A good headline can pull a reader in. For example, when I saw the headline Why we need to give boys space to be themselves I thought, “Here’s a positive article about not policing boys behavior”. Author Jane Caro described how her five-month-old grandson is a little spark of life. At that age, most babies only show a sliver of the type of person they will become. However, people do assume much based on very little. Caro states:
His family are trying to just wait and see what sort of person he will eventually become, but it sometimes feels like the rest of the world has already decided. In fact, they made up their mind about him long before he was born.
Why? Well, my daughter knew he was a boy by the time she was 20 weeks pregnant, and if people asked her she told them. What was quite extraordinary was how many people then immediately told her, with total confidence, just what her 20-week-old foetus was going to be like. Once he started moving in the womb, every kick indicated a potential football player, according to these behaviour experts. Really? We wondered. Why not a ballet dancer?
And that ended my assumption that this would be about letting boys be themselves. Caro is not concerned with what her grandson or most boys want to do. She is more concerned with pushing against gender norms:
People often made a particular noise when told the developing foetus was a boy; it was kind of a laugh mixed with a knowing snort. “You’ll have your hands full!,” they told my daughter. “He’ll run you ragged!” “Boys love trucks, noise and getting dirty.” “Boys never sit still and read or draw!” And then, as a sop, they’d add, “But boys love their mummys.” (Does that mean girls don’t?)
People tend to do this because boys have a general set of behaviors. They tend to be energetic, noisy, and like to explore their world. There are plenty who will be rambunctious and love to read. There are plenty who will take to staying indoors and being quiet. On average, however, boys tend to be more extroverted. People make similar comments about girls, as Caro notes. She goes on to state:
I know that this is just the conventional small talk that nice people often make with parents of newborns and we always responded with a smile and a laugh, as was expected. My daughter does the same when her son’s personality is described to her by strangers. But we can’t help feeling a little exasperated by it, too. We want this little human being (who has no more idea at the moment of whether he is a boy, a girl or a turnip) to be allowed to be himself – whatever that may turn out to be – and we worry that this will be harder for him than it should.
We live in a society that allows people to choose who and what they will be. Some of those choices are not accepted by everyone, yet the assumption that it would be harder for Caro’s grandson needs some context. After all, with the current antagonism toward anything remotely masculine, one could argue that Caro’s grandson just being a boy could cause him problems. If he plays with trucks and action figures, likes wrestling or boxing, and enjoys video games, some people may consider him the biggest threat to women’s safety.
We need to know what Caro means by “this will be harder for him than it should”. Unfortunately, the context Caro gives plays into a biased narrative:
We go to specialist baby shops a lot at the moment, and frankly they are outrageously gendered. Worse, given we are shopping for a boy, the policing of gender for boys seems much more restrictive to me than it does for girls. The number of clothes to choose from is usually much more limited and the palate of acceptable boy colours depressingly dull and bland. Blue, green, grey, brown and a particular shade of muted red seems to be about the size of it. We glance over at the (much larger) girls section (baby girls are apparently already much more interested in clothes and their appearance than boys… !!!) and it is a sea of pink, orange, aqua, turquoise, yellow and purple with glitter, sparkles, chiffon and frills. Girls wear flower and fruit motifs, boys are restricted to machines and animals.
Keep in mind, we are talking about a five-month-old infant. At that age, he can barely sit up on his own. Colors, glitters, and frills are not likely anything he or any other five-month-old child cares about. So the clothing choices have nothing to do with the babies. Those are a marketing tactic based on who buys clothes: women.
Caro’s question, therefore, should be directed at women. Why is it that women want to dress their daughters in a rainbow, but only want to dress their sons in primary colors? Could it be that the women are projecting their own interest in clothing on their daughters? Could it be that the women are mimicking the color preferences seen in men’s clothing? Or is it some ulterior attempt to subvert boys’ interest in fabrics and color combinations?
Perhaps all this seems trivial to you, but if it is so trivial, why the palpable shock if a boy is dressed in pink or has a ribbon is his hair?
That is likely because it is unusual for boys in Western cultures to wear pink or put ribbons in their hair. This did not used to be the case. Pink is historically a boy color. Men used to wear ribbons to tie their hair. However, style changed, and things typically worn by men — heels, wigs, leggings, etc. — are now worn and associated with women. That is how fashion works. It makes no sense, but fashion is not meant to make sense. It is meant to reflect what appeals to a culture at a given moment.
It is currently fashionable to wear skinny pants. Ten years ago, if a man did this people would have questioned his sexuality. Twenty years ago, you likely could not even find skinny pants. Thirty years ago, this would have been considered out of style. Forty years ago, it was high fashion.
The same goes for long hair, color selections, and shoes. Caro mentioned pink and how people react negatively when they see a boy dressed in it that color. Caro seems to have forgotten about the 1980s. Plenty of very straight men wore pink because the pastel palette was in style.
Caro’s issue is not really that her grandson cannot wear certain clothes. It is more that she dislikes people’s response:
My grandson often wears a pair of watermelon-coloured leggings and looks particularly fetching in them in my opinion but I can see the confusion on people’s faces when they realise he is a boy despite such attire.
Their confusion comes from a basic truth: people generally do not dress boys in watermelon-colored leggings. We use fashion as a means of differentiating between the sexes. This is particularly true with babies. If a person dresses in a manner typically done by the opposite sex, people will assume they are the opposite sex. Again, this is particularly true with babies.
We generally cannot tell if a baby is male or female at first glance. The methods we use to signify their sex are their names and clothing. If you give your male child a gender neutral name or dress him in girl’s clothing, do not act surprised when people are shocked to find out your child is a boy. You have done everything to confuse them.
When we say “boys will be boys” with a mock exasperated sigh, we are usually using the phrase to excuse some sort of bad behaviour. When they are little, it may just be clumsiness or lack of consideration. When they are adults, it can be used to excuse really serious behaviour, even crimes. Maybe it’s time we stopped rigidly defining what boys are allowed to be, and instead just left them alone to be themselves.
Yes, and the way to do this is by Caro, not her grandson, deciding what clothes boys ought to wear.
Here is a thought: maybe boys do not want to wear clothes that girls wear. I know that sounds ridiculous, yet it may be true. Perhaps boys like to dress in a manner that sets them apart from girls. Perhaps boys like having an identity and style all their own. Perhaps boys do not find watermelon-colored leggings all that interesting.
Instead of trying to force androgyny or femininity onto boys, why not let boys create their own style? When left to their own devices, they seem to do a fairly good job of incorporating whatever they want into their fashion, particularly if girls respond well to it.