My 22-month-old daughter is often mistaken for a boy. This isn’t a problem in and of itself—I don’t think it actually matters whether people know what her sex or gender is, and of course later in life she may tell us that she doesn’t feel like a girl anyway—but what I find interesting is the reasons people give for assuming she’s a boy. And so I like to challenge their assumptions by telling them that she is, in fact, a girl.
The conversations we have with random strangers usually go something like this:
Stranger: “What a cute boy. How old is he?”
Me or my wife: “She is 22 months old.”
Stranger: “He’s a girl? But he can’t be!”
And then follows some explanation for why our girl must be a boy.
Here are some of the reasons we’ve been offered:
“She’s not wearing pink.” Do all girls and women have to wear pink all the time in order to be secure in their femininity and recognized as females? Personally, I don’t own any pink clothes, and I don’t feel that this causes problems in my life.
“She’s wearing blue/gray/brown/red/any color other than pink.” Because of course those colors are only for boys!
“She’s wearing khaki trousers.” Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize only males could have khaki trousers on. Other times, people have commented on the fact that she’s wearing trousers, regardless of the colour, and not skirts, as though little female children must be in skirts or dresses all the time. How impractical for playing.
“She looks like a particular male Hollywood actor.” So if someone resembles a person of a particular sex, they must be the same sex?
“She’s wearing her sleeves rolled up.” Only men can roll up their sleeves? What was especially funny about this one is that my wife and I both had our sleeves rolled up too, because it was a hot day. So three females were wearing rolled-up sleeves, but this was only considered to be an issue for the little girl. Maybe the person talking to us was worried we were masculinizing our daughter, while it was too late for us adults.
“She was flirting with me and I’m a woman!” First of all, children don’t flirt, and it’s rather strange to assume that a friendly toddler is actually a coquette. Secondly, even if she were flirting, why can’t she flirt with someone of the same sex?
“Her eyes are so dark!” This is just a puzzle. Do girls have to have blue or green eyes?
“Her hairstyle threw me,” or “She has short hair.” Young children often have short hair, as it’s just starting to grow. But besides that, lots of girls and women have short hair. Why not?
“She doesn’t have a bow in her hair.” Is a female child supposed to look like Minnie Mouse for some reason?
“She’s not playing with a doll!” So are girls only allowed to play with dolls? Why can’t they have a wide variety of toys? And what would happen if a boy were playing with a doll? Would he (or his parents) be criticized for that? The person who said this one specifically mentioned that our daughter ought to have a Barbie doll. When I remarked that I think that Barbie dolls give people unrealistic ideas of what women should look like, the man looked puzzled and then asked if I was a teacher or professor (I am, of course, but I don’t think that’s the reason why my wife and I have reflected on the types of toys our daughter should have).
It’s not exactly news to point out that our society has such limited views of the genders. What’s disappointing is that we’re so quick to push our stereotypes and opinions onto kids. Sure, we’re definitely making progress in terms of our expectations for the genders, but given the experiences my daughter has had just over a few months, it seems we definitely have far to go.
We’ll continue to let our daughter choose her toys, clothes, and hairstyle, and we’ll continue to encourage her to have a variety of colors, styles, and activities in her life. And, of course, we’ll keep challenging people’s assumptions. But frankly, that gets exhausting at times. How much nicer it would be if people just commented on children’s interesting toys or colorful clothes and were less interested in the gender of the child.