“What a lovely little boy.”
“She’s a girl, but thank you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” [Peers closer.] “Oh, she’s got pink on her vest. Of course she’s a girl.”
“Er- no. SHE HASN’T GOT A PENIS, so of course she’s a girl. It’s got nothing to do with the colour of her vest.”
Alas, only three-quarters of that conversation actually happened. The last bit is just what I wish I’d said.
My blue-eyed, fat-cheeked nine-month old is regularly mistaken for a boy. That in itself wouldn’t trouble me: at that stage, left to themselves, they mostly just look like babies. However, I am bothered that people feel they have to apologise for the mistake, as though I’ll be hurt that she doesn’t look ‘feminine’ enough. And it is irritating – because of what it implies – that this happens every time she’s dressed in anything that isn’t stereotypically girly. (And never, of course, when she is.)
Because it’s not only when she’s in her cousins’ bluer hand-me-downs that this happens. (That, at least, would be unsurprising, if still a bit depressing.) Rather, it seems that there’s no such thing as gender neutral anymore: almost everything I naively thought of as unisex is assumed to be (and sold as) boy-wear. A baby is only allowed to be a girl if she’s wearing pink, lilac, pale purple, flowers, birds, or butterflies. Or sometimes kittens or rabbits. Oh, or a dress. Obviously. Everything else – most colours, almost all animals, and (of course!) anything transport related – is for boys.
And I use ‘allowed’ advisedly. If I correct people on my baby’s sex, I get accusation almost as regularly as apology. An aggrieved: “But she’s wearing blue/dungarees/a picture of a truck.” Like I’ve been false advertising.
All this is annoying enough, but it’s even more disturbing when combined with another trend on the baby circuit: baby girls sporting bandanas decorated with a bow or flower, in lieu of long hair. Just to make sure, presumably, that no-one could mistake them for a boy.
This depresses me. Of course I’m not saying don’t do it. It would be the height of hypocrisy to complain about being told how to dress my girls, then lecture other mothers on how to dress theirs. I’m not suggesting we should all be like the couple who not only eschewed all gendered clothing and toys, but refused to disclose the sex of their child until he was five years old. Far from it: I have lots of fun putting my girls in dresses and flowers – it’s just not all I dress them in – and I would love plaiting my three year-old’s hair if she would let me.
But I see these headbands so often that it seems like yet another thing we’re expected to do. I’m starting to feel as though boys are the default, and it’s taken for granted that parents of girls will mark them out as different. Often, even more annoyingly, in intensely impractical ways. There’s no way I could get my wriggling, grabbing, crawling little monster to keep anything like that round her head for more than ten seconds. The sunhat is a battle enough.
Of course, that’s my real bugbear. It’s not just about colour coding. It’s about, effectively, curbing what girls can do. And it only gets worse as they get older. Take the other week. Scene: a major supermarket. My quest: sandals for my three-year-old, for an outdoorsy holiday and charging around the garden without picking up any more splinters. Not too demanding, you would think. But you’d be wrong, reader, because my three-year-old is a girl.
There they were: the shelves of shoes next to one another, one heavily pink, the other mostly blue. I’d expected that. But it went further. The girls’ section featured what looked like fashion sandals. Perfect for attending a party (at least, if it was a sit-down-and-play-with-dolls kind of party); hopeless, as far as I could see, for muddy running, paddling, or climbing. The boys section was a different story. Two sturdy pairs of sandals, securely velcro-strapped, ready to withstand plenty of dirt, and altogether much like a mini version of those sold in outdoor shops. Clearly designed for just such fun as my intrepid Little A. had in mind.
Even the waterproof sandals, presumably both intended for beach-holiday paddling, were starkly gender-divided. In the boys’ corner, closed toed, robust. In the girls’, flimsy, strappy things that promised nothing so much as a sprained ankle at the first scramble over boulders or race up a pebbly shore.
I can’t express how cross this makes me. I was expecting the same outdoorsy shoes in both sections, only with the girls’ ones covered in flowers and pinkness. That would be annoying enough. (Message to my adventure-loving, climbing, jumping daughter: “OK, you can do these things so long as you look pretty at the same time.”) But not having a girls’ equivalent on display at all? That’s basically saying to my girl and all those like her that she shouldn’t be doing those things, full stop. And saying that to her at three years old. What will it be like – what will she expect, of the world and of herself – by the time she’s ten?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. What she’ll expect, after all, is exactly the kind of society she’s growing up in: one so packed with double standards that women can still be required to wear high heels to the office. But of course that only makes me more furious.
No doubt there’s more I should be doing about this. Petitioning the excellent Let Toys Be Toys campaign group to turn their attention to clothes. Barraging the offending stores with indignant emails. I’ll try both. In the meantime, I did what I often do anyway, and bought from the boys’ section. My daughter now has a pair of sturdy, multi-terrain sandals in her favourite colour: blue. She loves them.