A dear friend wrote a touching piece about her son who currently dresses in skirts and flowery shirts. She makes several points we all intrinsically know:
- Girls are encouraged to dress like boys, not vice-versa.
- Boys who dress like girls are shamed, bullied, etc., which is intrinsically misogynistic.
- What a preschooler wears doesn’t mean anything about gender or sexuality or proclivities. It makes them happy. So who cares?
I venture to say anyone reading this blog accepts these points easily.
My friend’s piece took this conversation an illuminating step further by highlighting her pride in her son for emulating the dynamic women in his life. Why shouldn’t he celebrate women, right? Boys celebrate Spider-Man, Elsa, Curious George, Dora and Clifford; why not also surrounding girls and women?
Before my friend published her piece, we discussed her son’s interests and our worries about cultural context and self-expression.
And I was a little flummoxed.
I wanted to say, “It’s all good. Don’t stress it, just let him have fun and express himself and see where it takes him.”
But in reality, I was scarred by my own preschool excitement for dressing as Princess Leia, Daisy Duke and Teela (extra points to those children of the 80’s who can identify her without clicking the hyperlink.)
While I had a great time doing so in preschool and kindergarten (and received no judgment from playmates), it made life a kind of hell for the duration of elementary, junior high and high school.
I wasn’t physically bullied; “merely” teased a fair amount. But the emotional scarring was profound. Every single day I fought obsessively to dispel any assumptions about my sexuality from, well…1st grade through 12th. Those few kids who teased me for “wanting to be a girl in first grade” never let me forget it…for twelve years. (Admittedly, I wasn’t a tough triple athlete, was in the shows, and was more exuberant than most. But purses weren’t spraying out of my mouth, either.) Despite my relatively successful climb up the school’s popularity ladder, I lived in paralyzing paranoia of what others said about me behind my back.
So I don’t know what to say about boys dressing up as girls. Because being teased for something throughout elementary (with an accompanying stigma for the next six years) sucked sucked sucked.
We all have our challenges, they craft our character, suffering makes us stronger, it gets better, blah, blah, blah.
I don’t want my kids to suffer from the crippling paranoia I did. And I don’t really know how to avoid that if my kid chooses to wear dresses to school and if the surrounding kids chide him for it.
What I can do is thank my lucky stars that I live in New York City where transsexuals aren’t shocking and my son’s elementary school will foster his self-expression if he chooses to dress in cereal boxes every day. And yet, if he wanted to dress up in Cap’n Crunch boxes, I’d still worry. Because childhood is hard. Kids are mean.
(Who am I kidding? My kids won’t know about sugar cereals until college…the way I suffered, damn it!)
Fact is: I don’t know what the answer is for parents concerned about behavior that might attract bullying. But whatever that behavior might be, whether it’s dressing in dresses or shaving heads, or being a goth/hippy/wicken/plumber, I will support the hell out of my son and help him feel good about his choices.*
Frankly, my wonderful parents didn’t make me feel good about wanting to dress as Daisy Duke. They succumbed to social convention rather than constructive coping. They told me, “Pretty soon, kids aren’t going to be laughing with you, they’ll be laughing at you.” Ultimately, they were correct. But maybe I didn’t need to be shamed out of it. They might have said, “You be the best Daisy Duke out there, kiddo.” Perhaps that’s why I struggled with paranoia and shame for two decades? I love them, they were great parents, and they’re no longer here.
But I plan to foster the best Daisy Duke out there, if he so chooses. Because more important than my kid avoiding bullying, is that my kid stay true to himself.
I know that first-hand.
I’d rather be a 4-year-old dressing as Daisy Duke and feeling good about it than shamed out of my imaginative play by my parents.
And I expect you other parents to teach your kids about embracing everyone’s self-expression, too.
So the onus is on you.
That’ll make it way easier for me. So. Thanks.
Any stories of fostering self-expression y’all have to dole out?
* As long as he’s not hurting himself or anyone else. Duh.