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Clothes have no gender. It’s true. That dress is not a girl’s dress. It’s a piece of fabric that covers the skin. The “girl’s shoes” the neighbor kid gushed about, are not “girl’s” shoes, they are cute boots with a unicorn on them to protect her feet. Nowadays, gender fluid fashion is more common. Big stars like Pharell Williams, who speaks about changing the landscape of masculinity, incorporates bright colors, dresses, skirts and movement into his style while Harry Styles December Vogue cover featured a beautiful flowing dress and painted nails. Famous women from Marlene Dietrich, to Janelle Monae have been sporting menswear since the 1940’s. Latinx designers have embraced fashion outside the binary for a while now while womenswear in general is showcasing women’s styles beyond the hyper-feminine options of the past, and according to GQ magazine menswear skirts may be making an appearance in the mainstream. Is it ground breaking to see the rich and famous or designers with gender bending fashion? No, not really. Fashion is art, and art is gender non conforming. It’s easier for well known individuals to wear a variety of clothes and to overcome gender norms altogether, we see it all the time.
For people like us (the commoners), we also see changes happening across the globe that reveal clothes have no gender, albeit on a smaller scale. A private school, in London, may be promoting skirts as part of boys’ uniforms , a boy in Spain was sent to the high school psychologist for wearing a skirt and male teachers across the country donned skirts themselves to stand in solidarity with the student. They’ve started a clothes have no gender campaign #LaRopaNoTieneGenero. We see parents embracing a wider variety of gender expression, showing off their little boys twirling in dresses on instagram like this cafe mom article and in their everyday life such as this dad’s moving account at the father hood blog. I applaud these parents, they are overcoming gender barriers, and let me tell you that is not easy. The problem is many of these examples are costume dresses, from Frozen or similar Disney movies. A few instances of this will not be enough to overcome the gender barrier that continues to exist for children. A barrier that in my opinion is one of the easiest and hardest to overcome, easy in its execution, difficult due to our fear of rejection .
As gender creative parents we can easily participate in this movement. Personally, I find “boys” clothes have less gender barriers than “girls” clothes. Often, my daughter’s dark blue dinosaur shirt is just a shirt. She is not ignored, given awkward glances, or asked why she chose it. At other times, she is mistaken for a long haired boy if she is not wearing a pastel color somewhere on her body. I’ve heard “Why won’t they play with me mommy? I told them I was a girl”. Ever so slowly she has learned to add pink or light purple somewhere on her outfit so girls can identify her, because they have been mistakenly taught to only play with other girls and not to trust gender without the external cues the world is obsessed with. As a parent this is heartbreaking.
Now, my son has a much bigger hurdle in the clothing and accessory department. The glittery pink unicorn headband he asked for got him laughed at by a family member because “boys don’t wear that”. The finger nail polish he wore to daycare was thrown out because a 7 year old claimed “boys don’t wear nail polish”. He couldn’t enjoy the ballerina costume from the costume bin because a family member’s smile dropped when he appeared and they said “oh I thought you’d choose the police uniform”. Again, ever so slowly, over 4.5 years my son learned to hate “pretty” things. He says “pretty” because he knows it’s sexist to hate “girl” or “feminine” things, and yet he still needs words to express his anger at the ever decreasing box society forces his essence into. Tragic.
YOUR WORDS MATTER.
So, my kids were raised that clothes have no gender but at 4.5 years old my son hates “pretty” things and my daughter cannot go out into the world without pink or purple on. Welcome. These are the hurdles of gender creative parenting. First, you will have to explain gender creative parenting to everyone THEN you will have to face each negative situation. Don’t forget to hold it together at the park while you watch other parents perpetuate gender inequality making the world a little bit worse for their children and yours.
How do we manage this as parents?
After all that you may still watch your kid(s) conform to what other parents have taught their kids about gender. Take a deep breath and try not to scream into your pillow, (or do if it makes you more comfortable, I’m not here to judge). Don’t despair, because eventually your kids will be old enough to stand up for themselves and not sway in the shadow of others.
At 4.5 years old my kids conformed to sexist gender norms due to past incidents, but just a year later my son asked for a cute animal shirt that was pink because he “likes all colors now”. My daughter can now leave the house without wearing pink (mostly). She is more comfortable with her own choices and feels more confident to express herself. In the past year and a half, due to the Covid pandemic, our kids lived at home without the same criticisms they grew up with in the outside world. This change is a huge comment on how desperately the US wants to continue gender inequality and conformity vs what an inclusive environment, looks like without that oppression.
When our kids peers are being mis-led they will follow, because humans need each other, and belonging is important. Community is everything. This is the cycle that keeps sexism in its place, and this fear of rejection is what keeps parents continuing gender inequality. Do not shame your kids for conforming. Remind yourself this is OK, because our kids are the voice of the future and if we are closing the gender inequality gap they will continue to do so for their peers and their kids. It is our prerogative to keep the messages clear surrounding gender equality and inclusivity, and not waver in our convictions. If we continue to do so gender expression may look completely different for our grandkids. This is how change happens, slowly.
I love this quote by Alexander Leon, the original discusses queer people but I think it really resonates for children too.
