The Dinosaur Shirt
The world is a fine teacher of how our boys and girls should be.
Our kids go to school. They have friends. They watch shows and videos and notice what’s going on around them. They have eyes and ears and they ask questions, so many questions, sometimes out loud and sometimes not. They listen. They process. Even at the youngest of ages they observe and interact with others to identify the patterns of what is “normal.” And, after a shockingly brief period of time, their little impressionable minds internalize the messages they’re sent and adapt accordingly.
They learn who they should be…and they’re faced with the arduous task of reconciling that with who they want to be. No biggie.
From the day my daughter was born we tried to keep our home as gender neutral as possible. We didn’t want to influence her one way or another and while I’m positive we weren’t perfect at it, we tried. From a very young age we talked about gender roles and how anyone can like any job. We talked about how anyone can like any toy or like any shirt. When we bought a baby doll, we bought a monster truck. When we bought a play kitchen, we bought a tool bench. And when we bought a ballerina shirt, we bought a dinosaur shirt.
Oh, the dinosaur shirt.
We noticed the change a couple of years in. Whether it was through society’s messaging or her own preferences and natural tendencies developing as she got older, or likely a mix of both, the stuffed animals, play kitchens, tea sets, dress up clothes, and baby dolls all took center stage and the “boy toys” ended up in a heap in the closet. We figured it was phase but she never did circle back around. To this day she still couldn’t care less about guns, toy trucks, or action heroes and instead carefully tends to her growing brood of every single baby doll under the sun.
Well. That settles that, I thought.
I struggled a little at first but I took comfort knowing we did what we could to allow her to develop her likes and dislikes from what came naturally and not from what she was pushed or conditioned to prefer (at least, not by us). She learned not to follow what was funny, popular, expected, or obligatory, but instead to follow the beat of her own drum. And so, we embraced the little princess and tried to balance out the “girliness” wherever we could…
With dinosaur shirts.
While my daughter may not have taken to the typical masculine toys, she still wore whatever I laid out for her, which always included several shirts from the boys section because I thought it was nice for her to wear something other than pink or purple every once in a while. I’ve bought clothes from the boys section since she was a baby and it always went over smoothly.
Until the dinosaur shirt.
This week finally brought some much-needed short-sleeve weather to our area, and with it a new wardrobe of flowers, fire trucks, rainbows, and basketballs. As my almost-four-year-old pulled out the outfit I had picked out for school one morning, she immediately crinkled her nose and looked back and forth between me and the shirt. It was yellow and grey with a dinosaur on it. I figured it was stained or something but when I asked her what was wrong, she said, “Ew, mommy I’m not wearing this. This is a BOY SHIRT.”
Cue the cringe.
I wasn’t bothered that she didn’t like the shirt. She’s almost four and she’s allowed to not like things. I was bothered by the reason why. I tried to ask her for more. What makes it a boy shirt? Do you think you can’t wear boy shirts? Did someone tell you that? WHO TOLD YOU THAT? I nearly gave the poor kid the fourth degree but I caught myself. She didn’t have any answers. When I sat back to take it all in, I realized, of course. SHE’S THREE. She doesn’t have any answers because she doesn’t know any answers. She just knows she doesn’t want to wear a boy shirt.
Looking back I think I was attempting to make sense in my own adult mind of how and when this kind of gender conditioning happens, and was trying to accept the degree of it that’s totally outside of my control. I tried to recover and explained that girls can like yellow and grey and dinosaurs, just like boys can like pink and purple and rainbows. That all of the colors and all of the clothes are for all boys and girls.
She actually did end up wearing the shirt to school, but I thought about that interaction all day long.
It’s no secret that girls are conditioned to model traditional femininity. By movies, magazines, retail stores, Youtube videos, parents, families, teachers, friends, and so on. Be polite and gentle and selfless. Also, be pretty and skinny and prefer certain colors, clothes, and animals. Sugar and spice and everything nice, right?
It’s also no secret that boys are conditioned to model traditional masculinity by the same means. Control and dominate and win. Be aggressive. Don’t be weak, don’t be emotional…don’t be girly. Snips and snails and puppy dog tails.
As a mama, what I’ve seen recently is a hard push against that expectation of traditional femininity, and as a girl mom I love it. I love the empowering videos, the children’s books, the shirts in the girls section with dinosaurs and robots, the articles about how girls can be athletic AND girly and they don’t have to choose. I love that my little girl has these things to see to help her figure out who she is.
But I can’t help but wonder about our boys.
What I see for them is a much, much less forgiving landscape of gender progress. Go into the boys section at the store. Do you see a ballerina anywhere? A cat? A unicorn? Heck, even a HEART? Anyone? Bueller?
I see nothing that tells our boys how they can also choose, how they can also be athletic and girly too. What I usually see is…boys…girly? Are you KIDDING? I don’t think so. For males, femininity is still seen as demeaning and weak and to many, as downright offensive. Female empowerment is praised and promoted but Gillette caused a poop storm when they tried to tackle toxic masculinity for a mere 90 seconds in a recent ad campaign. The company faced fierce backlash as many threatened to boycott their products. Ipsy was lampooned when they launched a makeup campaign featuring a male model. People called it disgusting. Sinful. Offensive. Some cancelled their memberships and sent the company hate mail.
Over what, exactly?
I don’t know. As a parent, I’m confused. I’m no expert in gender studies. I still have so many more questions than I do answers. I wonder what’s nature and what’s nurture. I wonder if I would’ve parented a boy differently. I wonder how much of who my girl is today was her own choice or how much was who she was conditioned to be.
I wonder how confused our babies must be, because if this topic is so complex I can’t even wrap my adult mind around it, they must feel terribly lost and conflicted growing up in a world filled with mixed messages.
What I know is that our girls are still conditioned to be girls and our boys are still conditioned to be boys and mamas, like it or not, we’re raising our babies in the thick of it. It’s impossible to shield them from it completely.
But it’s not impossible to help them cope with the mixed messages and teach them how to love, accept, and support others who are coping with mixed messages, too. It’s not impossible to create a home safe enough to struggle and allow our littles to figure out who they truly are. It’s not impossible to balance out the world’s unavoidable conditioning with intentional, and sometimes difficult, conversations. It’s not impossible to deal with this head on and explain things in a way their little minds can understand, if even a little bit.
It’s not impossible to love our babies unconditionally. This, perhaps, is the most possible thing in the entire universe for us to do. It’s the only thing we can guarantee them in this life. To love them no matter who they are, who they want to be, or who they turn out to be.
Unconditional love knows no masculinity or femininity, and a mama’s love knows no obligation. It’s in our bones.
All we have to do is make sure our babies know that.
Either that or I’m reading way too much into a t-shirt.