At Target today, my seven-year-old son picked out flowery teal leggings with a matching top. When he tried on the brightly colored items, he said “I know people will think I’m a girl when I wear these, but I don’t care.” He has long hair and even longer eyelashes, and strangers often mistake him for a girl even when he’s wearing more gender-neutral clothing. His name is Daniel, which they mishear as Danielle. He corrects them and moves on.
When I was a little girl, my mother dressed me like one of her lladro figurines. I wore itchy, frilly skirts and shiny, black Mary Janes that pinched my feet when I tried to run on the playground. Monkey bars were out of the question, because what if I flipped upside down and someone saw my underwear?
Daniel wears bright yellow pants and shines like the sun. Daniel wears a cherry red jacket and cheeks that turn the same shade when he skateboards by the beach. Daniel wears a rainbow top and a matching smile. Daniel wears pink and purple and hearts and flowers and he is all of those things.
Even into adulthood, my mom has tried to get me to dress more femininely. A couple of years ago, she sent me a pink cardigan with ruffles around the buttons. Ruffles! Anyone who knows me knows that I DO NOT wear ruffles. My prom dress was a black, strapless, floor-length tube that I fell in love with because I thought the body-con style was sexy. When I put it on, my mom said “I always thought you would look more like a princess for your prom.” I thought, “Has she met me?”
Childhood is different today. Children have so much more autonomy. They are encouraged to express themselves and argue with their parents. I didn’t even have the self-knowledge or the words to tell my mom that I didn’t like the outfits she chose for me. And now there is much more flexibility in gender norms. But this flexibility is skewed one way – girls can do “boy” things but boys still are not as free to do “girl” things.
Why is a girl encouraged to play with a truck, but when a boy picks up a doll, we gasp? Why can a girl wear a dragon shirt, but if a boy wears shoes that sparkle, we grumble? Why do we push our daughters to learn STEM, but don’t teach our sons to be caregivers? When there are still things that are only for girls, true equality cannot be achieved.
It’s not easy to shift. When I see my son wearing flowery leggings, I want to tell him that people are going to think he’s a girl and he should pick something else. But if he doesn’t care what people think, why should I? He knows who he is just like I always knew who I was, only he’s more sophisticated at expressing himself. My son is part of a generation that is paving the way to the end of the misogyny that still lingers like a gossipy whisper. Let’s support our kids as they slay this dragon.