My son is 4. When he was 2, he went through a phase of wearing pink pants to day care for about two weeks.
About four weeks before preschool ended for summer this year, he started wearing skirts, dresses and flowery shirts to school most days. I felt a little awkward about it for the first couple of days, but I didn’t have any good reason to stop it, and frankly, I had several good reasons to support it.
For one thing, it made the miserable drudgery of convincing him to get dressed for school bearable as summer vacation approached, seemingly at a snail’s pace. Our only hope of getting him to school on time was to let him wear ANYTHING that fit the school dress code. Every parent has heard the advice, “pick your battles.” Each item of clothing he chooses himself increases the likelihood that I’ll get a bite of vegetables in him at dinner, a reasonable bedtime and the car seat buckled without a scene.
The school responded to his wardrobe choices in exemplary fashion. As he went in, a teacher would ask him, “What are you going to say if someone asks you about your shirt/skirt/dress?” To which he would answer something along the lines of, “It is my concert shirt” or “It makes me happy.” The teacher would then say, “OK, that’s what you say if anyone asks you why you are wearing it!” In he would go, happy as a clam. Out he would come at the end of the day, having raised a few eyebrows and received lots of compliments, still happy as a clam. I was relieved. So I picked up a few items at a thrift store that fit him better (and may eventually be available to my younger child).
During the last week of school, my in-laws very generously offered to watch the kids so I could go out for dinner with friends. Upon my return, I faced a very unusual confrontation. It may not seem confrontational, but trust me, this is as confrontational as my in-laws get.
FIL: “So, what is with the skirts?”
Me: “Well, it is the path of least resistance right now. We would’ve been on time for school this morning if I had known he was willing to wear a skirt. Instead I spent an hour trying to get pants and shorts on him. I don’t know why he didn’t just ask for a skirt….”
MIL: “Do you think he prefers them?”
Me: “Well, you know, I do — especially when it is hot out like this, skirts are a lot more comfortable and cool. I mean, the Scots preferred them, too, right?”
FIL: “I just hope he isn’t getting teased too much at school.”
Me: “No, that isn’t a problem. I asked him the other night at dinner if anyone said anything about his dress. He said everyone loved it.”
FIL: “Mmm. I’m not sure how long that is gonna last.”
I’m no idiot. I know that school children can be merciless. However, even in this exceptionally civil conversation, I see a couple of concerning assumptions.
My son isn’t hurting anyone. For whatever reason, he is choosing to wear frills and frocks on occasion. Yet the assumption is that he will be teased for dressing “like a girl,” and that action should be taken to prevent this from happening. There is a simple phrase for this attitude: victim blaming. The implication is that my son, by wearing girls’ clothing, is “asking” to be teased; that he would be the perpetrator of his own [non-existent] torment; that he should conform to societal norms to avoid even the risk of bullying instead of society confronting bullying, in the event that it occurs. If it does occur, why not confront and educate the bully, rather than admonish the victim?
There is also a gender bias here. While girls are often judged for wearing just about anything — be it masculine, feminine, short or long — I think it is fair to say that societal norms favor girls wearing pants more than boys wearing skirts. Girls are permitted (if not encouraged) to emulate boys, while boys are shunned for emulating girls. This continues into adulthood, with serious ramifications for women, men and families. Women are encouraged to “lean in” to their work while child-rearing, but men receive little or no paternity leave and are learning to pass as workaholics so they can spend more time with family. The examples are endless, but suffice it to say that just as the opposite of science isn’t girl, the opposite of boy isn’t teacher, nurse, dancer or homemaker.
My son wore a a flowered shirt, frilly skirt and leg warmers on the last day of school. I am very proud of who he is and the many wonderful girls and women he may wish to emulate. I am proud of his school, which has accepted and embraced him completely thus far. And I am proud of myself for not caving to my in-laws.
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