“Is that a boy?” “Is that a girl?” “What is that?”
That, friends, is my daughter. She hears your questions and feels your stares. She’s not a that. She’s a 5-year-old human. She likes to play outside, draw self-portraits, be a mermaid, belt out “My Shot” in the grocery store, ride bikes with her brother, bake cookies on rainy days and a zillion other things little kids like to do.
Sometimes she wears dresses. Sometimes she wears sweats. Sometimes she dresses up like an astronaut or a pig or a doughnut. Sometimes, all three ― a self-described AstroPigaNut. And she has short hair.
That last characteristic shouldn’t be the thing that makes her interesting. Unless, say, her hair were spiked or neon or she had visible words or shapes shaved in cool patterns. Then I could maybe understand why people might stare ― I know I’ve ogled my share of fun hair in the world, usually wishing for the confidence to pull it off.
This isn’t that though.
This isn’t some playful wistfulness about wanting purple hair or spikes or words shaved above my ear. This is about people stopping us in the grocery store in the middle of my daughter’s “whoa-whoa-oh-oh-oh,” not to express amazement and joy at a 5-year-old who has nearly memorized the “Hamilton” soundtrack but to say, “Your son? Is singing?”
My daughter tells me with her eyes, “Go ahead and tell ’em, Mama.” So I do.
“That’s my daughter, and she’s singing the Ham―,” I start.
“Is he... I mean she ―?”
She’s singing, dumbass.
And off we roll.
“There’s a million things I haven’t done,” she sings. “Just you WAAAAIIIIIT.”
Jazz hands in the pickle aisle. Stunned strangers wondering aloud if I’ve let my son dress up as a girl or my daughter dress up as a boy or ... I let them wonder.
You’re wondering, too, I bet. It’s OK, but not really.
My daughter is a girl ― however you define that term. She’s pretty adamant when she says, “I’m a girl with short hair, Mama. What’s everyone’s problem?” And if she ever ends up saying any iteration of that statement otherwise, what of it? She is herself and I am her mother and I love my kids and that’s that. That’s that for me, anyway.
I know what she’s up against. She’s learning that she’s up against something and her brother knows it, too. They’re not quite sure what.
The grocery store wasn’t a one-off:
On the soccer field:
Another parent: “He got a goal! Wait, that little boy has a girl’s name! Oh. Oh. Wait. I think that’s a…?”
Me: “Yes, she loves soccer! So does her bro―”
At the barbershop:
Barber: (son in chair) “Shall I cut the little guy’s hair next?”
Me: “Yes, please, my daughter would love a trim. That’d be gr―”
Barber: “Oh. … We, uh, we don’t, ahh ... cut girls’ hair.”
Snip snip snip, pay, exit, sidewalk.
Daughter: (hands on hips) “Mama, that man discriminated against me because I’m a girl.”
Son: (face crinkled) “Mama, I wish I could give my haircut back.”
Yes, she really said discriminated.
At the swimming pool:
Stranger: “Why is that little boy in a bikini? Or is that a…? Oh. Wait there’s another one. Well, he’s in a normal suit...”
Me: “Yes, my kids like to swim.”
Out and about:
Stranger: “Oh! What beautiful boys? you have!”
My daughter: “Tell ’em, Mama. Tell ’em!”
The thing that bugs me, that keeps me up at night, is that this isn’t OK.
It’s natural to be curious about things you don’t understand. I get it. If you have a question or you’re confused or you just have to know, you can ask a polite question. I’ve found this strategy effective when I’m the ignorant one. If you can’t or don’t know how to ask a polite question, don’t ask or say anything. Don’t stare. Go home and read. Or ask Google. If you’re not sure whether your question or comment qualifies as polite, it probably isn’t. Why can’t we let people be?
Here’s why: Our culture’s preoccupation with gender isn’t healthy. It’s no news flash that our patriarchy functions on the premise of a two-gendered binary system. Either/or. One or the other. Boys get to do this. Girls get to do that. I get it.
But it’s holding us ― all of us here, together on this burning rock ― back. We forget that we’re all people in one big Mr. Rogers-esque neighborhood.
When I was pregnant, people would stop me, usually in the grocery store (maybe I should just stop going to the grocery store?) and ask what I “was having.” This alone was not OK.
“I’m having a … baby,” I’d say. I knew I was being a shit and would feel a little bad because it was usually some sweet lady who loved babies and just wanted to know, but the question annoyed me because it’s no one’s business. None of it is.
“Well,” she’d say and pat my belly, which would kick me beyond retrievability into a fire-breathing rage, “what kind?”
I’d say, “a wombat” or “a puppy” or my favorite, “a shark ― doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” or a vampire or whatever.
And then she’d say, “No, really,” and I’d say, “No, really, a baby. I don’t know the gender. I didn’t find out,” and then I’d walk away, wondering what it is about knowing a baby’s gender that puts folks in such a tizzy and why it’s ever OK to walk up to a stranger who’s out and about minding her own business and ask questions about her body.
It is not.
I want my kids to know that our world has gendered expectations that are biased, cruel and systemic. That that system ― the culture, the politics, all of it ― is broken and that if they have to be in it, which they do because there’s no alternative universe (at least, not at the moment), then they need to be kind and use their power to stand up for themselves and others.
I want my kids to know that our world has gendered expectations that are biased, cruel and systemic. That that system ― the culture, the politics, all of it ― is broken and that if they have to be in it, which they do because there’s no alternative universe (at least, not at the moment), then they need to be kind and use their power to stand up for themselves and others. It’s a tall order, I know.
I want them to know that so many people think girls are “less” because they will grow up to be women and that mothers are less than that, silenced into a corner that even Gregor Samsa would find unbearable. I want them to know that boys generally have an easier go at the world. That “the way it is” isn’t so grand.
And at the same time, I want them to be kids, because they are. I want to shield them from ignorance and horrible things, but also to know what the world is ― and what it isn’t ― just a little. It’s hard. I’m trying my best.
My daughter did not want short hair to make a political statement or defy gender expectations. She wanted short hair because she thought it would feel better. It does. She says she runs faster. This alone is enough.
As much as she dreams of starring in a Broadway musical about a revolution, she never had any intention of being part of an actual revolution. Now she’s starting to understand that she is.
Alyssa Walker is a writer and editor living in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Engadget and other publications. She’s currently working on her first novel. Check out her website and follow her @lysmank.