My boy loves ball gowns

When Re was three, he used to play dress-up with one of my old deep red spaghetti minis.  It was something I had kept aside to remind me of my thin days, although I usually give most clothes away. Re found it in my closet and asked me if he could wear it. I said why not? I must say it looked nice on him, with his curly locks and twinkly eyes and general poise. He twirled round and round in it and seemed really happy with himself.

It was love at first sight. The red dress and he.

I took a picture. “I hope you are not going to Facebook that,” the husband said, when he saw it.

But the important thing was, we were in agreement that ‘banning’ anything in the early years is the road to rebellion later. So we let him wear the red dress and indulge his ‘feminine’ side whenever he wished.

Was I missing a girl child and that’s why I indulged him? I think not.

Was I trying to unburden him from the constraints of gender? I think not.

I realised that telling him the cliched “Boys wear this, and girls wear that,” wouldn’t work for him. It wouldn’t work for me either.

Every afternoon, Re would return from school and ask for the ‘red dwess’. Sometimes he dressed it up with a sash, sometimes he would ask for bangles or a bindi, sometimes he even tried my shoes with it. We had agreed that afternoons were for dress-up, and he would willingly change into his regular clothes when we went out in the evening. On days that the dress went for a wash, he would be despondent.

Once, he wanted to wear the red dress to the park. My heart sank a little, not because I was ashamed of explaining it to people who knew he was a boy, but because I didn’t want them to think that dressing him like a girl was part of a larger social experiment, from a feminist stand point. I told him he could wear it just once, but then we would have to switch back to only wearing it at home. The lines between yielding to conformity and encouraging self-expression were blurring, even for me. May be I was protecting him from being laughed at, because he wouldn’t know what they were laughing at.

When we went to the US this summer, my friend Amrita wanted to buy him something when she took me shopping. He pointed to a Doc McStuffin bracelet and necklace set at Target. It was his instantly. He wears one or both every single day.

A friend said, “Stop all this, or he will turn gay.” I knew it was coming, but I stayed calm. I tried to explain that there is no correlation between kids cross-dressing and being gay. Maybe it’s a stage and it will pass. Maybe it’s not. But either way, I didn’t want him to feel that he wasn’t able to express himself because we didn’t support him.

Even when Re wore technically ‘baba’ clothes, many strangers still called him “baby” because of his long curls.  I would gently tell them he was a ‘baba’ if they asked. Else I would just let it go. I know it bothers parents when you confuse their kids’ gender, but I was okay with it.

When we moved house to come and live on the school campus where I now teach,  the red dress got left behind. Re missed it initially and still asks about it sometimes, but then he discovered the joys of dupattas and draping. One day, he found a blue sarong that had just the right fall. He draped it around him and pretended it was a ball gown, with tail and all. That was it! The ‘red dwess’ was replaced by the ‘blue dwess.’

I know from experience that some children do not conform to the conventional gender behaviour and Re is one. Some days he loves dressing his dolls, painting his nails and theirs, wearing a tiara, coloring their hair and throwing tea-parties for them; other days, he roughhouses with his cars and pretends to be a monster or a dragon. Of course, had Re been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no one would expect me to justify anything; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes football or Spiderman.

May be there is a more simplistic explanation for all this and we are unnecessarily looking for subtext where there is none. Dressing up is what little boys do. You may think your son is a crusader for wearing women’s clothing in public but actually, he’s just playing a game. He is simply a boy who sometimes likes to dress and play in conventionally feminine ways.

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(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 29th September, 2014)

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That boy in yellow nail-polish

A few months ago, I took Re for his first real haircut. His locks had grown beyond my ability to manage, but he never said “yes” to a haircut, so I had let him be. Before I knew it, his hair was long enough for a braid and had enough volume for four heads. I often got asked if he was a “baba” or a “baby” and I smiled through it. These were not the battles I wanted to fight.

We went through the butterfly clip-banana clip-scrunchy-hair-band route, and one fine day, he said, “Don’t put anything in my hair!” It was finally time to let the hair go. A new kiddie salon had just opened in the area; I decided to try my luck. Since Re doesn’t take well to sitting on swivel chairs in capes and strangers touching his hair, we had to try something different. We tried stickers and doodle pads, but what really worked like magic was nail polish. For the next 10 minutes, an assistant painted away on Re’s fingers and toes, while the hairdresser went snip-snip. And just like that, he went from Rapunzel to cute mop. On the way home, I asked him if he liked his new hair. He said, “I like my new nail polish,” beaming at his fingers and toes.

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Off he went to school the next day, low maintenance hair, feet adorned with bright yellow nail polish, happy as a bird. On day two, he came back from school and announced, “Mamma, boys don’t wear nail polish. Only girls wear nail polish!”

So his first lesson in stereotyping had begun. It made me a bit sad, but it was a sign of things to come. The nail polish, of course, wore off in a few days, but the boy-girl statements would erupt every once in a while and I would never miss an opportunity to tell him they weren’t true. But then, for a child, seeing is believing. If he never saw a boy wearing nail polish or long hair, he would probably think that was the norm, right?

Since birth, I hardly bought Re any toys. There were hand-me downs from his male cousins (strictly gender-specific) and the rest he found on his own. A tea cup here, a ladle there, a pan, a cooker, a colander, some spoons and a few cupcake moulds. I realised the kitchen was where his heart was. Till today, his portable plastic kitchen and the more elegant Ikea version (gifted by my brother) are the only pieces of toy estate he really cares about. “Why don’t you buy him cars?” said a friend. “Yes, he has cars too,” I said. She seemed relieved. It was as though liking cars redeemed his boy-ness in some way.

Things are more extreme in the girl universe. A fellow mommy on Twitter took pride in the fact that her girl doesn’t sleep with a cuddly girly toy, instead chooses a crocodile. She said that by allowing the girl child to look after a mock baby, we are, in fact, reinforcing the nurturing mommy stereotype. Another mother prided over the fact that her daughter always chose boy toys and clothes.

There is this enormous sense of relief when children don’t fall into clichés. But what is disturbing is when they are veered into anti-clichés. Why do we celebrate it when our girls do boy things and not enough when our boys do girl things? Why should I worry that my boy likes pink when I am relieved that my girl doesn’t? Why should it bother me that my girl likes to play with toy kitchens when it doesn’t bother me that my boy likes cars? If we constantly aspire for our girls to do boy things, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Are we not victims of our own fight against stereotypes? At this rate, there will soon be a whole generation of androgynous women, and not enough men in touch with their feminine side to balance them out.

What I don’t get is a mother who veers her girl child towards things that are un-pink simply because she is a girl and it would be uncool to fall into a stereotype. That, to me, is sad. I don’t have a daughter, but I love to see girls dressed up, wearing pretty shoes and beads and purses. Unless we allow our children to get in touch with their yin and yang in equal measure, we will always make them versions of what we want them to be. The thing is, kids don’t know stereotypes. We do.

It breaks my heart to know that I have no control over Re’s school friends or what they or their parents think. I want my boy to get in touch with his feminine side in equal measure and find a balance that works for him. Unfortunately, that may not be so. There are school friends, park friends, building friends and bus friends, a collective which has enough stereotype to beat careful nurturing.

But home is still a place where he can drape a dupatta like a sari, dress a doll, wear bindis, bangles, nail polish and anything that makes him happy.

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(This piece first appeared as my column in the Indian Express on 9th December 2012)