Mama’s Got Muscle Too

What do you get a kid who his currently obsessed with all things science? Who will sit for hours pouring over his sizable collection of Magic School Bus books and National Geographic Kid’s magazines?

We certainly don’t need anymore stuff in our house. We’re filled to the brim with toys, books, art supplies, etc… and I didn’t want to add to any of that. What he does need, however, are clothes. It seems like every other week EZ grows just a smidge bit more, with his pants resting right above his ankles, taunting me.

Then I came across these pjs from Old Navy and thought I’d figured out a way to solve two problems at once (go me!).

EZ definitely could use a few more pajamas, and I knew he would love these. It’s like wearing your organs outside your body – cool & gross at the same time, which is one of his favored categories at the moment.

They finally arrived the other day, and I knew they would be an immediate hit. I quickly pulled them out of the packaging to inspect. The first thing I noticed was that, for some reason, they weren’t as soft as the the Old Navy pjs we own. (I assumed a run through the washing machine would fix that. It didn’t. Total bummer.) The second thing I saw was that some of the body parts had labels, something I hadn’t noticed when purchasing the pjs online. They were mostly innocuous: “Dr. Love” for the heart, “toot factory” for the colon (um, ew.), and “funny bone” for the, er… funny bone. As I scanned the rest of the parts, I had to restrain myself when I came across this one, located in the leg:

"muscles from dad"

Sigh.

Why, Old Navy, why? Why play into these gendered stereotypes that I’m more than done talking about? Why not “muscles from mom”?

Showing off my muscles with a toddler EZ

Or better yet… Why not “strong muscles from eating good food”? Or “strong muscles from exercising”?

Dads aren’t not the only ones with muscles, but when it comes to attaching traits to parents (and kids), most clothing lines (and this is not only specific to Old Navy) default to easy, tired tropes and stereotypes related to gender.

This post isn’t meant to vilify Old Navy. In fact, they do a semi-decent job of offering a range of choices for boys and girls (if you can stand to flip through the vast amount of pink stuff for girls, and sea of blue and green for boys).

But this points to the larger, systemic, more ingrained pattern I’ve been seeing. From board games and toys to clothing, stereotypical notions about gender continue to be promoted and accepted.

Boys are dirty...

...and girls are princesses

As I’ve talked about before, this problem is cyclical. Stores put out these types of clothes, people do buy them, and the store continues to put them out. The reality is that the majority of these stores all have low price points, and to be able to find stores that don’t push tired stereotypes or sexualized messages/trends, you sometimes have to be willing to pay more, and frankly, that sucks.

Speaking of messages, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the current JC Penny debacle with Ellen Degeneres. JCP hired Ellen as their new spokesperson, and the conservative group One Million Moms decided to boycott the store because they disagreed with Ellen as the new face of the company. I absolutely despise One Million Moms and their views, and actually found myself agreeing with Bill O’Reilly over this issue. (I know. I checked outside my window to see if I could find any flying pigs too).

While I certainly applaud JCP for standing up for their choice in using Ellen as their spokesperson, I wish they would acknowledge the poor choices they’ve made, and continue to make in regards to the other messages they promote through their clothes.

Melissa from Pigtail Pals does a great job of explaining just what I mean in her latest blog post. We can’t stop excusing stores that continue to churn out these types of clothing, whether purposefully or not. The fact that many of these stores don’t even realize that what they’re doing can be harmful speaks volumes. Let’s continue to push for change and not accept mediocre results – our kids are worth more than that.

Not So Neutral on Gender Neutral Parenting

There is never a shortage of reactions to parents who attempt to raise their children in a gender neutral environment (i.e. raising children without the stereotyped notions of what is for girls & what is for boys). Responses run the gamut from confusion, shock, judgment, and disagreement, to support, acceptance, and understanding. But no matter what the reaction, everyone seems to have something to say.

Baby Storm & older brother Jazz. Photo via ABC News.com

Last spring, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker of Toronto made the decision to keep the sex of their 3rd child a secret, in an attempt to raise baby Storm in a more authentic gender neutral environment. While they never intended for their story to go viral, it did, sparking a plethora of articles that spawned thousands of comments, from folks cheering on Kathy and David, to those who were certain that this would ruin Storm’s life. Even I chimed in back in May with my own thoughts.

Sasha & his mother. Photo via The Mirror

More recently, the story of a little boy from the UK named Sasha has hit (filling up my inbox daily with my Google alert set for “children, gender,” naturally). Sasha’s parents, Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper, opted for gender neutral parenting, and seem quite pleased with the results thus far, five years out. Like Storm’s parents, Beck and Kieran chose not to reveal Sasha’s sex at birth, and only recently revealed it due to the 5 year old starting school. Yet, despite revealing their son’s sex (or perhaps, because of), they have been inundated with negative criticism from folks all around the internet who clearly know the best way to raise Sasha.

Personally, I (shockingly) remain neutral on all of this. I understand where these families are coming from, and I respect the concept of gender neutral parenting in general. I do feel that many folks (especially those who criticize it) frequently confuse sex and gender – already muddling a very complex debate. Every article that talks about these families, or the concept of gender neutral parenting in general, should start off with some sort of primer on the difference between sex and gender. If The Oatmeal hasn’t yet created some sort of pictograph on it, they should get on that!

