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Boys Wearing Dresses

There was an article in the New York Times this week about boys wearing dresses, exploring the world of genderqueer kids or those with gender fluidity.  As a woman who purchases her superhero t-shirts in the little boys section of stores (and pretty much only wears superhero t-shirts… like the one I have on right now… for Superman), I’m obviously interested in how gender is perceived in dress, how much we try to fit ourselves into labels and how much we twist labels in order to make them fit what we need.

Josh and I have a front row seat to watching how gender identity unfolds since we have boy-girl twins.  They have always been together, never ventured into classes outside the house until they were four years old and went to school for the first time.  All toys were placed on the floor at random, mixed together in boxes, and yet each child gravitated towards certain items and have always done so.  Two kids, two different sexes, raised in the same house with the same toys, hearing the same information and clear gender identities formed.

I wrote this post years ago, back when the twins were five years old, and never posted it.  It has sat in my draft folder until now, when I decided to hit publish.


I recently was playing the BeeGees in the car when the ChickieNob asked if the BeeGees were particularly fancy women. “They’re men,” I answered. Which blew her five-year-old mind.

Now, she can’t stop asking me with every new disc that enters the machine: is this a boy or a girl? And it’s interesting exploring gender studies with a five year old, asking her why it matters or which sex she believes is the owner of the voice.

My great-uncle was one of the worst drivers I ever met. He would go 10 mph on the highways and 70 mph through small towns. And he never, never, never stopped for a red light. Believe it or not, he died of old age and not of a car accident. My cousin and I were staying with him outside of Tel Aviv, clutching the door handle for dear life while he drove, begging him to let us take the wheel even though I hate driving in Israel. He had this tape on continual play our entire trip, so every time we got in the car, Modern Talking was the backdrop to the taking of our life in our own hands.

At one point, my uncle said out of nowhere, “do you think this is a boy or a girl?” (imagine this asked in a very thick Israeli accent, and also imagine some of the words in English, some of the words in German, and some of the words in Hebrew because he mixed up all three languages in most sentences so it came out more like: “do you denken this yeled or yelda?”). I was positive in my answer — it hadn’t even occurred to me that the voice could be anything but: “it’s a woman.”

“It’s a man!” he crowed (okay, it more more like, “Zeh man!”)

My cousin and I, who were way too old to be this giggly, could not breathe when this particular song came on: “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and for years after, we would sing it to each other in this beautiful falsetto. Maybe it was the nervousness of having our gender beliefs blown out of the water or maybe it was just the fact that we had gone through another red light, the only car moving through an intersection while the traffic was stopped in all four directions, but whenever I think of my cousin, I think of that song and it still cracks me up when I listen to it.

Though I don’t know if I’m laughing over the synthesized voice, my mistake, or the discomfort of having my gender biases pointed out.


Every year in middle school, I taught a philosophy unit using the book Sophie’s World. It’s obviously philosophy lite, where they’re reading the gist of each philosopher’s major ideas and sometimes reading a few lines from an original text. Each child had to do some additional research for their term paper, which meant sometimes handling the original text, but for the most part, we’re talking about 8th graders who had just started figuring out that they needed to wear deodorant everyday rather than only on special occasions so we need to frame this story properly.

Sometimes, though, the kids would say something truly brilliant — something that adults completely missed with the text — simply because they were processing it from a different point in life.

One day, a student had these really brilliant thoughts on Plato’s Republic, so I wrote an old friend (fine, it was an ex-boyfriend) about it, believing he would also marvel at the genius of this child in the same way that I had. I’m not sure why I believed this beyond the fact that this ex-boyfriend enjoyed Plato’s Republic because this man also literally had no heart. He was built with a shriveled up nubbin of a peach pit where his heart was supposed to be.  And he responded to my lengthy, gushing email, the one where I called this child a genius and explained how smart he was and how proud I was that he had come to this interpretation on his own with a bloated, self-important note that could only be written by someone who has a moldy, festering apple core in place of his heart that began: “Well, that is the most basic and rudimentary reading of Plato.”  Which is what you get when you share excitement with someone who has a rancid sesame seed beating in his chest.


