‘Nice Dress, Sissy Boy’ – Why we need to start celebrating gender non-conforming children.

When I was little I spent a lot of time with my cousins. We’d whittle away our summer afternoons under the watchful eye of grandmother; trailing sand and damp, sea-stained towels in and out of her home. By the time she’d finished cleaning up after our first invasion, we’d return again demanding to be fed, her Labrador bounding behind us with half the contents of the beach in tow.

Throughout the summer I’d notice my female cousins’ clothes; they got to wear cute dungarees and dawned crop tops. They were allowed to dress like girls, yet nobody commented when they’d play football or come back covered in mud. They could be boisterous and embodied an energy that would commonly be found in little boys, but when I acted feminine, by letting friends paint my nails, or by asking to wear clothing that was for ‘girls’, I was admonished by other children and adults.

It was in my early teens, whilst home alone, that I finally got the chance to indulge this curiosity and I tried on a crop top. I whipped the top over my head, and it sat perfectly above my midsection: A foreign sense of comfort clothed me; I had never felt more like myself. I walked out into the corridor, strutting back and forth passed the mirror, my stomach bare and reeling. I wasn’t sure if I had been ruined or awoken. Yet still that sickly feeling of guilt stuck; as though what I was doing was wrong in some way.

It wasn’t until I grew older and gained some traction, that I started to pick away at the double standard we hold to young boys and girls: Even though there is still some taboo, it’s a lot more acceptable for a little girl to dress like boy, than it is for boy to dress like a girl – sadly that same double standard is still horribly apparent even today in 2017.

Unless you decided to spend your Christmas vacation under a rock (which, let’s be honest, is a damn sight more appealing for some of us) you’ve likely been privy to the Lewis Hamilton ‘scandal.’

For those who may not be familiar with the story, on Christmas morning Hamilton posted a video featuring his nephew who, at the time, was wearing a princess dress. During the video Hamilton embarrasses his nephew by saying ‘boys don’t wear princess dresses’ whilst also expressing his ‘sadness’ that his nephew asked for one for Christmas. These comments seen people race to express their disgust in the driver’s distasteful remarks – and rightly so.

Gender norms are a hot topic right now, and it’s one that’s raged like a forest fire through various publications and social media platforms. So, when a celebrity weighs in the debate reaches boiling point.

To many Hamilton is a hero, a role-model, and I feel that’s why so many of us have taken such umbrage at his ignorant remarks. A celebrity persona with 5.4 million followers should not be promoting such ridged rules around gender expression, regardless of his own views, because we don’t know enough about it to make fair comment.

Quick recap: The issue here is a boy in a princess dress. Alert the world, this is the axis of real stuff. Today he’s wearing a dress, tomorrow he’ll have invented a laser beam capable of sawing the sun in two.

Gender is a lot more complex than most realise. As such it’s a topic that prompts very divided opinions, and discussions involving the gender appear to live on opposite sides of a spectrum.

On one side sits religion and tradition, which frequently hijack the conversation with comments on how little boys should not behave like little girls – they shouldn’t put make up on, play with barbies –  as if acting feminine is somehow degrading.  It’s this same mentality that breeds early sexism in young boys, seeing them get touchy even offended when they’re called feminine nick-names. As if a boy being girly is a bad thing.

Then the other side houses the rants of uninformed liberalism, with some people becoming overly defensive and reacting without taking a moment to structure a proper argument. This can sometimes do more damage than good.

The truth is, we are all still remarkably ignorant to the complexity of gender.

As I read through the tweets surrounding the Hamilton video I found myself grinding my teeth and shaking my head – a move I’ve dubbed the ‘dismay churn’. For every heart-warming reply and outraged expression, two more bigoted comments followed. The argument that Hamilton was merely expressing his opinion, and therefore he shouldn’t have to apologise for it, keeps creeping up – but I fail to see how bullying a child is an opinion?

Even though the science surrounding gender hasn’t changed, the way we talk about it has. Gender has started showing us how fluid it can be; it’s teaching us that displaying traits or wants that are ‘traditionally’ attributed to your opposite sex means very little in terms of defining who you are.

This discussion has over the last few years  lead gender to be viewed from a entirely new perspective, one that I can only hope will allow for more fluid self-expression in the coming years. Even though research is limited, there does seem to be biological factors that create gender dysmorphia. Regardless of whatever science finds, we should never shame anyone for expressing themselves. Whether that’s a young girl that wants to play rugby, or a little boy who is giddy in a princess dress; a man strutting his stuff in high heels or someone that identifies as neither male or female.

Living in the UK, we’re part of a number of countries that are lucky enough to express ourselves without (much) fear of prejudice. We can live our lives the way we want, and over the last decade it’s become a lot easier to foster an identity we feel most comfortable in. Yet, I’d be willing to bet that a young boy turning up to school in a dress would be met with snide remarks and judgemental glances by some of the people he encountered that day.

It’s all very well for me, someone who doesn’t have a child, to sit and give my opinion on the matter but when it comes down to it all my views on the situation are simply that, views. ‘If I were a parent I’d do this’, ‘If that was my son he could do that.’ Everything if hypothetical, as I am not yet a father so I don’t know how I’d react when it came to protecting my child.

I can see why some parents may harbour reservation about letting their five-year-old son go to school in a dress. This discomfort might not be born from any homophobia or transphobia, but rather from fear that something could happen to their son. The ideal that the world should be accepting and embrace everyone for who they want to be is a cute notion, but it’s also horribly naive to assume the world works that way. Sadly until it does, ignorant remarks will continue to have detrimental effects.

Being shamed for self-exploration ultimately leads you to cut off certain aspects of yourself. What was once little more than an urge to express yourself can morph into a flashing beacon of insecurity. It makes you feel ashamed of who you are. It can become a scarlet letter as your growing up. Insecurity takes many forms. It can make a person shrink or put them on the attack. Perhaps that’s why there’s an undeniable correlation between the once children who were told they can’t be or express themselves, and the teens and young adults who suffer from mental health problems.

On paper gender may be predominantly black or white, but the reality is something far more diverse. Your gender identity however should be whatever you want it to be. If someone wants to indulge their feminine characteristics or celebrate their masculinity, then they should be free too – and the same applies for children.

 

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