Whether she identifies as a boy or a girl hardly matters, as long as she never feels trapped in a place or a persona that no longer fits.
Today my daughter is wearing blue camouflage shorts, a white collared shirt and a necktie with thick blue stripes. It’s the beginning of third grade and this is the outfit she has chosen to make an impression on her classmates. She wore the necktie last year, for school picture day and then again on the day I married her stepdad. Sometimes she adds a black fedora or a colorful vest, but that blue tie is what she wears whenever she feels like celebrating. And third grade is something to celebrate.
“Mama,” she says, “does this outfit look cool?”
She already knows the answer. I see her looking in her bedroom mirror, turning this way and that, posing like the singer in her favorite music video.
“Definitely,” I tell her. “Totally cool.”
“Yeah,” she says, already turning back toward the mirror. “It does, doesn’t it?”
Not everyone agrees. Last year, during the final weeks of second grade, a teacher stopped me on the playground, where I was volunteering at the time, to tell me how Angie had come to her to report that a group of boys were teasing her about that necktie.
“She said, ‘but I’m a tomboy and this is how I like to dress,'” the teacher told me.
My heart ached as I pictured it: My daughter, standing there, in the middle of these taunting boys, wearing her most beloved item of clothing—the piece that she feels best expresses who she is—only to be harassed for it. I was sad and furious, all at once. I wanted to find the boys, ask them who they thought they were and what made them authorities on what other people should be wearing.
There is no shortage of authorities on the subject of what boys and girls should wear, what they should play with or how they should act. Magazines, shopping catalogs, television advertisements, department stores, and even fast-food restaurants neatly divide children into categories. Blue things and dinosaurs are for boys. Pink things and cupcakes are for girls. Hello Kitty? Girls. Spiderman? Boys. The lines almost never blur, unless you’re a 7-year-old girl in a necktie.
On our morning walks to school, some mothers show their disapproval, with wide eyes that move from Angie’s gray tuxedo vest down to her neon sneakers and her socks, one red and one royal blue. I see confusion on their faces whenever she wears her green satin jacket over a black Jaws T-shirt. Meanwhile, their daughters are wearing dresses, pastel and frilly, with ruffles and bows, their hair pulled into neat ponytails or tidy braids. They look like walking, talking American Girl dolls, which is great, because that’s what they like.
My daughter is different. She doesn’t care for dolls, and she certainly doesn’t want to look like one. She would claw my eyes out if I ever tried to braid her hair. Whenever I suggest a dress, her upper lip curls toward her tiny nose. She is into other things: robots and rocks, spaceships and superheroes. She wears blue, never pink, and prefers her hair hanging loose, in her eyes whenever possible. Her outfits are a medley of colors, textures, and styles, all chosen because they make her feel good about herself.
Disapproving mothers speak with their eyes, but kids are much more candid. At the playground, they ask Angie if she’s a boy or girl, presumably because she isn’t wearing sparkles or playing house. People, even children, have strong, fixed ideas about how we are supposed to act. Anything that falls beyond the boundaries of expectation is puzzling. And while it irritates me when people assume my daughter is a boy, Angie just shrugs it off. “I’m a girl,” she tells them. “But I like boy stuff.”
If this doesn’t bother my daughter, then why does it bother me? I won’t lie. I encourage her to find female playmates and to wear something purple or pink. Now and then I buy a simple dress and hang it in her closet without comment, to see if maybe, just maybe, she might try it on. She does, but then she puts it back on the hanger.
Last year she and I watched “Mulan,” the Disney classic about a girl who conceals her gender in order to fight against an invading army. Angie fell in love with the story and asked for a Mulan doll—so I ordered one that night, even springing for the two-day shipping. She played with the doll for a few days. Now it sits at the bottom of her toy box. She has since moved on to another movie, about a boy who trains dragons. She dresses like Hiccup, the misfit Viking who, of course, becomes the hero.
None of this worried me, really, until one Sunday afternoon when my husband had a few guy friends over to eat pizza and watch football. During halftime, Angie told me she would rather be a boy. Her revelation, if that’s what it was, flustered me, and I wondered whether my child had just articulated a desire to change her gender. The possibility of that is terrifying, not because it’s something I am ashamed of but because the last thing I want for my child is to feel like she doesn’t belong in her own body. Whether she identifies as a boy or a girl hardly matters, as long as she never feels trapped in a place or a persona that no longer fits.
I remind myself that these worries are premature, that I have to trust Angie to figure out Angie. Right now, her world is full of messages about boy stuff and girl stuff, about expectations and stereotypes, about what’s appropriate for one gender but inappropriate for the other. Nearly everything she encounters is split down the middle: girls’ section or boys’ section, pink or blue, princesses or superheroes, kittens or puppies, Barbie dolls or racecars. If everything she loves is in the so-called boy category, is it any wonder she would classify herself in that way? Is it any surprise she would reduce herself to the term “tomboy” rather than explain to other kids why she likes the things she likes? Explaining risks misunderstanding, and misunderstanding risks rejection.
Am I in denial about my daughter’s gender identity? I don’t think so. On that day when her teacher told me about the necktie and the teasing boys, after my sadness and anger diminished, I felt a deep, distinct sense of gratitude—not only because my daughter is confident enough to be who she wants to be and like what she wants to like, but also because I am raising her to be that way.
In our home, in our life together, Angie can be whatever she wants. One day, she is a nurturing mother to her stuffed animals. The next, she is a busy waiter named Mike who serves pizza made out of Play-Doh. Either way, she is accepted. No matter what, she is loved.
Angie is doing what children are supposed to do. She is trying on different identities to see which fits the best. She has a lot of years to figure out who and what she wants to be. This is only the beginning.
Perhaps other peoples’ reactions to my daughter bother me because I don’t want to see her being teased. No parent wants that, really. As the new school year gets underway, I brace myself for how other kids will see her. Will they find the cool kid with her own sense of style, or will they see someone they don’t understand? That’s beyond my control.
One of the hardest parts of parenting is standing back while your child navigates a world where there will always be someone waiting to tease her, for one reason or another. Maybe now it’s a playground bully. Perhaps later it will be a difficult coworker or an overbearing boss. If Angie can stick up for herself at 7 years old, she ought to be able to do it at 20 or 30. That is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to be grateful for.
This kid, already, has what it takes to get through difficult times. She’s got spunk, poise, and self-assurance—not to mention, a really cool necktie.
Photo of Angie provided by the author
Wendy Fontaine’s writing has previously appeared on the Huffington Post, Utne Reader, Brain Child magazine, Mamamia, iVillage Australia, and a handful of literary magazines. You can read more of her here at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/