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Gender Is A Spectrum Beyond Pink And Blue

by Alex Iwashyna

in Cultural Norms (that are abnormal)

For a few years, my son wore dresses on and off. We supported him, but he stopped. I don’t know why. We don’t live in a particularly tolerant community although his school was excellent. However, we have friends whose boys continue to wear dresses outside of the house in the face of mockery. They have become more withdrawn or have literally withdrawn from school but don’t stop. Are they on different place on the gender spectrum than my son? Do they have more resilience? Was it just a phase for my son or societal pressure he felt?

My son rocking out

The last time my son ever wore a dress. Over a year ago.

Yesterday, my daughter, in her ever-present tutu, picked a daffodil and said: “Mama, it’s my flower gun.” And she shot a man.

Daughter with a flower gun

POW! I will go slow no more.

I don’t know what these pictures mean for my children other than I hope they feel supported and loved wherever they end up on the gender spectrum, which is what I feel like is missing in the ongoing conversation over gender. Not so much the loving and supporting children, but the concept that gender is a spectrum  where children (and adults) shift up and down.

The most common comments I read are the “I never promoted gender roles with my kids but they just naturally like boy and girl stuff proving how innate trucks and tutus are.” This can be rephrased as “I never introduced my kids to guns, and my son makes EVERYTHING a gun proving how important it is for boys to play rough”… and for girls to — oh, wait they usually don’t mention girls in the post because who knows what girls are supposed to do.

Here’s the thing. Having a child is not scientific evidence. It is an “n” of 1 or 5 or however many children a parent has. That’s a very small sample. No journal would accept that study. And as a parent, who clearly does not wants to be seen as “gendering” their child, the study is clearly biased. In other words, the parent has proven nothing about gender, nature , nurture, or even if their kid is going to ask to put a dress on tomorrow.

Gender is, in fact, a spectrum not a binary. In American culture, we love to talk about boy stuff and girl stuff. We may mix it up a little with girls at a young age. Sure, we’ll let little girls play with trains while wearing tiaras, but we don’t always like little boys in dresses. Boy stuff is for everyone, and girl stuff is for girls. But when the girls hit middle school and beyond, we say: “Just kidding, boy stuff like professional sports anyone watches, making money, and feeling safe is actually just for boys. Hope you had fun with those trains.” (Also, why are trains for boys? And dogs? And cats are for girls? Did someone just throw things in the air and see if they fell in the pink circle or the blue one?)

But in reality, gender does not fit into blue boy packages and pink girl packages. Sex is just physical. Gender is a cultural and personal phenomenon that includes how we dress, act, interact, think of ourselves and others. It is an intersection of nature and nurture, and it can vary throughout a person’s lifetime.

There are more effeminate boys and more masculine girls. A boy who dresses as a princess at 3 may never do it again, and a girl may decide at 14 to never again wear dresses and will be buried in pants at 94 years old. This assumption that my boy is like this and my girl is like that and will always be is frustrating and part of how we are nurturing the possibilities out of our children. The assumption of a binary is a huge part of the problem and a contributor to the ongoing sexism rampant in our culture.

If we would let our children be children and not point out, Look at the girl things and the boy things, so often, maybe we would get to know them as individuals first and let them work out their gender identities. Perhaps, they would grow up to find they had more in common with each other, and there would be less of a boys clubs to worry about for everyone.

I’m not promoting gender-blindness since women still make 77 cents to the dollar, and when 5 are in a room, one has probably been sexually assaulted. Girls are still too vulnerable when, in any given mixed gender classroom high school in American, boys are given 50% more talking time. However, gender needs to take its place as a cultural experience since anyone who thinks that females are innately less aggressive has never messed with a bear cub.

