to the world, "I have boy parts!"

Plus, I find the messages that these clothes bear to be extremely presumptuous (not to mention sexist): Boy clothing clothing bearing sports equipment and various construction/emergency service vehicles proclaims "Daddy's Future Quarterback," and "Mommy's Little Hero." Girl clothes, with their ruffles and pervasive pinkness, shout, "Little Princess," "Pretty in Pink," and your little girl's pacifier wouldn't be complete without "Diva"stamped on the front.

Mothers For Womens' Lib wrote a while back about a gender-neutral childrens' clothing store, Polarn O. Pyret. Their slogan is: Not for girls. Not for boys. We make clothes for children. I love it. That's how all kids' clothing departments should be, in my opinion. Another good post on gender-neutral shopping for children is Non-sexist holiday shopping: Is it possible? by PhD in Parenting.

In all fairness, it's a very tricky thing, walking this line about gender with respect to our kids. Clothing is such a personal choice and at the same time we want to protect our kids from the ignorance and cruelty of others. Jessica at This is Worthwhile wrote about her internal struggle over her son's choice of shoe color, and I really appreciate her candor in sharing her story. I'm sure by now you've heard about Nerdy Apple Bottom's story about her son being looked down upon by the other preschool mothers for choosing to wear a Daphne from Scooby Doo costume for Halloween. (You can read the follow-up about what has happened to her within her church here.)

I think the bottom line with all of this is that we need to strive to be a whole lot more accepting of our children just exactly the way they are. This means disregarding the advice of yet another TV doctor who is perpetuating misinformation, and instead, aiming to provide our kids with an open, supportive, and welcoming environment to discover who they are.

For other reading on gender and gender-neutral parenting, check out Raising him purple: a defense of gender-neutrality in early childhood from Raising My Boychick, and Practicing Gender Neutral Parenting and Raising an Equally-Minded Male from The Feminist Breeder.


  1. Because I choose to dress my child in gender neutral clothing, most people assume she is a boy. It seems that the consensus is that pink = girl, any other color = boy. If I do correct people I do the same thing you do - just change the pronoun. It does irritate me that people mistake Ella for a boy, not because I want them to know she's a girl, but because of the assumptionthat is she is not wearing pink or purple she can't be a girl. Anyhow, you've stated my feelings much more eloquently, so I'll just say, I agree!

  2. @Andrea: It's interesting to hear the perspective of someone who has a girl. When people assume my son is a girl, he is sometimes wearing yellow or multi-colored leggings and such. Usually I get the comment that he has long eyelashes (which must make him female) so I think that might be the reason for the confusion.

    I hadn't thought of the reason you presented for being irritated with the mistake (not wearing pink must mean boy) so thanks for helping me to think about it from that point of view.

    I hope the highly-gendered clothing gets less popular over time...what do you think the chances are of that happening?!

  3. I used to get a lot of "How old is she?" when my son was smaller and we had a lot of those long gownish sleepers, or any time he wore yellows and whites. I did the same thing -- either didn't correct them or just said, "He's 3 months." No fuss. :)

    While I do like blues and greens on my son, and would likely dress my hypothetical-daughter in pinks (and I think that's okay until he tells me otherwise) I honestly put more priorities on things like bold colors -- oranges and browns and reds -- and clothing that more closely resembles what adult clothing looks like. I cannot stand the decals, the sports logos, trucks, princess, and stupid slogans.

    (I've been meaning to blog about gender experiences for a while, as I grew up without any real idea of anything other than girl and boy -- this reminds me to do just that. :D)

  4. @Ashley: I love those gown sleepers...I only wish they made them in older baby sizes! I'd love to read about your experiences with gender. Will be looking forward to that post. =)

  5. Well said. My son (3 months) has a lot of lovely individual items, but it annoys me so much that they are *all* blue! I have hardly bought any clothes for him so far, but any that I do, I try to buy in other colors. I think it is slightly easier to get things in a variety of colors here in the UK--everything is still separated in the store by gender, but there is a bit of a rainbow in the stock. They still are often gender-coded in other ways, though. We just received a gift of a purple shirt for Gus--that has a car on the front.
    I think it is so important to allow children a range of experiences, like you say. Pre-child, this was most obvious to me wrt girls and pink princesses, but now that I have a son, I really notice how boys are ushered in a certain direction as well, even at this young age.

