Boys Can Wear Dresses Too

“Look, the woman is free now,” Leila describes an American Indian man in the animated film.

“That’s a man, Leila,” I say, knowing full well where this would go.

“But, but he has long hair, and…”

“Men can have long hair,” I was a little too stern with her about this, fed-up with all the stereotyping.

“But look at the hair bands in her hair.”

“Leila, men can wear hair bands.”

I would get nowhere with my attitude, and of course my two-year-old’s are only trying to make sense of the world and figure out how they fit in it. Their gender differences are a part of that. I relax, try something different. “OK, you remember our friend in Koh Samui? He has very long hair. Sometimes he used hair bands to tie it up. Remember?”

She laughed and agreed.

My daughter is going through a phase where she needs to define herself as a girl. Quite normal I suppose. It was after she repeatedly heard an older girl telling Rahul, “but that’s for girls,” as the doll and hair clips that he was playing with were snatched out of his hands, that it became as issue.

Since then, L often says similar things to her brother. I have a feeling that other than it being a gender identity thing, the issue is magnified because they are boy / girl twins who are almost always together. I am not yet sure how or if I even need to do something to help Leila with this question.

On a walk around the mall one day, Leila saw a shop full of pink things, she half stated, half asked if it’s only for girls. I disagreed. Rahul has often asked me the same question, “This is only for girls, mum?” He used to like pink. I doubt that it was a natural instinct; it was probably because his sister liked it. And then I’m not so sure that her obsession tendency for pink is natural either. More recently Rahul has constructed that “yellow” and “green” are his favorites. I see him consciously choosing those colors because he is a “boy”, and then also maybe a bit because it sets him apart from his twin sister.

“But I only want yellow nail polish,” he begged in their fight discussion this afternoon. He looks at me, almost in tears.
“NO, it’s only for girls,” she barks at him. A moment later she turns to me, “It’s only for girls mum?”
“Boys can also use nail polish guys, but neither of you can until you are older.”

A few days ago it was about toy make-up. “I want to play with this,” Rahul said as they were tugging and pulling on the toy eye-shadow. A man in the room, probably just trying to ease the tension, said, “Make-up is for girls Rahul.”

“Hey come on guys,” I couldn’t help myself, “some men use make-up.” I got some questioning looks from the men in that room. “Men who dance, act on stage or in movies use make-up.” I didn’t even touch those who might use it just because they enjoy it. Our home is a rather gender neutral space, the children have a range of toys, but we are immersed in a host of cultures all of which segregate gender roles and behaviour in the obvious, traditional sense.

An openly gay friend of mine in Lebanon, oriental-dance performing artist and teacher posted this little story on Facebook about a man who wears dresses in solidarity with his little boy. http://www.advocate.com/society/modern-families/2012/08/28/dad-wears-dress-solidarity-dress-loving-son
It reminded me of a conversation I overheard between my children and a couple of close Swedish friend. “Boys can wear dresses too,” my friend’s husband explained to them.

My children will have many influences in their lives and they’ll make their own choices. I still try to play my bit in keeping them open. I’ve always been grateful to the exposure I had growing up, to people of different cultures and way of thinking. My own parenting decisions and choices come from imitating those I respect and trust, as well as trying to realise my own mistakes.

A few weeks ago I saw a couple of sticker books that I thought my children would love. One was of an Indian girl, the other was an African girl. The idea is that the child plays designer. She can stick bags, and necklaces on the girl, colour in the clothes the way she wants. I bought both. For Leila. How was I to choose between an Indian and an African princess? And I had an inkling that Rahul might want to play with one at the same time. To be fair though, I bought Rahul a couple of finger puppets.

Rahul enjoyed his puppets, but luckily Leila agreed to share one of her princess design books with him. They both enjoyed sticking the bangles, bindhis, and chitenge prints on their models. In the sense of learning alone, he was doing well with focusing, sticking the handbags on the girl’s arm, and the flowers in her hair. So just because it’s a girl in the picture why can’t he play with the book? Maybe he’ll become a clothes designer one day. Why didn’t I just buy one princess book for each one of my children?

Over the weekend we went to a toy shop. Rahul chose a baby doll. He likes to change dolls’ clothes, rock and kiss them goodnight. Of course, he was shown the transformer cars and the Lego, but he was adamant about the baby doll. Only at the very last minute did a laser sword change his mind. Regardless of the outcome, I was glad that I would have proudly walked out of that shop having bought both my children dolls.

Related links:
From TV to toys: What shapes boys into boys and girls into girls
http://www.babycenter.com/0_from-tv-to-toys-what-shapes-boys-into-boys-and-girls-into-gi_10310676.bc?page=1
Parenting the Enemy – blog post by Janice Lindegard of Snide Reply

http://multiculturalmothering.com/2012/04/02/parenting-the-enemy/

I live in Chengdu with my husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until Our Little Yogis became the teachers. http://natashadevalia.com

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