My yoga teacher Linda’s 3-year-old son Mateo wanted a dress. That’s what she told me last December when she was pregnant with her second child. She wasn’t sure at the time that she’d get Mateo a dress, because her husband felt conflicted about it. As an artist of Mexican descent, I wondered if Mateo’s dad had experienced any disapproval as a child for not fitting his culture’s tradition of machismo. But either way, I was sure the pink tutu I knew Mateo wore occasionally was helping his dad work through some antiquated beliefs about masculinity.
When Linda’s daughter, Marianna, was born this spring, I bought some books as a baby gift. I wanted to get big-brother Mateo a little something, too. I picked out Jacob’s New Dress for him, a picture book that demonstrates there are many ways to be a boy.
The gifts were wrapped when I handed them to Linda, so I gave her a heads-up on the title for Mateo.
“He’ll love it!” she said. “I’m actually getting him a dress for his birthday.”
“You are?” I asked, feeling the urge to hug her.
“He still wants one, so I ordered a couple online.”
I imagined Mateo being as excited about his first dress as my son Harry had been over two decades ago when he got his first Barbie doll. Linda just wanted to do right by her little boy, and I admired her for following her instincts. “You’re such a cool mom.”
She laughed. “Well, I don’t know about that. His dad feels a bit unsettled by it.”
I thought Jacob’s New Dress might be a good read for him, too.
The following week Linda told me that Mateo had wanted to read that book more than 100 times over the past seven days. I felt like a fairy godmother that had validated a little boy’s desire for a comfortable piece of clothing. But it was his mom who granted the wish.
My writing mentor let me know on Facebook recently that she’d bought an Elsa dress for her three-year-old son. “And who knows if I would have if it weren’t for you and the Wendy fiasco,” she wrote. While she was referring to one of my early Halloween disasters, her words reinforced the sea change that I felt was moving society away from the rigid stereotypes that can limit a child’s creativity and self-expression.
Then earlier this week, the waves quieted when a new friend told me about her two-year-old nephew.
“His sister, who’s four, is very girly,” she said. “She’s into princess clothes, dress up, and lipstick, so my nephew sees her and wants to dress-up, too. Don’t you think he’s just following what his big sister is doing?”
“I do think a younger brother or sister typically wants to do whatever an older sibling does,” I replied. “But then again, what toddler wouldn’t be attracted to shiny, sparkly, pretty things? I mean it’s not like boys are born liking only navy blue, dark green, and khaki.”
We both laughed.
“Well, my boyfriend isn’t so sure about encouraging a little boy to dress up as a princess.”
And there it was: a hint of the false belief that a boy untouched by gender roles or stereotypes, who wants to put on a dress or play with a doll, will grow up to be gay. I wanted to say that I wished her boyfriend would think before he speaks, because I know how disapproving looks can convey the message, “You are not okay.” But obviously he’d been taught the same gender stereotypes that shape the expectations too many people have for boys and girls.
I assured my new friend that her nephew was born with his own unique identity and will grow up to be exactly who he is. He might be gay, or he might not. Her princess niece, for that matter, could grow up to fall in love with another princess. We are who we are. And our parents, families, and friends of the family simply need to let us be our true selves, at any age, in a tutu or a hardhat, or both.
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