Gender expression helps kids find their people. While clothing is just fabric it’s important to add it is used for gender expression. Now, many people outside the gender binary continue to use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” to describe their style choices, this is where it gets tricky for the gender creative parent. How can we tell our kids clothes have no gender when clothes are always categorized on a “masculine” and “feminine” spectrum, not to mention the impossible “gender neutral”? In addition, this spectrum does not include the 3D amorphous blob that engulfs the outside of the spectrum which has not yet been labeled by humanity.
To start, our family calls the “girls” and “boys” section of the store, “both sections”. We do not gender the sections, we go to each shelf and our children pick out what they like best within the appropriate size. What we do is describe the color, fit, or style. “Do you like the peach colored shirt with the sequined narwhal or the dark grey shorts with the white tie? Let’s try them both on and see how they feel”. We talk about movement, creativity of the design, efficiency while climbing a tree or dancing a ballet. We discuss how the child feel’s in it, and we always encourage them to try on things, even if they end up saying no it. Clothing is an excellent way to help your kids value their own opinions, they get to say no. It’s the same for online shopping.
This will be useful until our kids can read, but by that time we hope they know they are allowed to shop in all the sections without worry. However, if masculine and feminine labels work for your family go for it! Gender creative parents do not have to live in the box of label-less options, we appreciate all genders, and our only goal is to encourage our kids to try everything, so they can be their authentic selves, it is not to demonize masculinity or femininity. In fact labeling and offering all options may help bolster femininity, but it keeps everything in the binary, it is up to you and your family to decide.
We also make sure to discuss gender as an adjective that relates to the person. A dress on a boy is a boy’s dress, a dress on a girl is a girl’s dress, a dress on a nonbinary kid is a kid’s dress. So the neighbor kid’s shoes were girl’s shoes but not for the reasons she thought. This is an important distinction, by switching the narrative from certain objects being for girls, boys and nonbinary kids we instead use the gender adjective with regards to the person’s gender, instead of pretending the object has gender. Gender is a social construct, humans have gender, not objects.
If you have kid(s) younger than 3 you can choose “feminine”, “masculine” and 3D amorphous blob options for your child(ren). Will others be uncomfortable? Yes. I always advise to live outside of your comfort zone, if you’re uncomfortable you’re likely disrupting the status quo. What always helps me while educating against unwanted comments, or loathing looks, is knowing my children are watching me and hearing vocabulary to use when discussing these topics on their own. Create positive talking points for anyone wanting to belittle your child’s clothing or accessories.
These can include…
Yes Grandma, Leon is wearing a dress and he looks fantastic in it! He can run and jump so easy and the colors are beautiful.
Yes Grandma, Sophia loves spider man and picked out that shirt herself! She likes how the sticky web helps spider man climb.
I also remember that as a white cis-gender mother the barriers I will have to navigate are far less than other mothers. Moms like me need to check if it’s our own fears and internalized biases that are stopping us from gender creativity or a real risk, these are not the same and need examination. Use your entitlement to end institutionalized oppression.
For example, when my kids were 2, we were given a tulle filled sparkly bright blue party dress (think Elsa’s dress on steroids). When my son put it on I physically felt the reservations. I was not prepared for this. In true mom fashion I had already over analyzed and stayed awake at the possibilities for this parenting style. I did my research for talking points with family, friends, colleagues and childcare staff. I attuned myself to my own biases so, when he put on that dress I felt those biases go off. It was loud, and uncomfortable. I realized I had to continue to work on my own internalized biases, the hatred of femininity I was raised on by an entire nation, which I discuss in this article, and the transphobic shame that lives at the foundation of every American’s psyche from decades of “manly men” notions. In that moment the fear that encompassed me because we were raising our kids outside of the ever consuming sea of inauthenticity and sexism was palpable. I went to get a drink….of water of course.
This rejection based on a “feminine” gender expression is a main root in our nation’s institutionalized oppression. While my daughter feels forced to focus on pink as a young child she will eventually be allowed a different type of gender expression without as much rejection if she chooses. It is common for cis-gender/trans girls and “femme” non-binary kids to have more clothing options. However, my son, trans boys and “masculine” presenting non binary kids must be wary of this rejection. Unfortunately, our default is to think “femininity” is inferior to “masculinity”. This is why parents are afraid to let their sons wear pink or dresses. They know “feminine” means not valued and this can lead to more serious incidents. Our default is also to think it’s appropriate for girls and femme presenting non binary kids to strive for masculine options to get a head in life. While I love “masculine” options I urge parents to break those bonds and raise “femininity” and the 3D amorphous blob up to their rightful place! Only then will all kids be safe and valued for who they are.
Since the Elsa dress day I continually remind myself about our gender equality goals but still fear for my kids’ rejection. When it happens to you, hold steadfast, find your center, practice your talking points, gender creativity is not the norm…yet. Find your support. My wife helps with this, she stops me when I try to keep “just in case clothes” like the dark blue and green winter jacket for our son when he actually picked the one with gold hearts and pink lining. Finding support is essential. You can check out our facebook and instagram accounts at the bottom of this article to get continued support!
Are you ready for these changes? Are you uncomfortable? Good. Live here with me, and let’s advocate for our kids’ equality together. You can do it.
For more information on gender, kids books with gender inclusivity or parenting books see our GCP library here.
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