However, I am promoting color-blindness in the sense that any comments that bear any resemblance to: AHA! You are a girl even if I dressed you in yellow as a baby as though pink or blue or yellow means anything to a 3 month old who can’t see colors yet, must stop. They should be more: Hey, let’s enjoy yellow together. Oh, you like pink? That’s nice. I say all the time to my children: Colors are just colors. It turns out adults don’t understand that either in their quest for neutrality. Colors are the opposite of gender. While they are physically on spectrum, colors should not culturally be on a spectrum.

Do I believe there are inherent differences in the sexes? Yes, our bodies produce different hormones and have different receptors in different places. But I also think that many girls and boys and men and women could stand next to each other, and, if we took away all our cultural cues, no one could tell their sex apart if they tried.

It might be easier to parent and to sell to two distinct groups, but we just don’t exist that way. And we never have.

Some specific sources beyond the classes I’ve taken on feminism and gender:

 

 

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda Jillian February 25, 2013 1

Too true, too true.

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Angela Alvarez Velez February 25, 2013 2

Love, love, love.

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Amanda February 25, 2013 3

When did we as a society decide to belligerently operate as if every single thing had to fit into a box? It’s exhausting, from women writing ad nauseam about what the average dress size to whether my daughter wanting to dress as Bat Man makes her gay.

Thank you for writing this, I feel like kids need childhoods and many of the rest of us just need to get a life.

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Thekitchwitch February 25, 2013 4

My daughters would rather play with a plastic sword than a Barbie any day.

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Allen @ Funny Baby Videos February 25, 2013 5

Gender differences are reinforced before birth. We paint a girls room pink and a boys room blue. Crazy really.

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Sarah February 25, 2013 6

Yes. Yes to everything in this post.

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angela February 25, 2013 7

This made me think of a Madonna song (because really, I think of Madonna songs too often, but still…)

Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading

I want to say I do my best to just parent, but I am sure I reinforce stereotypes without meaning to. I agree with everything you wrote, though. We’re all on a spectrum. It’s like blue eyes. Both my kids have “blue” eyes, but the blues are incredibly different.

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Alex Iwashyna February 25, 2013 8

I reinforced them without meaning to as well. I don’t think we need to be perfect in it. We just help out children to feel like they have choice and give them the confidence to choose what they like over what they think they are supposed to like. And we hope it’s enough to overcome the pressure beyond the safety over our home. My goal is mostly to make my home very safe for my children because at least they always have that. From there, I work to expand the circle to school, activities, friends. But they need to learn to speak up and out, too. It’s hard and sometimes I’m not even sure where my lines are for my gender choices versus conforming to some idea around growing older as a woman!

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Leigh Ann February 25, 2013 9

I took a photo at the Disney store a long time ago by the Toy Story/Cars merchandise that had a big old sign over it that said “Boys’ Toys.” And I was all, “Really? Guess what all 3 of my girls are MOST into.” And I agree — we think it’s okay for girls to play trucks and cars and trains, but if a boy wants to wear a dress or play with dolls (we applaud it!), most parents automatically get uncomfortable.

When I asked the question on FB, it was in response to the fact that I’ve read so many posts about how princesses are bad for our girls and posts from bloggers who have tried tooth and nail to keep them out of their house and away from their girls. My conclusion? IT DOESN’T MATTER. The only way princesses are going to be damaging to your children are if you are constantly throwing it in their face and giving them the impression that the fairy tale world is a possibly way of life.

I’m impressed you were able to sit down so quickly and produce something thoughtful and coherent about this topic. Not surprised at YOU, just surprised because I’ve been working on my post for DAYS.

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Leigh Ann February 25, 2013 10

Oops my “we applaud it” was supposed to go by girls playing with boys’ toys. Failure to proofread.

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Alex Iwashyna February 25, 2013 11

In answering your FB post, I was finally motivating to write the post that I’ve been thinking about for the last week or so after reading so many FB posts and blog posts on gender-related issues.
And although I ended up editing it out of this post (because it’s 1000+ words), I had a paragraph on how easy it is to point the finger and I think princesses are a popular one when there’s a much more fundamental problem with how we view gender that isn’t being addressed.
I can’t wait to see your post because I love that your girls are just being your girls.