  6. I like girly clothes (nothing too frilly or uncomfortable), but I think the child should have veto power. Suzi, three and a half, rarely consents to wearing a hairbow. She also loves princess stories, but makes it clear she is *not* the princess, she is the prince. She wears rain boots and tromps around saying she is the prince and is going to rescue the princess. It's started to really bug me when people see her and automatically say "oohh, are you a princess?" (She usually says "NO!!!") I see what you mean about wondering why it's offensive for someone to mistake a baby girl for a boy. This princess assumption is way more annoying than that ever was. Especially when people try to tell her she SHOULD be a princess because she's a girl. None of those little dressed-up girls are princesses! It's called make believe, so I don't see why she can't pretend to be what she wants.

  7. This is right on time. My 4-year-old girl isn't overly into the girly stuff, one day she wears a dress and tights the next she wears jeans and a Buddy Holly T-shirt. This past weekend she went to a 'Princess party' for a school friend and they hired Ariel and put makeup on my kid. Eyeshadow on a four-year-old?! I was livid and frustrated to once again realize how little most people question all of this gender crap.

    The one thing I can say is that in my experience the easiest way to not have your kid get so sucked into this is to not have them watch TV. There is no escaping the gender push when it comes to kids TV, especially with commercials. I'm glad to see this post and I wholeheartedly believe that boys and girls both benefit from being given a full spectrum of experience and expression.

  8. This is a great post. :)

    I love putting gender neutral clothing on my daughter - there's certainly a smattering of pink, but I like to have her in other colors more often...and yes, people generally think she's a boy (but then people say that even when she's in head to toe pink!).

    Anyway, I think my subconscious reason for putting her in gender neutral stuff is that I don't want her to be typecast in that princessy, need to be rescued role. I never really thought of children's stories casting the woman in this role as a big deal - until I had a daughter. I don't want her to grow up with those kinds of role models - I want her to have a very healthy idea of girl power...and I guess that starts now, with the clothes she wears as a baby.

    As for Dr. Phil...well, don't even get me started! But I'm totally with you about letting them explore whatever they need to through play - not limiting to dolls for one and trucks for the other. Really, it's just silliness to force gender roles on young children!

  9. When my son was a couple of months old I had a long discussion with the bagger and cashier at the grocery store about "her". We chatted for a good 10 minutes, and I decided not to correct them. Because I thought correcting them would be unnecessary and awkward.

    Then, at the very end, one of them asked for "her" name. And then when I had to admit it was Jacob, it was WAY more awkward than anything. Such a conversation-ender.

    It's kind of funny, honestly, how wrapped up we are in the gender of a 2-month-old. He wasn't able to control his hands at that point, I can't imagine he was terribly concerned about his genitals. But somehow everyone else was.

  10. I had the same thing as Andrea - when I dressed my baby in gender neutral clothing everyone assumed she was a boy. Although I also had someone think she was a boy at 18 months when she was wearing a dress and almost all pink with only a gender neutral hat.

  11. It's been so interesting to hear all of your experiences! Since I don't have a girl, I haven't had to deal with the princess stuff. I think @Kristin is right though: staying away from TV would help to prevent that from being quite as pervasive.

    @Amber: I have thought through that exact scenario in my head and wondered what I would do if I went along with the female pronouns & then was asked his name. You make an excellent point though: the kid doesn't even know about his genitals yet, and the adults around him are making a big issue out of it. I wonder if most of the gender differences are learned (from adult bias) rather than inherent genetically.

    You all have made me think so much more deeply about this--thank you!

  12. No tv in our house, no Disney, but it seems like our culture will seep in anyway. Has anyone tried finding gender neutral clothing for toddlers & older kids? Plus, there are the strangers, neighbors, relatives and playmates who don' seem to know how to relate to an individual child but to use gender stereotypes. It's u believably hard to escape, which makes the next job remediation. Critical thinking for kindergardeners...

  13. Ah, this is why we didn't find out whether we were having a boy or girl either time. We got a lot of yellow and green newborn clothes for Mikko, but I find that preferable to "Future shopaholic" in pink and "Future quarterback" in navy. I seriously can't stand that. Still, our son is mostly dressed by our parents (sooo many clothes as gifts), so his clothes tend to be pretty manly. Every once in awhile, I splurge on something more fun.