EZ in his (still) favorite pair of BabyLegs

All that aside, we never set out to parent in a gender neutral way. Rather, we parented in a way that felt natural to us. However, natural to us meant dressing EZ in all the colors of the rainbow, allowing him to play with a variety of toys, and ensuring we never complimented him solely on stereotypical male traits. In retrospect, perhaps we were parenting in a gender neutral way, just without the need to label it. (So maybe not so neutral after all…)

As EZ grew up, he led the way and we followed. He was the one to let us know that his favorite colors are pink and purple. He was the one that has continuously requested we not cut his hair. He is the one that jumps for joy when I pull out the polish to paint my own nails, pleading to paint his own. 

We have responded in kind. We’ve allowed him the space and freedom to explore the concept of gender. He knows the biological differences between boys and girls (sex, not gender), and he’s constantly redefining and exploring the concept of gender everyday. I find that my own understanding of gender is constantly changing as well, and allowing myself to see it through EZ’s eyes helps tremendously.

I don’t understand why these two families (and potentially others like them) who have made the choice to not disclose the sex of their children constantly find themselves under attack. Well, I do understand it. I just don’t agree with it. I don’t agree that the discomfort of other people should dictate how others raise their children. Just because something is a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s right (and often isn’t). What is the true damage from not disclosing a child’s sex, and allowing him/her to explore gender in a different way?

How would those same folks respond to me? We DID disclose our child’s gender, but that didn’t change the fact that he is now a five year old boy that loves dancing around in homemade tutus while wielding a self-made LEGO laser. It doesn’t change that fact that he wears shirts covered with T-Rexs while a hot pink beaded hairband rests in his longish hair. He is not confused about who he is, or wishes that he was a girl. He just likes certain things…regardless of whether he “should” or not by traditional standards.

Many critics of gender neutral parenting fear the repercussions of what will happen if we simply rid ourselves of traditional gender boxes for children. They say that sex-conditioning is necessary for a society to function, and that gender-segregated boxes are crucial building blocks of civilization. While I don’t agree with such drastic claims, I’m also not calling for the dismantling of traditional gender norms. Instead, I’m more interested in perhaps enlarging those gender boxes a bit, and watching my son grow up has only solidified those thoughts.

EZ's box has grown since he was 1.5

EZ dictates his comfort zone and we work with it. In doing so we’re raising (I hope) a young man who is both comfortable and confident in his biological sex and gender choices. While many of his choices fit within the stereotypical gender norm, plenty do not – of his own volition. Yet, instead of perceiving himself as not fitting in, he’s created his own box. It’s bigger than the traditional gender boxes and more encompassing and inclusive. There’s less judgment and no “You can’t do that because you’re a __(fill in the blank here)__”

So, perhaps I’m more than a little neutral on gender neutral parenting. Labels aside, I’m all for growing bigger boxes, easing up on traditional stereotypes, and most importantly, allowing our children a safe, secure, and judgement free environment to grow up in.

LEGO’s Loss

I recently wrote a piece for Ms. Magazine’s blog about a UK toy store that decided to organize their toys via “type” vs boy/girl. While the ultimate reasoning behind the toy store’s decision is still up for debate, the fact that they actually did away with gender codification within their aisles is a win in my book. As I worked on the post, I wondered if others would follow suit, when they realized they didn’t have to divide their store amongst blue and pink lines to sell merchandise.

And then…LEGO happened.

LEGO has recently announced “Ladyfigs” – a new line aimed specifically at girls. This line features a lot of pink and purple, slimmed down, yet still curvaceous figures, and pre-created background settings that include beaches and cafés. A few folks have already written about LEGO’s latest offering, and needless to say, they’re not so thrilled.

Dear LEGO, I Have a Girl

Et Tu, Lego?

My feeling about all of this can be summed up by this tweet:

Lego is launching a product line for girls. Someone should tell them that they already have one; its called legos. 

It’s not that I’m anti-pink and purple. I just can’t wrap my head around why LEGO has to go out of its way to target girls with overt stereotypes, when they already have a product that is awesomely gender neutral.

A few weeks ago my family went to to CT to check out the big LEGO expo that was going on at the local convention center. The place was filled with wall to wall kids – boys and girls alike. LEGO blocks of every color were being used to build cars, buildings, planes, boats, and more. There was no “boy section” or “girl section.” This new line of girl-centric LEGOs was nowhere to be found, and the majority of blocks were the primary colored ones we all know and love. (There were a few new colors thrown into the mix…an awesome chartreuse green and a bubble gum pink were some of the highlights for me)

Nobody seemed to have any trouble building something amazing out of the blocks provided…boys or girls. I’m not disappointed with LEGO in trying to build up their female customers. I get that they have a business to run and are trying to find ways to boost sales. But why can’t they attempt to do so in innovative ways that don’t rehash and promote tired stereotypes? Why can’t they remember older ads, where instead of promoting gender codification, they promoted creative, innovative playing (regardless of gender)?

There is currently a petition making the rounds (Spearheaded by Spark Summit) asking LEGO to rethink their decision regarding Ladyfigs. The petition is simple – it is asking LEGO to not underestimate young girls, and their imaginations. It is asking LEGO to not play into the cycle of stereotyping that occurs on a daily basis.

LEGO, we are asking you to:

1. Bring back your “beautiful” campaign;
2. Include girls in your advertising for all LEGOs sets;
3. Include more girl characters in your regular LEGO sets;
4. Market regular LEGOs in the “so-called” girl aisles of toy stores.
5. Release a public statement committing to the above actions and to practices that won’t sell girls out.

I am hopeful that LEGO actually listens to it’s customers and rethinks the way they market to girls. Hopefully they can set a precedent, similar to the one that Hamleys’ toy store has set with their gender neutral aisles – and show that it’s not about marketing ploys that exploit a tired stereotype, but about the integrity of the toy itself.

The End Of Gender: Part II

Back in June, I wrote about NPR’s story on the “End Of Gender.” The article looked at the new “trend” of gender-neutral parenting (which really, is not new at all) and what the potential impact of trying to dissolve gender could be. I had my own issues with the concept to begin with.

Rockin' His Rainbow BabyLegs at 11 Months

When I think of gender-neutral parenting, I don’t think about completely dismantling the notion of gender. Rather, my goal is to provide space for my son to feel comfortable with whatever activity/book/color/toy/TV show/t-shirt/etc… he chooses regardless of the stereotypical gender associated with it.

If he wants to wear a pink shirt and butterfly wings, I want that to be okay.

If he wants to run around with a blue shirt and Superman cape, I want that to be okay as well.

I don’t want him to grow up thinking that he is limited in his choices because of gender stereotypes, and I don’t want him to grow up and limit other people (men & women) because of gender stereotypes.

However, I’m not saying we should get rid of gender as a construct.

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Gender…Here, There & Queer

Despite the confusion that others may have surrounding EZ’s gender, he (as of now) is 100% certain of his gender. Regardless of his penchant for pink, purple, princesses or polished nails, he is a boy. He feels like a boy, he digs his boy parts, and he is more than happy to let you know that he’s all about being a boy.

For others, however, it’s not that simple. So when folks seems to have trouble dealing with EZ’s mild (in my opinion) blurring of gender lines, it always makes me wonder how those truly living with gender identity issues deal with others insecurities or strict definitions of gender.

The amount of research and personal stories on being genderqueer, while limited, continues to grow. Perhaps by talking more about this issue, we can begin to normalize it, so that society as a whole can better “handle” it, and those who are genderqueer can feel more comfortable and supported.

Just this week, s.e. smith wrote a fantastic piece on being genderqueer for the website, xojane. It’s not a primer on being genderqueer, by any means, but it is an excellent, accessible place to start for those interested in educating themselves.

* * *

This past summer saw the 5th annual Gender Spectrum Family Conference in Berkeley, CA. The conference celebrates gender inclusiveness for kids and teens, and was created to help families with transgender and gender non-conforming children. They offer programming and workshops for adults and kids, offering space and support that these families might not receive in their daily lives.

The conference was highlighted by CNN in a short video clip.

As I watched the video, I ran through a range of emotions. I nodded in agreement with Tammy’s mother as she shared, “If you give your child the opportunity to be who they are, they know very well who they are.” This rings true, especially for me, as I watch EZ know and feel comfortable being a boy, even as he runs around pretending to be a butterfly or princess. I can only imagine how much harder it is to remember this sentiment if my child were uncomfortable in his own body.

My heart ached as I watched the pain, clearly visible on Mario’s face, as he talks about who he is and who people know him to be. And my heart did a little fist pump as his mom champions him on, despite her own internal struggle with it all.

Gender isn’t as simple as one or the other. There is a fluidity and flexibility about it that many people have a hard time accepting. But perhaps by bringing this topic to the forefront we can work through the uncomfortable parts. So…let’s keep talking about it. Let’s continue the discussion surrounding the complexity that is gender, in hopes of redefining it and coming up with a new sense of “normal.”

Boy? Girl?

When you announce you’re pregnant, the most repeated question you’ll probably get is: “Boy or girl?”

I anticipated that. I understood that for whatever reason, people had an insatiable curiosity about the sex of my fetus.

When you finally give birth and take your beautiful baby out into the world, you’ll probably still get the “Boy or girl?” question for a bit, as most newborns tend to resemble Winston Churchill.

EZ rocking the orange overalls at 3 weeks

I somewhat expected that as well. Especially since we didn’t color code our baby and people apparently couldn’t handle not knowing the sex of the little baby dressed in yellows, purples, oranges, and greens.

What I did not anticipate was that I would be dealing with this question well into the 4th year of my son’s life. EZ will be 5 in January, and yet, I still find myself faced with “Boy or girl?” from time to time.

And I still can’t figure out why it bothers me so much. It didn’t bother me when I was pregnant or had a newborn. So why now?

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