It was RJ’s first time wearing the t-shirt tutu dress that cousin A gave from Singapore, and her eyes radiated indifference at the frilly, flamingo-colored garment. A passing stranger spotted the baby over my shoulder and exclaimed, “oh, what a cute baby. Boy or girl?”
*insert appropriate emoticon here*
All dressed up and nowhere to go
Now I am by no means a “girly” kind of mother, I am at best ambivalent about fancy (though admittedly, so darn cute) clothing for babies, which they will outgrow in a matter of weeks.
People usually give two different types of reactions when I tell them I have not purchase any item of clothing for RJ since she was born.
(a) What, none at all? How could you resist, they are so cute! (yes they are)
(b) way to go. there’s no point buying clothes, kids grow so fast. (yes, they do)
Maybe when she’s older I’ll be really excited about getting her hairclips, tights and matching shoes. Right now, I think she’s too young to notice. So the hand-me-downs and gifts from friends will do just fine. In fact I think there’s enough of them to last til she’s a year old!
She hates the inevitable moment after her bath when we put on her clothes over her (slightly large) head. The prettier the dress, the harder it is to put it on! The shrieks and tears are hardly worth the “reward” of the cute visual effect.I suspect nice clothes are more for the parents’ enjoyment than anything else. My own mother can still remember and is able to describe in minute detail the dresses I used to wear as a baby, three decades later!
But I digress.
Clothing = gender identity?
Despite my misgivings about overly feminising my baby girls’ clothes, I must admit it does irk me a tiny bit when asked if she’s a boy or girl.
I’m not sure if parents of boys feel the same way. Maybe it’s “worse” for a boy to be mistaken for a girl, but this assumption seems to smack of gender bias.
Where did we get the notion that gender specific behaviour should be prescribed from infancy? Not only do we dress our tiny tots in mini versions of adult clothes which deliberately highlight their gender, we go one step further by telling them how to behave “appropriately”.
I find this particularly true for girls.
“Shame shame, don’t pull up your dress!”
“Close your legs when you sit, don’t be such a tomboy…”
“Don’t climb and run around so much, you’re a girl!”
We make such pronouncements to baby girls even two or three months old who are hardly capable of controlling their limbs, let alone be cognisant of societal gender norms.
I caught myself myself such statements once or twice, before stopping and reflecting on my choice of words. I asked myself, by speaking to RJ this way, what message I was sending her? What mindsets was I subconsciously passing on to her?
At this age, she is learning to develop gross motor reflexes. Much as we want to encourage good manners and form graceful habits, that can come later.
So I will strive to focus on building confidence, competency and allow room for the process of learning and failing.
What does “you’re a girl” actually mean?
If we are so keen on writing the gender narrative, we may end up restricting our children’s natural aptitude and curiosity.
What if Jimmy Choo’s parents had told him not to play with shoes or that fashion was “for girls”?
What if Marie Curie’s teachers had told her not to bother studying science because “It’s a boy’s subject”?
What if my parents had told me not to study law because they deemed it not a suitable career for my gender?
Thankfully, they didn’t. My father demonstrated car repair, carpentry and plumbing to both my brother and I when we were growing up. Although I never showed much aptitude for these pursuits, I’m glad my parents didn’t confine me to playing masak masak with Barbie dolls.
In fact, I only owned one doll toy, which my brother helpfully decapitated. Yep, I grew up playing with the boys and joining in with their games, rough-housing and all.
When I was in my early tweens I went through a phase where I loved wearing baseball caps and vests (hey, this was the 90s!), no wonder I was mistaken for a boy occasionally.
No harm done, I’m still a girl, no gender confusion there. Eventually I grew up and discovered dresses, heels and other trappings / perks of feminity.
Fast forward 20 years.
I don’t feel offended if someone mistakes my daughter for a boy, it just makes me raise my eyebrows. Why judge a baby by its clothing or gender? In the same vein, I tend to bristle inside if someone asked if I’m a Chinese. Ethnic pride aside, I wonder, why should my race matter to a stranger?
I just don’t want RJ to think she can’t do anything because she’s a girl. I want her to be brave to explore and learn and struggle on her own terms. If she fails at anything (and she will), let it be not for want of trying, or from being restricted before she even started.
OK, so I’m making too big a deal out of a small article of clothing. The inevitable boy / girl guessing game is probably the most instinctive question to strike up conversation. Truth be told, you can’t really tell at first glance, because young babies look so androgynous with their sparse hair, unformed physical features and generic baby rompers.
Anyway, back to the less observant auntie whose question sparked this post. She came closer and realised what RJ was wearing. “Oh, pink. She’s a girl. Sorry.” Curiosity satisfied, she then turned away. End of conversation.