The point is that don’t we, simply be the fact that we don’t have the “original text” only have a rudimentary and basic understanding of what is happening around us? The Wolvog smacked his sister three times today. Which meant that we had three separate discussions in his bedroom rocking chair. Which meant that I spent almost an hour during the last discussion staring at my ceiling and waiting for him to call me back into the room because he was giving the question of why he was beating up his sister a great deal of thought.

And what I understood on the surface was that something was bothering him. It was my rudimentary and basic, albeit brilliant, understanding of the situation. And the original text, the one that only the Wolvog has access to (since we are all the owners of a single original text of our life), finally paged open in the 11th hour and revealed that he was upset that his friend had moved away that day. And thinking back, the smacking did begin the moment we returned to the house after greeting our new neighbours. This new interpretation of the events brought with it a long cry on the part of the Wolvog; that he was finally not just a brat punching his sister in the face, but he was hurting tremendously and unable to explain it to me without a lot of self-research. Guided self-research.

It always make you wonder how much you miss since you only have access to the surface. A smile could just be a reflex and all may not be fine with that person I pass at the library. That person sniffling and telling me that it’s allergies could be covering up a long cry session in a nearby bathroom. You just don’t know.  By which I mean, don’t we all have a rudimentary understanding of all we encounter? Aren’t we all 8th graders at heart, only getting the summary and not the original text? You experience your emotions in paragraphs and footnotes and I get them — even in a blog post — in the condensed form.

You’re okay.

You’re sad.

We make a lot of assumptions. A collective we. Humans, in general.

The twins were talking about what makes something for girls or for boys. What they meant, I realized early on, is that they were choosing their own interests and deeming them feminine or masculine. Noodles, mermaids, and fairies were feminine. Apples, cars, and computers were masculine. They grudgingly agreed that ballet fell on a middle ground since the Wolvog enjoys watching the ballet as well as screaming, “grand battement!” while trying to kick his sister’s head. (Are you sensing a theme?)

Pink, turquoise, gold, and orange have been commandeered by team girl.

Purple, blue, and grey have been claimed by team boy.

And all of it is so surface, what we notice. What we assume.  I think we should constantly be confronted and examine our gender biases in order to move past them and not allow social constructs to define us or limit us.  I would really like the twins to define their own girlness or boyness rather than having that dictated to them; shamed into them.

I think we start by challenging ourselves to think about how we not only define ourselves, but how we automatically define one another. As male or female. As happy or sad. As owner of a normal heart or owner of a discarded popcorn kernel — you know the one I’m talking about; the one that even the most hardcore unpopped kernel-eater discards from the salty remains at the bottom of the bowl.

You can probably guess from this post how I feel about labels.


1 KeAnne { 08.12.12 at 9:45 am }

I love how you always make me think! Thank you for that. I am super impressed that you taught your 8th graders Sophie’s World! I taught a unit on existentialism to 10th graders during student teaching & they didn’t quite get it. I had fun though!

Your post reinforces my belief that we are all ultimately unknowable to anyone but ourselves (and maybe not even ourselves unless we are reflective). It’s very lonely to think that but at the same time, blogging has made me more empathetic, more curious to try to delve deeper into another person’s text and figure out who they really are and what is between the lines.

As for gender, my son’s favorite color is purple. We are trying very hard to let him define for himself what being a boy means. It’s easy at 3, but I know it will get harder as he gets older. As for myself, I always considered myself a fairly girly girl as a child but now in my 30s, I feel less feminine. It’s how I think of and perceive myself despite wearing dresses (I prefer them), wearing makeup, jewelry, cooking etc. I’m not sure when my feelings changed. Was it IF? Was it due to my job & how I am known as a truth teller & someone unafraid to speak up? Is it aging? It’s very odd.

2 BigP's Heather { 08.12.12 at 9:52 am }

Wow. I’m struggling with gender issues right now. K is using “he/she” interchangeably when talking about people or animals and I’m not correcting her. Right now she doesn’t know that there is a difference between people – everyone is unique to her. I just don’t want to get started with dividing everyone we meet into boy/girl for her and that there is a difference.

In other news, I’m wearing grey pants today which are very masculine.