    For this baby, I was shopping with my MIL and picked out a couple bright and cheery pieces that didn't scream boy or girl to me, or even baby. They were vibrant, not pastel. My MIL bought them and sent them for Christmas. My SIL saw me open them, assumed her mother had picked them out, and said snidely, "Does someone know something I don't about whether it's a boy or girl?" I told her I picked them out and I liked how bright they were, and she shut up, so I never did find out whether she thought they were gendered boy or girl! I still wonder…Was it boy because they were bright? Or girl because they weren't blue and had lots of different colors? (Seriously, boy clothing selections are so drab it depresses me.)

    Because, for crying out loud, who cares! As you've said, there's a time for a child to identify with a gender, and it isn't at 2 months old.

  14. Also? Dr. Phil can shut his trap. I don't make my child choose toys and activities based on gender lines. How demeaning is it to suggest that such a thing is necessary and admirable?

  15. great post! my littler one (i'm a nanny), even when dressed from head to toe in pink, would often get mistaken for a boy until she was about 18mos old or so. when asked "how old is he?", i'd just answer, "she'll be 1 next month." when the asker got embarrassed & apologized for the mistake, i'd simply reply "don't worry about it...i don't think SHE knows she's a girl yet."

    your post is so on-point about letting kids be who they are, regardless of what society (or even the adults in their lives) think of it. i love that my 4yr old niece helped her daddy put together the big-girl bed for her little sister - passing him tools and helping him turn the screws...all while wearing one of her favorite princess dresses. she doesn't have to choose to be a boy or a girl. she can be who she is and we love it!

  16. I am not a parent, but you have stated my views on babies and gender to a T. I am honestly confused why the first question people ask is, "Is it a boy or a girl?" which, since a baby probably doesn't have a gender identity yet, and since all babies look pleasantly androgynous, can only be translated as, "Does your baby have a penis or a vagina (and god forbid they have something in between)?"

    We don't ask adults what their genitalia looks like, and it somehow seems even ruder to me to ask a parent about their child's genitalia. O_o

  17. Can I just say that I hate the color "baby blue"? I got so much of it at baby showers, and I don't even like the color. Everything I bought myself was gender neutral. I would be equally appalled if I got a bunch of pink for a girl. I like pink, but not THAT much.

    My son has had longish hair and wears an amber necklace, which made a few people think he was a girl at first. Didn't bother me at all. Once an old lady thought he was a girl because he was in a pink sling. I really didn't care. It can be hard to tell the gender of a baby. People look for clues. Sometimes they get it wrong. Oh, well.

    I don't see anything wrong with asking if a baby is a boy or a girl, either. I think people just want to be polite and use the correct pronoun, so they ask outright. Avoiding gender pronouns altogether is socially awkward. I know, I've tried. I do it a lot, actually. I'd rather just know the gender so I didn't have to skip around it. Sometimes I just avoid talking about a baby altogether because I don't want to accidentally offend the parent. Why do people have to be so easily offended? Just accept the fact that it's a baby, and people aren't going to magically know what the gender is. *Sigh*

  18. It doesn't bother me to dress Sasha in some girly stuff, but I can not stand all that "drama queen" and "little princess" crap. And then there are some really adorable boy things that are just too obviously supposed to be for boys so I feel like I can't dress my girl in them.

    With my husband's nickname being Elmo, we dress a lot of Elmo stuff which is actually pretty gender neutral! (Except her pink long-sleeved Elmo "Love" shirt.)

    As for eyelashes, it seems like boys almost invariably have much more "feminine" eyelashes than girls. Why is that??

  19. I really enjoyed this post. My daughter, Penny, has a lot of girly clothes, but that's because family members buy them for us. I have no problem dressing her in pink and purple clothing and I think she looks adorable when she's all dressed up, but on the flip side I think she looks just as cute and adorable in more boyish clothing.

    This morning the first thing that I put her in was a blue diaper, a green onesie (unsnapped as they're getting a little short with cloth diapers), and black leggings with animals on them. Overall what you would call a "boys" outfit. However, her dad's favorite color is green and mine is blue, so we love putting her in clothing that we like with colors that we think are fun. I've never bothered correcting people if they refer to her as a boy because, to be honest, she kinda looks like one sometimes!

