When my daughter was little all she wanted to wear were frilly, swirly dresses. It didn’t matter that she was climbing on jungle gyms, spinning so fast or enjoying somersaults that left her undies exposed, pants were not in her vocabulary.
It was at a time when the current consensus was that boys and girls of any age should be exposed to all options and we tried to believe gender biases didn’t exist. Give a doll to a boy or a play sword to a girl, they’d be equally loved regardless of the sex.
In some cases that may be true. But when my nephews got a hold of my daughter’s dolls, to her horror, they were instantly beheaded. And given a sword she instantly made a serving tray out of it! I kid you not. It became a fashion statement at her tea parties, a unique way to deliver cookies.
That got me thinking that some things may just be inherent to our anatomy. The question is why do we see that as good or bad? Does a little boy have to be defined by “masculine terms” and forced to ignore his desires when all he wants is a doll or stuffed animal to love and hold, whatever form that may take? Are girls any less ‘feminine” if they want to whack, smash or build things- I know I have that urge now as an adult, when I’m frustrated and need my punching bag! But that shouldn’t change or diminish who we are.
The frilly dresses made my little girl happy. She felt free and pretty in them. You could see her delight and face light up every time she put one on. Why force her to change? Instead I made little matching pantaloons to cover her panties, encouraging her to be herself, no matter what that meant.
My sister and I wrote an adorable children’s book about a baby bear. It’s based on stories I told my daughter while she was potty training. “Baby Bear” was designed after her, in frilly dresses and obviously girly outfits. To my amazement we were told repeatedly no father would read about a girly bear to his little boy, but all parents would read the antics of a boy bear to either gender child. Why?! What did gender have to do with anything? How could it possibly impact the child or ultimately the story line? Clearly this was a parental bias, but based on what?
I had no clue. The more I researched, the more I realized that all the popular books had male leading characters i.e. Winnie the Pooh. Curious George, Barney the Purple Dinosaur, and Thomas the Train, for example. Or the character appeared to be genderless. So. . . why was it the norm to only introduce female characters to young girls, but male characters to all children? Thinking back to my own experiences I realized my bother couldn’t possibly have read our sister’s complete Nancy Drew mystery book collection, but I could, and did, read the Hardy Boys books without raising an eyebrow.
When I was little, I was a “tom boy,” a silly phrase used to define a girl who acts too much like a boy. A pat on my head along with a nervous smile always accompanied the comment-
“I’m sure she’ll grow out of it.”
It’s far preferable to the opposite- a boy- heaven forbid, acting as a sissy! As though a little boy showing sensitivity, kindness, and a desire to interact more intellectually than physically is diminished in any way. Both are pejorative terms implying something is wrong with that child. For years my nephew and a good friend’s son were minimized and pushed into sports by fathers uncomfortable when the children wanted to sit and read books instead of crash into others on a football field.
When I was growing up, girls were forced to wear skirts and dresses at all times. I even had to wear hose. I’m really dating myself now, but I remember learning to secure them with a garter belt! It is my one and only vague memory before pantyhose became available. That’s what little girls did, because even at 8 years of age no one was allowed to bare a naked leg! Just like my brothers wore ties and suits on the same occasions- going downtown to meet my father for lunch, flying on a plane (you dressed for this), and attending services. The gender requirements were very specific.
But given the chance, I preferred pants and dirt! Hard to imagine catching frogs, toads and lizards-my ideal way to spend free time- in hose and a dress. Back then it was looked on with caution and the belief those “wayward tendencies” would pass in time.
In the 60’s and 70’s, men chose to wear their hair long, including my middle brother. He had a stunning, lion-like mane that flowed to his shoulders, mortifying my father who kept telling him he looked like a girl. And from behind that might be true, but not in a million years from the front. He was a stunning, well built man, long hair or not. At that time it defined his rebellious side, flaunting prior norms and displaying his uniqueness. Later generations actually went to buzz cuts to rebel in the Michael J Fox -“Alex P. Keaton” -era of the corporate 80’s !! How better to shun parents from the 60’s and 70’s?
But girls and boys aren’t just defined by their gender. And when forced into those roles, often rebel. When we were first married, protocol at the time demanded my ex-husband wear shirts and ties to work everyday. A decade later that went by the wayside as norms changed and getting him to dress for any occasion became a struggle. My father wore suits and ties his whole life, but once retired never took off his “jogging suit.” He had paid his dues and comfort, not ludicrous fashion perceptions were all that mattered.
As always the pendulum swings in both directions. What once was taboo is now accepted i.e. wearing white all year-round, not just in the summer, women over 40 with long hair, even sock -less sandals! Agree or disagree, choice is the motivating factor.
But appropriateness must still be an overriding factor. Wearing tops that encourage hate, bare everything (yes that means thongs, breasts, pubic hair, tushies ….) aren’t part of this package. Shorts at weddings, unless it’s on a beach, and jeans to Church are never acceptable. There are also obviously some anatomical constraints, as when I discussed my daughters desperate desire to urinate standing up. Barring that, it seems to me whatever any one wants to wear that doesn’t cause or encourage harm shouldn’t be diminished or disparaged. We all deserve to be whoever we want to be. Whether that’s in dresses, pants, skirts, ties, or hats.
Remembering the joy, excitement and abandonment my daughter had as she loved to twirl in all her frilly dresses can still make me smile. And reaffirms the importance of being able to express ourselves in all ways, including how we frame our bodies.
Next time you look in the mirror after putting on that day’s attire, what do you see? If it is confidence and joy, then strut your stuff.