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Kate February 25, 2013 12

Yesterday I found a neat collection of science t shirts online. Oddly, they were marked as boy sizes (not that that has ever stopped me) so I complained, asking them to list them as kid sizes.

Too much is separated. They are kids.

Poor sample size be damned- my grandfather (and ALL boys back then) wore nothing but dresses until age 3. I refused to wear dresses around 3 too. What we ‘should’ wear is as culturally constructed as gender norms.

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Mandy February 25, 2013 13

I started a comment that ended up being 378 words long. Which means I’ll probably be linking back here from a blog post at some point.

But suffice to say…

Totally.

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Kelly K @ Dances with Chaos February 25, 2013 14

Yes.. This.

While my children in general to gravitate toward traditional gender roles (the boy likes boy things way more than girl things and vice versa) they do flip flop on a few things. I try to always encourage their interests and give them what they enjoy. So if my daughter is princess obsessed, she gets princess gifts for presents. If my son wants a doll with long hair or to wear his hair up on the top of his in a Pebbles style pony tail, I allow it (even encouraged the latter as mimicking her brother was the only way his little sister would keep a “pretty” in her hair for longer than three seconds).

I try to stay away from “No, don’t do that. That’s for girls/boys, because I was one of those “tomboys” as a child, and pretty much avoided all dresses from age 9 to 24. I was mad I couldn’t be a boy scout and do the cool things my cousin did as opposed to what I deemed as “boring patch stuff” for Girl Scouts. I get not fitting neatly into a category.

I agree, it is easier for girls to switch between “traditional” roles than boys, at least in the eyes of others who judge you for your actions.

I just try to make sure my children feel loved no matter where their interests and joys are.

Great post.

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Katie February 25, 2013 15

The most heart-breaking question Eddie asks me is, “is this for girls or boys?”

My answer every time is, “it’s for anyone who thinks it’s fun.”

Of course, this works with toys. I suppose that answer won’t work if he asks me about, say, tampons.

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Alex Iwashyna February 25, 2013 16

So you’re saying you never saw the photo of Scott lighting a tampon on fire before shooting it through the air (http://www.lateenough.com/2010/03/even-parents-appreciate-flaming-objects-hurtling-through-the-air/)

On a more serious note, the first time E asked Scott if the dress up clothing was for boys or girls, I cried. I think if we teach them to trust in themselves and like what they like, even if (when) they go through a ridge phase, our children will come out the other side okay.

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Skye February 26, 2013 17

Princess Solidarity and The Yellow Bow are some of my favorite posts of all time. I hate the idea of “girl stuff” and “boy stuff”- just call it all kid stuff and let kids be who they are. Thank you for writing this.

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Lily from It's A Dome Life February 26, 2013 18

I keep thinking about the colors. I think most small kids like pink and red and sparkly stuff. It catches your eye. It’s strange to think about colors being gender specific or dogs, or trains…who makes these rules? My daughter is fascinated with trains and loves dogs and cats and hippos. Girls are supposed to like unicorns and boys are supposed to like dragons, but why? What does any of this have to do with gender?

This is so true and so sad: “Boy stuff is for everyone, and girl stuff is for girls. But when the girls hit middle school and beyond, we say: “Just kidding, boy stuff like professional sports anyone watches, making money, and feeling safe is actually just for boys. Hope you had fun with those trains.”

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Julia February 26, 2013 19

I love your insightful posts. I have a “boyish” boy who is rough and tumble but he also likes to paint his fingernails and wear my jewelry. I am fine with all of it. What worries me, is that there will be a point when he thinks that not all of these things are fine. But I definitely want him to know that all of his interests are perfectly normal to me and that in this family I will always support whatever he chooses, “boyish” “girlish” or in between.