    Before she was born I asked my husband if when Penny got older and wanted to play with trucks and other "boy" toys if he would be OK with it. He readily agreed with me that she should be able to play with whatever she wanted to. I then asked if we were to ever had a boy and the boy wanted to play with dolls if he would still be OK with it. He was a bit more hesitant about that. I wonder why it is that girls are allowed to have more masculine traits while boys are supposed to be manly little boys?

  20. @Caitlin: Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

    To answer your question: I believe it is more acceptable for girls to be "boyish" than boys to be "girly" in our society (and most around the world) because of sexism. Being a woman/girl/displaying feminine traits/being sensitive/etc. are all looked at as less desirable than being strong/tough/not showing emotion/etc. Both women and men are praised for their masculine characteristics and put down for their feminine ones. Simply put: being a woman is less preferred than being a man. Unfortunately, this even affects how the youngest among us are treated. It's incredibly wrong, and it makes me both sad and angry.

  21. I'm late on reading this post, but I really love it! I have a 9 month old boy. He wears whatever. A lot of his stuff is pretty neutral, very few Football, Construction, Super-Male type stuff, mostly green and doggies and a few local sports teams items. He has super long eyelashes and hair that's growing like a weed, and I always get "Aww, how sweet... How old is she?" I never get offended or whatever. I just reply, "Oh, HE is 9 months" or whatever. Then they say, "Oh, he's so pretty." Yeah, I have a pretty boy : ) My mom keeps getting into it with me, though, because I'm getting him a Cabbage Patch Doll (or something similar...) for his birthday. "Little boys don't play with dolls!" He has plenty of boy toys and plenty of gender-neutral toys and a lot of MY old toys. I don't see the harm in him getting one more doll that will be his. When I had my baby shower, most of the items I registered for were pretty neutral - if I have another baby, I don't want to have to buy all new stuff because I got it all "gender" themed stuff (which whatever.. .even if I had gone all blue, I'd still use it for a girl). I was also hoping the ultrasound was wrong and I was having a girl haha. All of his stuff has Woodland Animals on it - mostly brown and green. It could be used to either. I don't think at his age it's important to force "boy things" on him. He'll figure out what he likes and I'll give him as many options as possible to choose from.

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. I know I already commented, but I just stumbled back onto this article...

    If you pause to really think about it, our culture's obsession with the gender of children is a little sick, isn't it? I mean, why does it matter? I read somewhere that in... France? they have a pronoun for babies that doesn't specify the gender. That would be awesome!

    We have a son, but we're not into sports and I definitely find a lot of the girl stuff out there offensive these days. The boy stuff, too! Bibs with phrases like "Little Flirt" or "Lady's Man." Really?!

    Children aren't being sexualized at an early enough age, we have to start pushing this crap on them in infancy?!

    Spencer has a "pink" diaper cover, too. My husband is not quite so... progressive? as I. So he teases ME about the pink cover, but it turned out not to be my favorite for other reasons.

    My favorite clothes? Tie Dye! In a rainbow of colors! Backup? White! I love Spencer in white, just like his Daddy. And Sasha in whatever, from her Minnie Mouse pajamas to her Dinosaur t-shirt. Who says girls can't like dinosaurs and skate boards? Pfft, watch out world!

    1. I totally agree, Jorje—our culture's obsession with gender and sexuality is really quite disturbing. The merchandise with suggestive phrases is just so wrong...I hardly even know what to say!

      I strongly second your preferences for tie dye and white! (What is it about kids wearing white, anyway?) I have fantasies about starting my own line of gender inclusive kids' clothes, where everything is brightly colored and wonderfully functional. Sigh.

  24. My son has long hair and has been mistaken for a girl countless times since he was born. I take it as a compliment, which is why I assume girl moms take a bit of offense. Hearing that your girl looks like a boy might make you think she's not pretty. Stupid, yes, but I do understand it.

    I hate "Dr." Phil and Oz so much. Dr. Phil is an effing redneck and Oz is biased as all hell.

    Your kid's natural preferences will show no matter what. My son has all sorts of toys and, frankly, he gravitates toward what most would call "boy play." But he also really enjoys dollhouses and his favorite TV show is "Bo on the Go," which is has a female protagonist. I can't imagine not at least giving him the option to try it all.

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