3 tigger62077 { 08.12.12 at 11:04 am }

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender roles, and how to explain things to Cole as he grows up. It started with a dialogue with a friend about how she has to lock her boys out of the bathroom when she’s showering because she’s tired of the “why do you have this and I don’t?” questions. So I was showering the other day (OMG!) and thinking about how to explain things to Cole. “Well, mommy is a girl and you are a boy and daddy is a boy. What makes us girls and boys are the different parts we have.” And then I got to thinking about transgendered and other exceptions, and how I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach him black and white “those with breasts are girls, those with penises are boys” because it’s not always true. Husband tells me “get the basics down, he can learn the rest later”…and while true, we do a lot of forming before we even go to school, and kids DO identify as something other than their visible selves even in school. I’ve actually found my own perceptions in these areas being challenged, simply because in thinking through them my own prejudices jump out and surprise me because really? I didn’t realize I had them, and that means it’s time to change them.

Gender and lifestyle have been on my mind a lot lately. I want to teach my son tolerance, and yet you shouldn’t tolerate intolerance…and doesn’t that then make you intolerant? I want him to stick up for others and be able to defend himself, but I don’t want him to think violence is an answer (even though sometimes it’s the only answer there is). Heavens, raising children is hard. It really makes you question the things you believe and how you are going to express that to someone else.

4 Rae { 08.12.12 at 1:01 pm }

This American Life ran an episode in 2009 called Somewhere Out There. The third act is called Tom Girls and is about a couple transgendered children. It deals with clothes, the perception and reaction of others, and the children’s point of view. You might find it interesting. It can be listened to online

5 Mali { 08.12.12 at 7:12 pm }

This is really interesting. I grew up as a tall, strong, fast girl in a family of tall, strong fast girls, on a farm. So we never really had to distinguish between girls’ things and boys’ things. (I’m lucky that these were the days before the unrelenting pinkness of girls’ things.) When our boy cousins visited, they were the ones who were scared, tentative, weak. Our school was so small, we all pitched together and played the same games. Yet we knew we were different, and my closest friends were always girls.

I totally agree with you that it is all assumption anyway. I’ve seen something similar in terms of culture/nationality. I have two Chinese sisters-in-law. It has been fascinating seeing them assume that certain behaviours are “kiwi” when actually, they are simply familial behaviours (of our husbands’ family), and I find most of these behaviours just as foreign as they do. Then other times, I have to explain certain behaviours as being part of a NZ/kiwi/western culture, not just perceived “oddness” from the family. It has made me think, and taught me the power and dangers of assumption.

6 jjiraffe { 08.12.12 at 7:21 pm }

I very strenuously built a nursery of gender neutral toys: I did not want to dictate to the twins that they have to be a certain way or like certain things. I wanted them to be open to any activity or color or book, Legos or musical instruments.

So it’s been perplexing to see them gravitate toward the most opposite ends of the toy spectrum. My son will turn sticks, rocks and even toilet paper rolls into things to use to push and show aggressive, while my daughter refuses to wear pants, no matter how much I encourage them. (And then I try to not encourage pants: reverse psychology!)

My daughter went through a phase of telling women with short hair that they were boys. It was mortifying and one of the women was very offended. I felt awful for her and explained to my daughter that women came in many sizes and shapes, with short hair and long hair. She finally understood. I though a lot about my daughter’s insistence during Up Popped a Fox’s essay at VOTY. I loved that essay because it was about how we define ourselves and letting go of how others define us.

Anyway, I’ve always wanted to hear more about the rancid sesame seed ex-boyfriend. He sounds like a real douche.

7 loribeth { 08.12.12 at 8:53 pm }

People would never believe it now (I find it kind of hard to believe myself), but when I was a pre-schooler, I was something of a tomboy. My best buddies were a family of three boys across the street, and my hero was Chuck Connors of the The Rifleman. I begged for — and got — a toy rifle for my birthday. There is a photo of me in a crinoline, proudly wielding my rifle. I sometime wonder how my life would have turned out if we had stayed there & not moved.

8 a { 08.12.12 at 11:13 pm }

My daughter is currently and aggressively labeling things boy things and girl things. And then I tell her that it doesn’t matter – that girls enjoy boy things and boys enjoy girl things. I think it’s mostly a drive to categorize things in order to understand them better. But she is able to make the connection when she says that video games are boy things and I say “but you like to play Angry Birds and that’s a video game.”

You taught 8th graders Sophie’s World? You must be an awesome teacher then! I just read it this year, and liked most of it (but I thought the ending felt like there was nowhere else to go so it just stopped).

