“Do I look like a boy, or a girl?”

“Do I look like a boy, or a girl?” May 16, 2016

My daughter Sally recently put on a new outfit and turned to me with a question.

“Do I look like a boy, or a girl?” she asked.

“You look like Sally,” I told her.

This exchange was brought to mind when reading Jessica Winters’ Slate article, “Are You a Boy or a Girl?” In the article, Winters speaks of people’s frustration when they can’t immediately identify the gender of her eighteen-month-old daughter.

Like a lot of 18-month-olds, my daughter is epicene; even if she’s out on the town in, say, pink leggings and a floral raincoat, sometimes I’ll still get a “He’s so cute—how old is he?” from a friendly stranger. (I just did, in fact, on Mother’s Day. In the stranger’s defense, we were exploring cannons at a military park. Masculine!) I rarely bother to correct people, but if they realize their mistake, they are often profusely apologetic, as if they’d given grave offense over something far more consequential than gender.

And if this scene unfolds when I’ve dressed her in neutral clothing, the offense at times turns subtly outward. “Why do you dress her like a boy?” demanded a man in the jewelry section of H&M while my kid—in a red sweatshirt, jeans, and gray-and-purple sneakers—rummaged through a pile of tassled earrings. The man was trying to be polite, but he also seemed affronted by his own confusion—and affronted by me, I suppose, for causing his confusion. “She looks like a boy!” he insisted, repeatedly. The only response I could think of was the shrugging one I gave: “She looks like herself.”

There’s a lot no one told me before I started parenting. One of those things has to do with gender, and how children are perceived. I had no idea when I first set out parenting how thoroughly my choices in this area would affect my life.

My children each wear a range of clothes in a range of styles. I’ve never given them limits. Or rather, I’ve put only one requirement on them: “In our society, it is customary to wear clothing when leaving the house,” I’ve had to say on more than one occasion. But what clothing they choose? Why limit them? Instead, I encourage them to wear what they like and to express themselves in their dress however they please. What I didn’t realize was how fundamentally my “no limits” policy would end up affecting how my children are perceived.

The result of my “no limits” policy is that my first grade daughter, Sally, recently migrated to the boys’ clothing section and my preschool son, Bobby, delights in wearing consignment store leotards he calls “princess superhero” costumes. One evening a waitress will ask how “my sons” would prefer their sandwich cut and the next morning while walking through school with my son a hall attendant will remind me that “she needs to walk her scooter when she’s inside the school.” This has been going on for years. I let my son wear his older sister’s handed down pink coat. He didn’t care. It was a coat. I spent an entire winter having people complement me on my beautiful little girl.

What’s really interesting is how arbitrary people’s assumptions are. When my daughter was in preschool she would be taken for a boy while wearing a pixie cut and a girls’ swimsuit. I’ve had people switch my children’s genders when they’re both wearing blue gymnastics outfits. I don’t think people realize how arbitrary many of the clues they read to determine a child’s gender are. When one of my brothers was little, people always took him for a girl because of his curls. What he wore was irrelevant. Ensuring that people always read my children’s gender correctly would require ensuring that each conforms to very specific societal norms of dress for both hair and clothing. In other words, it would require a sort of forced uniformity.

My mother has accused me of “pushing an agenda.” I didn’t realize giving children choice in how they dress was “pushing an agenda,” but if it is, so be it. I won’t make my children wear something they don’t want to, and I won’t tell my daughter she can’t buy clothes in the boys’s section or my son he can’t wear sparkly skirts. That would be completely antithetical to my desire to let my children make their own clothing and expression choices. And you know what? Forcing them to dress in gender normative ways would be pushing an agenda.

I realize that as Bobby grows and begins to face teasing from other boys, he may change his clothing choices. And frankly? That makes me sad. It’s not that I’ll blame him if that happens, I won’t, but I will be upset with the other boys for fencing him in, for forcing him to conform or risk censure. That’s horrific, and we should all recognize it as such. And yet somehow, in the eyes of many Americans, it will be my son who is the problem and in need of correction, not theirs. Who knows, maybe Bobby will stand his ground and defend his style choices like Sally currently is. Either way, I’m well aware that doing so would be harder for him than it is for her.

Let me make one more point. From time to time, Sally has gone through periods where she has absolutely delighted in fluffy, ruffly, girly dresses. And you know what? That’s fine by me! Several years ago, during one of these periods, I gave Sally three amazing gauzy flow gorgeous dresses for her birthday. She was ecstatic. When she outgrew them, I let Bobby wear them. He was ecstatic, and suddenly I was “pushing an agenda.” Well you know what? I am so over the arbitrariness of all of this.

The truth is that my children are different. My children are gender non-conforming. And you know what? I am a-okay with that. I never asked them to conform to people’s expected gender norms to begin with, and if letting my children express themselves means they’ll be misgendered more often than not, I’m down with that.

When Sally asked me last week whether she looked like a boy or a girl and I told her she looked like Sally, I had a greater point I wanted to make. I reminded her that it’s not the clothing that makes a person a boy or a girl, it’s the person’s gender identity, and that as long as she identifies as a girl, she is a girl, regardless of what she is wearing. Sally responded with a smile and said she would make sure the other kids in her class know that too. I am in awe of her easygoing confidence.

That’s another thing no one told me about raising children—that my kids would teach me as much as I teach them.

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