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Kimberly February 26, 2013 20

This is brilliant.
If you don’t submit this to blogher I will get on a plane, go to your house, slap you then steal your daughter’s dandelion gun. It’s both cool and bad ass.
I completely agree with all of what you said. My son wanted to carry a purse so why not? I let him. My husband was all up in arms about it because that’s not “normal”…but what is normal. I didn’t wear any dresses until I was in my late teens.
Anyways, this is brilliant. Go. Submit. Now

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Alex Iwashyna February 26, 2013 21

Thank you so much. I don’t think I even know how to submit to blogher anymore — so does this mean you’re coming to visit me?

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kelly @kellynaturally February 28, 2013 22

Such thoughtful ruminations on a … very complicated topic that people aren’t really *sure* about yet.

“Boy stuff is for everyone, and girl stuff is for girls. But when the girls hit middle school and beyond, we say: “Just kidding, boy stuff like professional sports anyone watches, making money, and feeling safe is actually just for boys. Hope you had fun with those trains.” ”

And I think even those of us who may feel like we’ve put a lot of thought into this, who have tried to be “neutral” and accepting, may fall into the patterns of our own past experiences – foisting our childhood on our children, unintentionally.

We had a strange experience a couple of months ago which I wrote about http://www.kellynaturally.com/post/Food-for-Thought-on-the-Gender-Binary.aspx ~ only, I used “gender binary” in my description, and, I think I really like how you’ve redefined boy/girl as more of a spectrum; which seems so OBVIOUS.

Thanks for this piece, I’ve shared it.

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Melonie March 1, 2013 23

Brilliant post! I was voicing frustration just the other day that our local Target has modified their toy department- all the “girl” toys (dolls, Barbies, cooking/homemaker simulation) are in three aisles with pink peg boards. All the “boy” toys (everything else, including all the cool Star Wars stuff, which is all I played with as a kid) cover the other 8 aisles and have blue peg board backgrounds. There’s one aisle of toddler and baby toys that has the supposedly gender neutral color of yellow. Makes me want to scream.

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Erica March 1, 2013 24

I love the way you point out that it’s a spectrum, not binary. Dean likes to put on princess dresses in the dress-up corner at the children’s museum, and I help him and then take pictures, because (1) I think it’s sweet, (2) he looks really cute in dresses, just like E, and (3) I’m probably never going to have a daughter so I might as well get my fix before he realizes dresses are gross. Also, I paint my boys’ toenails when they ask, and it’s fun, and they love showing them off to others. But I have totally found myself urging them toward green, orange, and blue instead of pink and purple… I have no idea what I’m afraid of.

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Alex Iwashyna March 3, 2013 25

I want my kids to be themselves, but I also want to spare my kids pain, and when our kids act outside of the accepted norms of our community, they are at risk to be made fun, teased, hurt, left-out, and ridiculed so I often think my hesitation around any of this stuff (and other issues) is because I want to keep them safe from others. However, we all get teased even without doing something obvious, which I remind myself that that very fact should make us more brave, but sometimes it makes me want my kids to have a little bit longer without realizing that people won’t accept them for who they are and they have to be brave from the inside.

PS. I wrote about pushing E away from pink rain boots and buying them anyway (http://www.lateenough.com/2010/08/the-boy-in-pink/) but a year later he wouldn’t wear them anyway because he learned they weren’t for boys, which was so sad (http://www.lateenough.com/2011/09/boy-are-not-allowed-to-watch-hello-kitty/)

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Kevin March 2, 2013 26

Two things. The first is mostly unrelated.

1. The dress and drums reminded me of Jon Fishman from Phish.

B. Freakonomics just did a great podcast on gender differences that was interesting…. http://www.freakonomics.com/2013/02/24/women-are-not-men-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

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Alex Iwashyna March 3, 2013 27

I thought he’s fit into a punk band nicely as well.
You’re not the first person to send that podcast to me — thank you though. I’m looking forward to listening as I’ve only gotten to read the synopses so far.

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