In the last 50 years we (as a culture) have spent a lot of time trying to give girls the same opportunities as boys. I could write a whole book about all the things girls couldn’t do, and the ways were trying to extend them the same opportunities that boys have, but that isn’t what this post is about. What I’ve been thinking about lately, is how it seems like boys are considerably more restricted and restrained by gender norms than girls are, and what that might mean for their self-expression and their happiness.
I will admit, when I was told I was having a boy, one of my first thoughts was, “Now I have to learn, and worry, about all the developmental stuff for boys AND girls! How am I going to do it?!” The idea that I’d have to be an expert on what boys AND girls face growing up in this world was totally overwhelming.
It still is.
I am a woman, I know what it’s like to grow up as a girl and live life as a woman. I know what challenges girls face and I have some ideas of how to help my daughter navigate them. Despite having more male than female friends growing up, boys feel foreign to me. I am close with my father, but I didn’t grow up with brothers. When it comes to what boys need to thrive, I feel wholly inadequate. I’m paying more attention now, as I read articles and books, and I’m starting to compile a list of the lessons I will teach my son, the pitfalls I’ll try to avoid and the societal messages I’ll need to be aware of. I no longer feel as clueless as I did the day I opened the envelope and saw a circle around that tell tale piece of anatomy, with “BOY!!!!” scrawled above it.
Already I see one of the biggest challenges we’ll face in my son’s early life, and that is restrictions put on him by gender norms. In the four years since my daughter was born, I’ve never felt she has been constricted by being a girl. She loves Batman as much as she loves the Disney Princesses. I’ve been buying her clothing from the boys’ section since she was a baby. I still buy her comic book hero shirts from the boys’ section all the time. Just this weekend I got her a pair of Justice League tennis shoes. She wore them, with her Elsa nightgown, out on Sunday. It makes me so happy that she can express herself in whatever way she wants, without worrying if she’s being “girlie” enough.
A pretty impressive amount of Monito’s clothes are actually hand-me-downs from his big sister. I never thought twice about buying her stuff from that was meant for boys. No color was off limits–I got her anything I liked. But those rules don’t seem to apply to the clothes I can buy for Monito. Not only do most of the boys’ clothes herald from a limited section of the color wheel, there are some colors that are clearly completely off limits. I’ve never seen pink in the boys’ section and purple is scarce. There isn’t much glitter, and fewer rainbows. Even the appropriate themes are limited: sports, animals, robots, dinosaurs, things that go and of course, super heros. Evidently boys aren’t allowed to branch out much.
It makes me sad to think that my son will feel that he can’t wear the things his sister wears. Even seemingly innocent articles of clothing can seem suspect. I recently ordered Osita a pair of purple, fleece lined Crock tennis shoes online. When they arrived it was clear they were too small, but I couldn’t return them. At first I didn’t even consider keeping them for Monito; purple is not a color you see most boys wearing. In the end I decided I would keep them and let him decide if he was interested in wearing them, but that knee-jerk assumption got me thinking about how limited boys are in the colors and styles they can wear.
And what if Monito not only wants to wear those purple shoes, but is also interested in rainbows and glitter and fairy wings? What if he wants to don Osita’s hand-me-down princess dresses. What if he does wear them and is ridiculed for it? Even if we support those decisions at home, he’ll certainly hear from other kids that boys don’t wear skirts, dresses or anything pink. Just recently Osita had two friends over for a playdate–a girl and a boy–and the boy refused to put on a princess dress, despite his mom assurances that there isn’t anything that he can’t wear because he’s a boy. He could not be convinced. Already, at the tender age of three, he knows that certain things are off limits, and even in the privacy of a friends’ home, with his mom gentle support, he refused to put on a dress.
Osita loves Batman and adults applaud her for it, but when boys like girl-designated shows and toys, like My Little Pony, we give them a special name (Bronies) and ridicule them. Why is it okay for my daughter to like Batman, or any other super hero, but it’s not okay for boys to like My Little Pony? It seems so unfair that my daughter has the pick of whatever toy strikes her fancy–and is even congratulated for playing with boy-designated toys–while my son will be limited to only half of what is available.
We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on tearing down the restrictions girls face, but we’ve done almost nothing to tear down the restrictions placed on boys. I suppose we don’t think playing house, or pretending to mother baby dolls, or dressing up as a princess are desirable activities, so there is no point in open them up for boys to get involved. Boys already have access to the cool stuff, they don’t need to be allowed to play with girl stuff too. I don’t know which is more alarming, the fact that boys aren’t expected to participate in this kind of play after a certain age, or the fact that we don’t think enough about it to even discuss it, let alone try to change it.
Because what if boys want to play princess and feel like they can’t? What if their desire to play dolls or dress up, or put on a tutu and throw glitter all over the faces, brings them shame? What if we can’t support them enough at home to erase the intense messages they get from their friends at school or on sports teams?
I live in San Francisco, where my son has more chance of being accepted in typical “girl” attire than he would in many other parts of the country. Still, even here it seems clear that boys are expected to act, and dress, a certain way. Not long ago we went to a Little Mermaid sing-a-long at the famous Castro Theater (the Castro is San Francisco’s well-known gay neighborhood). Many children from Osita’s preschool were there, including several girl friends of hers who were all dressed up as various princesses. There was also one boy dressed as Ariel–he even had his fingernails painted blue and purple. Before the movie, any kid in a costume was invited to be introduced on the stage. Of a hundred or so kids that paraded in front of the audience, about 80 of them were girls in princess attire, and the rest were boys dressed as Prince Eric, the chef, Flounder or Sebastian. Osita’s friend was the ONLY boy who walked across the stage in a princess dress. My guess is that in most places, there wouldn’t have been even one boy dressed like that.
This might seem like a silly thing to be worried about, as the mom of a boy; surely violence on TV and in video games is one of many more important concerns. But it is something that hurts my heart, because I hate to think that boys are pushed into such a restrictive mold from such an early age. I hope that Monito, with his big sister (and us) at his side, will feel comfortable exploring all the ways he wants to express himself, even if that includes pinks tutus and fairy wings.
Do you notice the gender restrictions placed on boys?
Do you plan to fight them, or follow them, with your boy(s)?