My high-school friend introduced me to her 5-year old son the other day. Apart from the fact that he stood exactly 180 degrees facing the opposite direction and refused to acknowledge my existence, he seemed nice enough. But what was up with the outfit? A John Deere trucker cap and a t-shirt with a monster car kicking up clouds of dirt from under oversized wheels. Was this an Ashton Kutcher starter kit? I’ll pass over the fact that I knew plenty of kids in high school who dressed like this without even thinking about it. Some of them even knew how to drive a John Deere tractor. But neither of us did. So how did her kid wind up this way?I was a little surprised at my own reaction. What does it matter what a little boy or girl wears? I remember having a pair of cowboy boots with fancy stitching, and a few Evel Knievel t-shirts that I deeply regretted loosing to whoever stole them out of the laundromat in the late 70s.
But I couldn't help myself. "Gimme a break," I thought. "I'd never buy a shirt like that for Spot." Though my wife and I have never really talked about it, most of Spot's onesies are "gender neutral." We like it that way. Thankfully he looks good in pastels, because he's wearing a lot of light orange, green, and yellow these days. He has a few blue outfits, one ridiculously cute sailor suit, and a few novelty pieces. By and large, he's steering clear of the blue-pink dichotomy.
As far as motifs go, his clothes are decorated with quite a few dinosaurs, a good selection of African megafauna, and various amphibian and mammalian species native to temperate Eurasia. Plus, of course, the usual barnyard crew. So Spot is on his way to being somewhat of a naturalist, perhaps even a paleontologist. What is absent from wardrobe is anything powered by an internal combustion engine or resembling a professional athletic jersey.
Putting this wardrobe together was no easy feat. A quick stroll through the children's apparel section in Target makes it clear that there is a "pink side" and a "blue side". Delve deeper into the infant clothing section, and you'll find that the rack of Target and Gerber brands is about evenly divided according to Yin and Yang, with, as a concession to the way of the Tao, a thin strip of gender neutral offerings in the middle. If you want more selection, you have to go to specialty stores elsewhere in the City. My mother has been doing a yeo-woman's job of culling the gender neutral stuff from various discount department stores, but both she and my wife have insisted that it's not easy.
Why go to all the trouble? After pondering over the question, it's become clear to me that what Spot wears is less about him right now than about us as parents and what we communicate to the world through his outfits. My own folks have told me they paid no attention to what I wore as a small child (always nice to hear), and despite the cowboy boots and the Evel Knievel t-shirts, I failed to turn into either a cowboy or a motorcycle-riding stunt man. No, the way we clothe Spot is more about reassuring ourselves of our parenting choices, and signaling these choices to parents and others around us.
"He doesn't HAVE to dress that way," is what we're saying when we dress him. The complex of associations that make up gender identity doesn't necessarily have to include trucks, rockets, earth-moving machinery, and really really fast cars. It can include some of these things, but it can include other things too. It's all a protest, perhaps mostly symbolic, that the package of traits that is conventionally known as "boyhood" can be mixed up and filled with all sorts of things.
But does that include dresses? At coffee one morning with a mom down the street, I saw her 8-month old daughter in a skirt for the first time. "Oh boy," I thought, "once you cross that line, there's no going back." Boys go hither, girls girls go yon. "What about a kilt?" my wife asked. Yes, there are options: the eminently practical Middle Eastern dishdashah, and various central and south Asian tunics, for example, none of which I have ever worn nor am likely to. And while experiments with all this might be fine now, while he is a tabula rasa, he will have friends one day, and in that Lord of the Flies world he will be forced to choose sides. And he will think we were foolish for not having prepared him.
Or, if we take the trouble to get him comfortable dressing beyond the pink-blue dichotomy, to take him shopping where there really is a range of things to choose from besides frilly blouses and football jerseys, perhaps he will feel comfortable designing a wardrobe that expresses who he is, and not the category in which he must be classified.