I was not necessarily a tomboy, but I wasn’t girly and I always hung out with the boys. I kinda see my girl headed in the same direction, but I think she’s more susceptible to the peer pressure from other girls to like girly things. Either way, it’s fine, but I’d rather she didn’t limit her options. I’ll try to prevent that.

9 persnickety { 08.13.12 at 12:12 am }

I sometimes think, for all of our freedoms today, and the (semi) acceptance of transgender, gender roles are becoming more rigid.

The explosion of pink in the toy aisles (the boys one is not so universally blue) tells girls that there are very rigid lines on gender. 100 years ago, if you were not happy in the gender you were, you could move and become someone else. This worked better for women to men, than men to women, but there was that possibility. Now, with all of the data that follows us, no chance.
I choose to go to an all women’s college (in part because I wanted to study history and political science, which were a male classmate informed me high school, for boys, and I was sick of having to be the token girl). One of discussion points at college was what would happen for a trans ftm who had attended our school- for the rest of his life he would be giving potential employers documented evidence of being a woman previously- even if living as a male. It is a question that is an issue today for the school.
I have just finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, and I was struck by her alternating use of pronouns when speaking in the abstract. One of the chapters is about raising introvert children, and in one sentence she will use she, and the next concept she uses he. I like it, but it was noticeable, which tells me that most of the time authors are still defaulting to one or the other.

10 Bea { 08.13.12 at 1:19 am }

Gender roles. What strikes me is the power of subtle cues – like parent and peer modelling, of course (before school, PB was working hard at becoming “like Dad because we’re the boys” rather than masculine in any more general sense, now his classmates have an influence, too), but also things like societal expectation.

Like everyone who ever looked at PB askance when he did something “girly” and enthused at him when he did something “boyish”. Or automatically and without thinking suggested a game with the trucks instead of the dolls.

I notice already that SB and I – most powerfully, perhaps at this stage, I – get disapproving looks over acts that would have been laughed off with PB because “that’s how boys are”. And don’t get me started on what happens when you hit the playground.

So yes, there is a lot of power in the expectations and assumptions that people have about us. And it works both ways – much as we can be abused through those labels, it is possible to use them to our own ends. We can present ourselves in certain ways to make people form certain assumptions about what’s underneath the surface. The stuff of con-artists, at its worst.

But the truth is every person behind every counter of every office doesn’t have time to get to know us, so we do need to know how to give a shorthand summary of the essential things about us we want that person to know. There’s too many relationships and not enough time. Think of how you might dress professionally for a job interview, for example. You can cry foul over such tactics, whinging because you have all the skills needed to do the job, but none of the skills needed to make others believe it – and don’t get me wrong, this is one of my favourite pastimes because I suck at making people believe in my skills – and of course you should work hard to stamp out widespread discrimination based on race, gender, accent or whatever, but at the end of the day I think it’s foolish to refuse to manage our image or to teach our children to refuse to manage theirs.

And when it comes to their assumptions about others, I’m in favour of teaching them that intuition isn’t nothing, it’s just not everything either. (I’m in the middle of writing a post wherein I teach PB how to label people.)

It’s a delicate and complicated balance.

11 Justine { 08.13.12 at 2:59 am }

I was hoping you’d write in response to this article. I have the same hope that you do, that my children will develop gender on their terms, not on someone else’s. I’ve watched my daughter gravitate away from the toys that were her brother’s, and engage in more “girly” play (dolls, necklaces, etc.), but I also see her play with cars, and she loves legos (the non-pink kind, thank you very much), and other things. And while my son is a boy-boy when it comes to vehicles, he loves to dress up and play act and be “fancy.” I think that gender fluidity at an early age is more acceptable than it used to be, which I think is good … it means that our kids are THINKING about gender before they accept it. We’ve had quite a few occasions to talk about gender performance recently … just tonight, in fact, watching Stuart Little, George is knocked down by a boy whom my son thought was a girl … and I asked him why he thought that. It turned into a discussion about hair, and dress, and attitude. All interesting, as he’s going to be in first grade in public school for the first time in just two weeks (sucking in my breath … feeling nervous about that one).

