A slightly different version of this originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.
Awhile back my 5-year-old son was choosing his clothes for school when he came upon his skirt that I’d “accidentally” stashed in a small bundle at the back of his pajama drawer. He was so excited, “Look Mom, here’s my special skirt.” The skirt had been a gift for him one Christmas.
His sister had recently turned 2 and received a plethora of cute dresses of differing colors, styles, and materials. She paraded them to the party goers with the expertise of a runway model at fashion week. Finally declaring the garish bedazzled patchwork dress of orange, pink, and purple her favorite, and telling me I could donate the cute little black dress with red cherries which I had chosen to the second-hand store.
That night tucking my son in, he earnestly asked why his sister always got so many special clothes and always looked so colorful and beautiful, while his clothes were always so boring? Why couldn’t he have beautiful clothes? Then, the next time we went shopping he started looking at the girl’s clothing and declared he wanted a beautiful dress.
So that Christmas, on my lunch break, I made a visit to the kid’s department in search of something super special just for him. While his sister was dressed almost solely in hand-me-downs and cheap dresses from K-Mart (apart from the aforementioned glitzy dresses from Grandma), I bought my son a high-end girl’s skirt form a fancy kid’s designer. Unsurprisingly he was ecstatic, he raced to put it on and danced and twirled about in front of grandma and grandpa getting lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs.”
But as his first day of school approached I felt a twinge of nervousness. The skirt was fine at home and to the local park but what if he wanted to wear it on his first day? I decided to not let it have too prominent a position in the drawers, just in case.
After being reunited with his rainbow striped skirt with little glass beads on the drawer string, he went to tell me how one of the girls in his grade had exactly the same skirt and he would really like to wear it to school today. My heart started to race, “I really think it needs a good iron,” I said, buying time. “And we’re running late today. What about I iron it for you while you’re at school and it will be ready for you when you get home?”
It’s a funny thing how having the pigeon pair, one boy and one girl, highlights exactly how gendered kids are from the moment they enter this world. I would feel my heckles rise as with the almost daily comments on my 2-year-old’s looks. (“Such a beautiful girl!” exclaims the grocer/childcare worker/old Greek neighbor/total random stranger on the street), and I’d always assumed it would be this gendering of my daughter that would cause me the greatest struggle.
Before her birth, I was adamant there would be no pink clothing, no Barbies, no princess parties and no constant valuing of how she looked instead of what she could do. Well, the tidal wave of pink started at birth and the anti-pink stance lasted just a few brief weeks before her diaper leaked on the 6th jumpsuit for the day and having no clean clothes I pulled out one of the bags of stashed pink baby clothing still in their wrappers.
There was no turning back. It wasn’t long until I bought some pink and purple striped leggings I’d had my eyes on since her birth. (I mean, really, she looked so cute in them!) The floodgates had opened. I started to accept the bags of pink second-hand clothing from the playgroup moms, and then before long we were watching the Disney princess movies (I mean, Tinkerbel is really just an engineer in a skirt), buying Dora the Explorer undies and although I’d still never let a Barbie cross the threshold, we have arrived in a place I never dreamed I’d be.
It took me a while to realize that managing my little girls’ toddler clothing, toys, and compliments was actually not such a struggle. Yes, the daily comments on her blond hair, blue eyed cuteness were annoying, but they seemed easy enough to balance with the congratulations she received on the other milestones a 2-year-old reaches each day (“Wow! Are you really using a fork all by yourself?”). And really she could have a fairy dress one day and builders’ overalls and a flannel shirt the next; she could play with Thomas the Tank Engine and have a doll’s house to play mommies and daddies. You could compliment her on how high her Lego tower was and how cute her new hairclip looked. No one blinked an eye. It was like all the doors were open to her. There were no narrow boxes for her, she could jump into a new gender category every day, or minute, as she pleased.
Not so for my son. While girls can be tomboys, boys in a skirt were a much more challenging quandary. Looking at some online forums on the topic, there was the full spectrum of responses from total support for a child’s right to choose, to complete outrage. The outrage fell into two distinct camps, the “raise your son as a man” camp and the “cruelty to children” camp.
It was this second camp that really hit home for me. While I totally believed children, well really everyone, should be able to wear whatever they wanted, I was completely petrified not only of what the other children would think of my son in his layered lollipop rainbow skirt, but what the other parents would think of me! I called my partner at work, and gave him a quick overview. “Lucy, I really don’t think it’s a good idea to let him.” Yes, yes, I think I might feel the same way, but how to tell that to a 5-year-old?
As the clock ticked closer to 3:30pm, I had an assortment of possible spiels for my son. I wanted to be honest, but also feared that then he would see the real truth, that I was too embarrassed and weak to stand up for what I truly believed in. I wanted him to have an understanding of the real world and its spectrum of beliefs, but without the whole killing a wild animal with a gun analogy. How to let him in on the secret that girls could wear clothing from both sides of the spectrum, but as he was a boy he must wear “boring” boys clothes, or risk…or risk what exactly? Being seen as gay? As a girl? As a freak?
I wasn’t sure exactly, and to be honest the first thoughts I had were really just an assortment of ways to avoid the situation, tell him the school wouldn’t allow him to wear girl’s clothing; burn a hole in the dress with the iron; take him to the shops and let him choose other exciting boy’s clothing instead; anything, just don’t let me have to walk through the school gates with him in a skirt!!
Finally I decided that having already done many a discussion with him about boys’ and girls’ toys, (which generally went along the lines of, “some people believe there are boys’ and girls’ toys, but I believe kids should be able to play with whatever they like and that boys’ and girls’ toys don’t really exist”), it didn’t seem like too great a jump to apply this same argument to clothes, and then encourage him to just wear the skirt in a happy, safe place (that is, home) and not upset all the other folk with their silly closed-minded ideas.
That night I told our son that while I didn’t believe there was really a difference that mattered between boys’ and girls’ clothing, most people did. So wearing a skirt to school would be very challenging for other people. I went on to say that he could always wear his skirt at home and with our family and friends, and that we should save his special skirt for a school dress-up day, when everyone would be more accepting of wearing different clothing. My son wasn’t having a bar of it. “I don’t care what other people think,” he said with a confidence that made my heart sing and quake in equal measures. “If I get teased, I’ll just ignore them.” “OK,” I relented.
The next morning as we got ready for school, the skies opened up and my son declared today too cold and wet for his skirt. Relief flooded through me as I returned the freshly ironed skirt to his drawers. Then that day after school, he showed me the “wacky bands” his best friend had given to him (colored elastic bands in the shape of animals—for those of you free from the consumer culture of 6-year-olds), thus beginning a month-long obsession in his class, and the rainbow skirt spent the next year unworn until it was outgrown and handed down to his sister.
And yet I still feel a deep shame when I see her wear it. I wonder if I really would have let him walk out the door that morning if it hadn’t been raining. I think I probably wouldn’t have. I think I would have given my son his first lesson in peer pressure, that what other people thought of you was more important than what you thought of yourself. That your true feelings were something to be kept private and only shared with people you trusted. I felt like a bad role model, like someone who wished for a better, more open minded world, but was too scared to take the first step.