When my son was 3, I made a mistake. We were at a shoe store in New York City, picking out new sneakers for his rapidly growing tiny feet. He was insistent: The next pair of shoes he was going to wear had to be bright pink. I steered him toward red. He pressed for pink, ignoring the usual varieties of blue for little boys. I am ashamed to admit that I eventually lied and told him that pink wasn’t available in his size. We compromised on orange.
Rossi talks about something many of us have experienced: the way gender roles are policed from a very early age. As I’ve written before, my daughter was informed in nursery school (by a boy, of course) that she wasn’t allowed to be interested in history or dinosaurs because “they’re for boys”; she was also told that her favourite fictional animal, a dragon, was not okay because dragons were for boys. Girls had to have a different fictional animal, a unicorn.
This bit felt very familiar:
My son entered preschool in our new home in Barcelona, Spain, and suddenly there were things girls do and things boys do. Girls dance, and boys play soccer ― or at least that’s what we were being told and shown. I took him to a ballet class where he was the only boy, and he took two days to make the decision of whether he wanted to keep going. No, he told me, because ballet is for girls. No number of Alvin Ailey or Fred Astaire videos, although agreeably cool, could convince him otherwise. Another mom at the school told me that her daughter had dropped soccer for the same reason ― it was for boys, she said.
When my son was a bit younger, he loved nail polish. And then overnight he stopped, because he’d been told that nail polish was for girls. Since then he’s often expressed his horror at the thought of owning anything pink.
Now it was no longer me, but the other influences in his life ― his classmates, teachers, the images he saw around us ― that told him you’re either A or B, girl or boy, and you’re expected to behave accordingly. Despite my attempts to keep the gender stereotypes out of his life, at age 5, he clearly drew a line in his head: On one side were the boys, and on the other, the girls.
The policing and reinforcement of gender stereotypes starts young, and the people who don’t conform – the boys who want pink shoes, the girls who don’t want to be sugar and spice and all things nice – are discouraged in all kinds of ways, big and small.
Asking for pink shoes don’t mean your son is gay, or trans. As Rossi writes:
just because you like something that’s associated with one gender doesn’t mean that you are that gender or want to identify as that gender, and it certainly doesn’t mean anything about your sexual orientation.
But there is an association in some people’s minds between how people express themselves and what their sexuality is, what their gender identity is. And some of those people react very negatively to anybody who doesn’t stay in their designated lane.
That means even if you are an evolved and enlightened human, you can still find yourself in the role of the gender police. You know that shoes or nail polish or anything else that’s been pointlessly gendered doesn’t mean anything, but you also know that other kids – and more to the point, other kids’ parents – often have very different views.
The truth is, I was mostly guided by fear. I was afraid that somehow if he were to show up at our uptown playground wearing pink sneakers, he would be teased mercilessly. I was afraid that he would be hurt ― because he was different.
I think that’s a real shame, because what starts in the playground ends up in the pay packet. As kids grow up, gender stereotypes begin to limit much more than the colour of their shoes.