My daughter is 18 months old, but one of the words she knows and uses well, in context, to communicate to us, is “happy.” I think that teaching kids how to express who they are, to express the complicated things like gender, or emotion, in shorthand that the world can understand, preferably without judgement.

12 Cristy { 08.13.12 at 3:10 am }

It’s always an interesting exercise to explore gender and how we define it, both as individuals as well as a society. Too often, people point to the physical aspects, assuming biology has giving us the answer. To learn that gender isn’t defined as either/or, but more along the lines of to what degree, is something we all have to grapple with at some point.

In college, I took a genders studies course. What it challenged me to analyze was how we define someone as being male or female. All aspects were explored from the more obvious (transexuals, hermaphrodites, etc) to the less obvious (tomboys, sensitive males and those who are gender neutral). What I learned is that gender to used as more than simply a means of reproduction and equally complex to understand.

What’s always amazing to me, though, is that children raised in gender neutral surroundings still find ways of defining their gender very early on. Even if they display gender neutral tendances (i.e. boys wearing nail-polish), they still find a way to segregate. Some claim it’s because of cues given by the parents, but I find it hard not to believe that it isn’t something innate. That we know who we are from very early on.

13 Stinky { 08.13.12 at 4:37 am }

Gender stuff absolutely fascinates me (I’ve got half a blog post on this too), it took me about 25 years before I realised femininity wasn’t just about hair and make-up and looking pretty – up until then I’d never felt connected to womanhood and always kind on the spectrum between male and female. Media influence is so huge on gender roles, I think. Every so often (my job brings me into ‘contact’ with preschoolers) I see children who I can never determine whether they are boy or girl straightaway, and am always struck by the ‘need’ to figure out which they are. And when there’s little boys playing dress up in fairy outfits, my heart just melts (yes, that icy brick does occasionally thaw) for that innocence and lack of selfconsciousness. Then again, languages (not English, obviously, but I know certainly French, German and I guess Spanish -they’re just the ones I know about) all group objects as male or female – I just can’t get my head around how this is determined. Its as basic as that!

Would have loved to do a gender studies class, didn’t even know these existed til much older. I have a friend who is transgendered (M2F) who has researched gender issues quite extensively, which has further piqued my interest. A walk across town with her is quite enlightening, the amount of staring and bitchy comments she deals with on a daily basis must need such a thick skin (then again, she doesn’t exactly do discreet – why is it the MTF people I have seen have always presented so much *more* female than the ordinary female? My “rudimentary understanding” of bigotry?). And yes, she applies for jobs as female, which I don’t think really helps the jobsearch when it comes to interview (although I can completely understand why you would write the gender you identify as, more to the point, I can’t understand why positions would require you to stipulate gender in this day and age)

14 Elizabeth { 08.13.12 at 6:55 am }

One thing I find frustrating about the church we attend is how rigidly gender is defined – from birth, even. Boy toys vs. girl toys, colors, etc. My girl never liked baby dolls but they are pushed into her arms. My boy wore a Hello Kitty shirt (black, with pink glitter rainbow) yesterday and was immediately told “that’s a girl’s shirt!” (he’s 2, doesn’t yet differentiate – but knows it’s his favorite shirt!). From time to time I’ll also hear my husband say things that make me cringe and it starts to feel like such an uphill battle.

15 lostintranslation { 08.13.12 at 9:05 am }

My son is very much into boy-specific toys and stuff, but the best birthday gift he got last year (when he turned 2) was a pink toy stroller. He also prefers the pink plate and cutlery over the other colors. All other small kids are still ‘garçons’ to him and never ‘filles’, that will probably change once he goes to preschool in September…

16 Emily @ablanket2keep { 08.13.12 at 1:57 pm }

In my family all my cousins played with all different toys. Boys played with barbies and girls played with GI joe and wrestling action figures. When the girls were playing dress up the boys joined in with high heels and dresses and even painted their nails. The girls played sports and dug in the mud. We all did everything and I love how we grew up. I will have have all different toys for any gender. I have no issue bringing out my old dolls and barbies if we have a boy. I say let them chose for themselves including what they want to wear.

17 loribeth { 08.14.12 at 8:43 am }

Back to say I am midway through reading the NYT article… but I keep thinking about the case of David Reimer (who sadly committed suicide in 2004 at age 38). He was from my home province, which is one reason why his story has stayed with me through the years:


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