Truck-Loving Girls and Ballet-Dancing Boys: Why Raising Ungendered Kids Isn't So Simple

Peggy Orenstein, you totally got to me. After reading your book, I feel all the more resolved not to let the cult of Disney Princesses into her life (or mine).
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When people asked what I was having while I was pregnant with my first child, I wanted to say, "Kittens." But instead, I answered, "Baby." Boy or girl, I didn't find out until the featherweight human emerged. Turned out he was (is) a beautiful boy. I didn't pick the word "handsome" purposefully: He had a bit of brownish hair, big green eyes, thick eyelashes, prominent owlish eyebrows, full lips and he was petite. Routinely mistaken for a girl, I didn't mind the confusion at all. I liked how pretty he was. Actually, I liked that people thought they knew -- and didn't.

I dressed him in blue and purple and brown and black and green and sometimes pink. As he grew a bit older -- preschool age -- and his love of fairies and sparkly things, "The Wizard of Oz" and Broadway musicals took root, I shopped both sides of the clothing store aisles. If you love flowers and glittery clothing and you've never so much as noticed a dump truck, why should you want a dump truck on your shirt? While some people questioned my encouraging him to love what he loved, I felt quite confident about this.

Physical endeavors -- the playground climber and the tricycle -- were challenging for him and he wasn't at all into sports. Ballet seemed an obvious choice, as he had already been a reindeer in the local Nutcracker. The people who were uncomfortable with his purple coat predictably advised us to have him try karate instead. Yet, to see the serious expression on his face in class and his penchant for the music and his love of the Sugar Plum's tulle, well, I felt like he'd found a home.

I liked that he was a boy learning ballet. I even liked that he was the only boy in his peer group to do so. Beyond the pro-equality side of feminism, this little subversive side of feminism in me was satisfied by chauffeuring the boy ballet dancer to class and waiting around with the mothers of all those girls in pink leotards (my boy wore white t-shirt and black tights). Feeling quite smugly a good parent, I enjoyed proving that it's possible to raise a happy kid without kowtowing to all convention: "Your boy likes baseball? Mine likes ballet. Deal with it."

I wound up with three longhaired boys. The second one dropped out of ballet at eight (unlike his older brother, he belonged to a trio of boy ballet peers), opting instead for soccer and karate. The next one, who considers the stage just about the most torturous place on earth, flat-out rejected offers of ballet class. He has just begun Capoeira. All three boys know they're boys and like being boys and seem entirely comfortable with their choices -- long hair or ballet or soccer or making art or having girl pals and boy pals. Lest you think there are no limits to their snubbing of gender-stereotype, at eight, 12 and 15, none of them would go out in public wearing pink.

Enter the girl. We always assumed that if we had a girl, she would have short hair and wear overalls and play with trucks and be a soccer star. I mean, that would be logical: boy ballet brothers with long hair, sassy tomboy girl. And in our minds, almost regardless of her desires, those would most certainly be ours.

Well, she has long (generally tangled) dark hair, nearly to her waist. A spritely girl, she has dark, shiny eyes and a mouth that is equally cute when grinning or pouting. While we have plenty of overalls for her, she doesn't wear them. Many mornings, she demands dresses (and leggings). She loves wearing the ballerina costume handed down by her cousin -- a shiny, ivory, satiny top with white tulle. Yesterday, she and her best friend went outside in the snow in their red and blue snowsuits (both her snow clothing and her friend's snow gear were handed down from our brother cohort; the purple snow jacket and pants come next) and immediately upon returning inside were out of their coats, snow pants and their clothing and back into their ballet costumes (her friend's is pink). They sat down and built Duplo towers in their frothy finery. They could not have been one iota cuter.

Peggy Orenstein, you totally got to me. After reading your book, I feel all the more resolved not to let the cult of Disney Princesses into her life (or mine). I feel all the more resolved not to call myself fat (even if I think it daily). I wasn't considering mother-daughter spa days or shopping sprees before pretty much inhaling Orenstein's feminist mother shockfest of the girlie girl 4-1-1 these days, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." But now I'm that much more certain that little old me is going to do my very best to stave off those 26,000 Disney Princess items and not to contribute to the $40 million a month that tween girls spend on beauty products. I didn't want my daughter to have a pink toy computer or pink bicycle before, and I really don't want her to have one now.

But that's not the end of the story. If only.

My daughter's a pretty little girl. I like that she's pretty. I don't want to cut her hair. Despite not liking that I like when she chooses to wear a dress, I totally, secretly do. Most of her clothing is hand-me-downs from brothers and friends. The few things I've bought her, though? I've gotten maybe four dresses, and a skirt with attached leggings. Over the holidays, I surveyed our overcrowded toy collection and deemed there was nothing new necessary. We ended up getting her a few books -- and a pair of red clogs. I mean, really? I bought her shoes? She loved them and I loved giving them to her. I am so busted.

Peggy Orenstein would, I am pretty sure, pat me on the shoulder in a "there, there" kind of way because in her book she describes her own breaks in that '70s feminism "people are people" resolve and her friends', too. I get it; gender equality can't be achieved by anything so simple as girls playing with trucks and boys doing ballet. I'm not alone in knowing that along with the desire to be a great thinker and worker and parent and partner, I also feel pressures to look certain ways and have my house be, if not spotless, then not post-tornado, either. Critique it all we want, we still live in the land that markets Disney Princess items not just to little girls but older girls -- 'tweens and teens -- and even brides. It's in that world we're raising daughters and sons.

So when my feisty, scrappy girl turns a backwards somersault and twirls around endlessly to her brother's music (the soundtrack from Sondheim's "Assassins"), I see that she could be a beautiful ballet dancer. Despite knowing she'd enter into that sea of girls in pink leotards and mostly gruff teachers and competition and stiff, mandatory hairstyles, there's part of me -- me -- smitten with the notion that she might just love ballet. I haven't signed her up. Yet.

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