Writer Sarah Rich launched her Atlantic article by noting that “our son was gearing up to wear a dress to school for quite some time.”
She continued: “For months, he wore dresses—or his purple-and-green mermaid costume—on weekends and after school. Then he began wearing them to sleep in lieu of pajamas, changing out of them after breakfast. Finally, one morning, I brought him his clean pants and shirt, and he looked at me and said, ‘I’m already dressed.'”
Rich went on to describe her conversation with her boy as he “walked the half block to school with a bounce in his step, chest proud” before confessing that his “friends are going to say dresses aren’t for boys.”
But his mom backed him all the way: “They might,” Rich replied to him. “You can just tell them you are comfortable with yourself and that’s all that matters.”
Soon her son’s dress became normal, for all intents and purposes. But in the larger scheme of things, it still wasn’t.
‘To embrace anything feminine, if you’re not biologically female, causes discomfort and confusion…’
“To embrace anything feminine, if you’re not biologically female, causes discomfort and confusion, because throughout most of history and in most parts of the world, being a woman has been a disadvantage. Why would a boy, born into all the power of maleness, reach outside his privileged domain? It doesn’t compute,” she wrote.
More from her piece:
As much as feminism has worked to rebalance the power and privilege between the sexes, the dominant approach to launching young women into positions that garner greater respect, higher status, and better pay still mostly maintains the association between those gains and masculine qualities. Girls’ empowerment programs teach assertiveness, strength, and courage—and they must to equip young women for a world that still overwhelmingly favors men.
Last year, when the Boys Scouts of America announced that they would begin admitting girls into their dens, young women saw a wall come down around a territory that was now theirs to occupy. Parents across the country had argued that girls should have equal access to the activities and pursuits of boys’ scouting, saying that Girl Scouts is not a good fit for girls who are “more rough and tumble.” But the converse proposition was essentially nonexistent: Not a single article that I could find mentioned the idea that boys might not find Boy Scouts to be a good fit—or, even more unspeakable, that they would want to join the Girl Scouts.
If it’s difficult to imagine a boy aspiring to the Girl Scouts’ merit badges (oriented far more than the boys’ toward friendship, caretaking, and community), what does that say about how American culture regards these traditionally feminine arenas? And what does it say to boys who think joining the Girl Scouts sounds fun? Even preschool-age boys know they’d be teased or shamed for disclosing such a dream.
Rich went on to argue that society “isn’t presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world. To carve out a masculine identity requires whittling away everything that falls outside the norms of boyhood. At the earliest ages, it’s about external signifiers like favorite colors, TV shows, and clothes. But later, the paring knife cuts away intimate friendships, emotional range, and open communication.”
Mass shooters and ‘shamed’ young men
The author noted a 2014 documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” which chronicled boys “who present tough exteriors” and admitted to “having suicidal thoughts.” Then it brought up mass shootings from Virginia Tech, Aurora and Sandy Hook — “each committed by a young man.”
“Whether it’s homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when they are feeling shamed and humiliated, or feel they would be, if they didn’t prove that they were real men,” psychiatrist James Gilligan, who directed Harvard’s Center for the Study of Violence, said in the film, Rich wrote.
More from her piece:
Numerous parents of gender-nonconforming children report initially trying to stifle their child’s tendencies out of a protective instinct, thinking they might forestall bullying if only their child would fit more neatly into the box that’s been set up for them. Ultimately, though, most realize that their child is less happy when prevented from gravitating naturally toward their preferences.
It’s important to note that there are children who do feel they’ve been born in the wrong body, who long for different anatomy, a different pronoun. Trans kids need to be supported and accepted. And, at the same time, not every boy who puts on a dress is communicating a wish to be a girl. Too often gender dysphoria is conflated with the simple possibility that kids, when not steered toward one toy or color, will just like what they like, traditional gender expectations notwithstanding. There is little space given to experimentation and exploration before a child’s community seeks to categorize them. Boyhood, as it is popularly imagined, is so narrow and confining that to press against its boundaries is to end up in a different identity altogether.
‘American gender categories are more rigid now than at any time in history’
Rich also brought up the work of San Jose State University sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, “who studies gender in children’s toys throughout the 20th century” and said that American gender categories are more rigid now than at any time in history, particular among consumers.
“Of course today, among a certain set, there’s an active rejection of pink for baby girls, whose parents don’t want them treated as delicate flowers,” Rich continued. “But again, the reverse still has no purchase. Exceedingly few parents dress their baby boys in a headband and a dress.”
She added that “boys’ parents tend to double down on reinforcing masculinity.”
“There’s a word for what’s happening here: misogyny,” Rich noted. “When school officials and parents send a message to children that ‘boyish’ girls are badass but ‘girlish’ boys are embarrassing, they are telling kids that society values and rewards masculinity, but not femininity. They are not just keeping individual boys from free self-expression, but they are keeping women down too.”
More from Rich’s piece:
It’s a societal loss that so many men grow up believing that showing aggression and stifling emotion are the ways to signal manhood. And it’s a personal loss to countless little boys who, at best, develop mechanisms for compartmentalizing certain aspects of who they are and, at worst, deny those aspects out of existence.
This fall, our son will start kindergarten, and with kindergarten comes a school uniform. This means pale blue collared shirts for all the kids, paired with navy blue pants, jumpers, or skirts. Currently there don’t seem to be any boys at the school who choose the jumper or skirt, and it remains to be seen whether our son will maintain his penchant for dresses even when the sartorial binary becomes starker—and the dresses more plain.
“Whatever he decides is fine with us,” the author concluded. “My only hope is that if he chooses to stop wearing dresses, it won’t be due to feeling that his fullest self-expression no longer has a place. What I want for him, and for all boys, is for the process of becoming men to be expansive, not reductive.”
Here’s a video about a family that practices gender-neutral parenting: