WFPP Guest Post: On Dressing a Daughter…and a Theoretical Son.

I’ve written before about my opinions on gender and kids’ clothing: this entry to the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer brings in a more femme opinion from a self-identified “girly-girl” feminist.

Jenny, who recently started blogging at The Big Cheesy, talks about her feelings around dressing her daughter in frilly clothes — sometimes — and her reluctance to dress any probably-boy child (should there ever be any) in the same.

On Dressing a Daughter…and a Theoretical Son.

Two things about me have almost always been true: I’m a girly-girl, and I’m a feminist. There are more of us out there than you might imagine. We are the women who adore pink, want lace trim on everything, and think the heel could always be higher. But we’re also always striving to achieve everything we might want, without thinking for a moment that our sex limits us. Feminists like me are the fierce, unstoppable, eternally equal women who have a lot of fun with our lipstick and ball gowns. We’re not unlike drag queens in that way.

But like a drag queen, I don’t live in my uber-girly outfits. Although I do have a closet stocked with stilettos, mountains of beads, pounds of makeup, and enough lacy lingerie to outfit a proper brothel, I usually don’t wear that stuff. Often enough (okay, 9 out of every 10 days), I wear my hair in a bun done without looking, no makeup whatsoever, the same unisex jeans I’ve had for years, and a loose-fitting tee shirt (most likely purchased at a thrift shop). The same frayed brown flip-flops are on my feet. My fingernails haven’t been painted in almost two years. I’m not wearing perfume, or even lotion. And I don’t feel like any less of a woman than I do in my tight turquoise satin D&G minidress.

Because, as I’m sure I don’t need to explain to a feminist audience, my woman-ness has almost nothing to do my costume. Whether I’m in fishnets or my husband’s sweatshirt, I’m a Woman, with every strength and capability than Man has to offer. Being a woman is not about dress, or scent, or mannerisms (or even genitalia, frankly). It’s because I’m so confident in this, my female identity, that I can switch from dressing in a very gendered way to dressing in a very un-gendered way. To be honest, I never think about it. I don’t divide my days into Girly or Unisex. I’m just me, transitioning from one costume to another without thought.

But what of the female child I bore almost 2 years ago? How do I dress her on any normal day, given my penchant for the frills and the froth? To be sure, her closet is stuffed with elaborate dresses and blouses and pretty little coats, things on which I spent too much money. There are so many of them that she outgrows them before the tags come off, usually. Which is probably because she spends her days, like her mom, in jeans and t-shirts. And it’s not that I’m making a statement, gearing her up to be a feminist. I imagine she, like all the intelligent women I know, will be a feminist all on her own (but that’s her choice, not mine). I dress her in the comfortable stuff every day because…it’s comfortable. She is a toddler. All she wants to do is run, jump, climb, and smear herself with avocado. I don’t think either of us would enjoy that exuberance all swaddled in a lacy sundress with matching bloomers. So she wears clothing that could belong to either a girl or a boy–indeed, much of it is purchased in the Boys’ section. I’m not so much of a girly-girl that I think one’s corduroy pants should be pink.

To be totally honest, though, I also buy my daughter boys’ clothes because I want to be able to re-use them, should I have a son. And as a feminist, and a person fiercely devoted to gender-identity freedom, it’s hard for me to accept that I wouldn’t put a baby son in a dress. Why not, really? How is it different from putting my daughter in brown work boots designed for little male feet? Somehow, to me, it is. That bothers me, but I’m not going to wrap my son in lace just to confront my own issues. As much as I dislike our society’s rigid gender expectations, and as much as I flout them myself, it’s much harder for men and boys to do so, and I’m not going to make that decision for any son I might have. If he asks me, at any point, to wear a dress, you can believe that I will happily oblige. I just won’t be leading the campaign, as troubling as that is to me sometimes (since I will essentially be dictating his ultimate gender performance for him, making it not an issue of choice at all).

As my daughter grows, I get sad about her frilly little outfits. To think that I may not have another daughter to wear them again, and knowing that I won’t put them on a son who doesn’t request them, makes me very sad. And it’s probably not because I love them more than I love her other clothes. It’s probably because I hardly ever put her in the girly stuff. Just as I find it easier to go about my day in a more unisex garb, I want the same freedom for her. Yes, I have a blast when I’m all tarted up, and I love to see her that way, too. But it’s not real life. It’s not the daily experience for a woman who has things she must DO. I probably could run a marathon in high heels, but I wouldn’t want to do so. So the dresses inevitably stay on their hangers, and then get packed away for some Maybe Later child. It’s hard, but I recognize it’s a product of the choices I make. As a feminist, i believe that a woman (or a man) should be able to wear WHATEVER she (or he) likes, whenever, wherever. It is because I believe in my absolute equality and power that I can wear pink lip gloss one day and a man’s shirt the next and not feel any different–even if I have been called “sir” a few times. I intend that freedom for my daughter, and I hope I embrace it for my son, too. As a parent I strive to put my ideals into practice, even as it challenges me sometimes. I put the dresses aside for my daughter, and may pull them out for my son. Who knows? On any given day, I just want all of us to be comfortable–in our clothes, and most definitely in our skin.

Jenny lives in Los Angeles with her small family of humans and large family of animals.  Although an attorney by trade, lately Jenny is taking time to smell the bread rising, and to watch her daughter grow.

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13 Responses to WFPP Guest Post: On Dressing a Daughter…and a Theoretical Son.

  1. And as a feminist, and a person fiercely devoted to gender-identity freedom, it’s hard for me to accept that I wouldn’t put a baby son in a dress.

    Oh Maude, as much as it pains me to say it, this is me too. I hate that I think it. My daughter is also almost two, and she wears a mixture of girls and boys clothes and I generally try not to uber-gender her – her choice for later, is my thinking, and I don’t want to colour that choice any more than I have to.

    But sometimes I look at the variety of clothes and think – if I have a son next time, would I put him in the dark red top with slightly rouched shoulders? And I think maybe I wouldn’t, even though I’m happy to put my daughter in clothes from the boys’ section.

    Why? Because as horrible and hateful as it is, it is easier to be a girl wearing boys’ clothes than it is to be a boy wearing girls’ clothes. Because it is accepted that a girl could want to be like a boy, because that is perceived as better (although she may be mocked for wanting to be something better than she is), but a boy cannot want to be like a girl without being mocked for being weaker and wanting to be Less Than. It’s horrible, and everything I am against, and yet I still find myself wondering how much I would want to “use” my hypothetical son to try to change the world a tiny bit. Maybe I’ll find out when/if I get there.

    • The concept of “using” one’s child to “prove” some political or ideological “point” always comes up in these conversations, and it always bewilders and bothers me. (I don’t even think you were leveling any such accusation; you seemed more just to be aware that it would come up as an idea.)

      It bothers me because it accepts the cultural dictate of highly gendered clothing as the default; because it assumes that making an adult political point is the reason to use “girl” clothing on a presumed-boy; because the reason I offer pink and sparkly and lacy clothing to my child (and sometimes used them before he was able to chose clothing) is for my child in spite of the world, not to gain political points.

      It seems to be just another case of the kyriarchy’s divide-and-conquer tactics: paint one side as gender-conforming sheeple, the other as baby-hating hard-asses, when the truth is, we’re all just pretty much doing what we think is best given a really shitty set of circumstances.

  2. I think it’s far more acceptable for girls to wear boy-intended clothing than boys to wear girl-intended clothing. As a mom with 2 boys I do worry about teasing, shaming, and insulting from the outside world if there were to wear that costume outside the house.

    That said, they are also more than welcome to wear girly clothes inside the house and where ever else they feel comfortable. My oldest has 2 girl cousins close in age and he frequently played dress-up with them at their house. There was a particular purple floral dress that he adored. LOL

    It’s hard to walk the line between feminist wanting to remove gender-imposed obstacles and mother wanting to protect her children.

    • It’s hard to walk the line between feminist wanting to remove gender-imposed obstacles and mother wanting to protect her children.

      I understand what you’re saying, because none of us want to watch our child be the victim of bullying, but I don’t see them as inherently opposing urges. The feminist desire to remove gender-imposed obstacles IS one of the many ways that I try to protect my child. Especially if he turns out to be trans or gender-variant, but even if not, the spectrum of gender clothing options he has available is part of trying to protect him: from the damage of an imposed gender that may not match his true gender; from the damage of limiting gender roles even if his assigned gender is accurate. It seems to me, then, rather a matter of trying to balance all the different ways we try to protect our children, from all the different forces that can damage them.

  3. I’ve put my toddling boy in a dress and taken pictures for kicks, but I doubt I’d ever bring him out in public in super-girly clothing unless he asks – for one, he’s my only child and we don’t *have* any super-girly clothing, and for another, it’s hard enough for the general public to accept my answer of “Well, a boy for now, although he’s welcome to change his mind later” when asked whether I have a boy or a girl.

    I do have some hand-me-downs from girl cousins of his that aren’t super-girly, and he wears them for as long as they fit; although I notice (somewhat depressingly) that girls’ clothes tend to have a tighter fit, so he generally seems more uncomfortable in them than in his own relatively loose-fitted clothes. I can’t tell if this is a physiology thing (do baby girls tend to be smaller on average than baby boys?) or a gendering thing (girls should wear tight clothes), but it makes it more difficult to choose to dress him in girls’ clothes either way.

    It’s hard to walk the line between feminist wanting to remove gender-imposed obstacles and mother wanting to protect her children. This. Also, between mother not wanting to have to deal with other people’s ignorance, because it’s usually other adults making the snarly snarky comments about mums’ choices, and mother wanting her child to have every opportunity available to the little one. We all choose our battles.

  4. I have a 4 1/2 year old daughter and a 1 year old son. And, I’ll be honest, I was very sad when I sorted through the wee little girl clothes and realized I might never use them again. Because, like you, I can’t quite get over the mental hurdle to dress my son in ‘girl’ clothes, at least when he isn’t asking.

    My daughter is extremely girly. By the time that she was 18 months old she wanted only pink, frilly, sparkly things, in spite of my ideas to the contrary. I wanted to dress her in comfortable play clothes, and she wanted to wear her Christmas dress every day. Which, you know, is her choice. I can’t see forbidding it.

    Anyways, by the time that my son was 6 months old or so he was already looking up to his sister like crazy. And since we have loads and loads of ‘girly’ stuff, he often gravitated towards it. If you held up a tiara and a ball, he would go for the tiara every time. So, having an opposite gender sibling really kind of neutralizes the gender playing field, in my experience.

  5. Amber, I think you’ve made a most crucial point–as much as our children’s genders are dictated by society, there is also a whole lot of personal choice and direction involved (like babies born as boys who really are girls, or girls born as girls who want everything to sparkle!). And I think, as mothers, we want to honor whatever feels right to them, without TELLING them what feels right to them. Which is the hard part, for me. How do I know if my 20-month old is obsessed with my jewelery collection because there’s something inside her that’s all about baubles, or just because she sees mommy in them? Am I a lover of pink and fitted cocktail dresses because that’s part of my personality, or because my mom dug the girly stuff? Although, her mother dressed her in very androgynous clothes. Hmmmmmm. Major chicken and egg situation here.

    The ultimate question: how do I encourage my children to express their gender identity, whatever it is, in a way that feels right to them without imposing my own politics (or preferences)? That’s what I struggle with.

    Also, Summer really hit the nail on the head when she said it’s a balance between our ideals as feminists and as mothers who want to protect their children. If I put my son in a dress in order to make a statement, and he has not expressed a desire to wear that dress, and he faces the ridicule of ignorant people, have I done the right thing? At the end of the day, it is about choosing battles, and trying to subvert the whole “boys don’t wear girls’ clothes” thing before my son even wants to is not a battle I’m going to choose, probably.

  6. I have often thought about this, and how funny/odd/somewhat troubling to look at my son (2yrs old) and think “that outfit looks kinda girly” simply because it doesn’t contain any dark blue in it. I try to avoid the truly out-there BOY clothes (which makes clothes shopping pretty tough, unfortunately) but I also have yet to buy him anything pink. I do try to go with gender-neutral options most of the time, but I’ve also surprised myself with how often I gravitate towards the “boy” option when they’re limited. It’s a constant battle, and I hope I’m able to support him if he ever wants to wear more girly things, and that I don’t subconsciously send out signals about what is and is not ok for him to want to wear.

  7. My first-born was a son. I got some gift clothes, all boyish, some of it super-masculine. When I bought clothes for toddler-him myself, none of it was dresses, but several were frilly, girlish. I honestly was thinking about hand-me-downs. I hoped to have a girl (hi, Arwyn!) and wanted some of her clothes to not be all-boy. Even 35 years ago I didn’t think a toddler should be rigidly gendered. I think a lot of it is having enough security in oneself (and one’s child) that the outward appearance isn’t important. Today, my first-born is a definite male who wears pink at times and participates fully in raising his own kids. My husband carries my purse when we’re together. They are both comfortable enough in their masculinity to not be threatened by outwardly feminine appearance.

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  10. What I find most interesting is that this is on the minds of so many mothers/parents, yet we are still hard pressed to find gender neutral clothes for our kids. That the discussion is often about dressing girls as boys and vice versa. I too wrote about dressing my daughter in boys clothes a couple of days ago. While I realize that clothing is often gifted and we live in a multi-generational and multi-cultural society that often remains closed to questions of gender, it seems that there should be more options for those that don’t want to dictate behaviours through the colour or make of clothing.

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