I grew up with a single dad, and his rotating assortment of (sometimes concurrent) girlfriends, which was oddly freeing for me in a lot of ways. Not just because of the specific nature of the relationship I’ve always had with my father, but because the stakes in terms of getting me to conform to specific notions of femininity were much, much lower.
He had more important things on his mind, like compelling me to go to school, making sure I had what I needed to be happy and as healthy as I could be with multiple chronic health problems, and feeding my bottomless book habit. On the weekends, we were just as likely to go to the beach and build a complex system of dams in an attempt to reroute the creek as we were to go to the river for swimming, or play soccer in the street, or go to the used bookstore to hunt up more things for me to read. The last thing on either of our minds was whether I looked like a girl.
My father never once pushed feminine clothes on me or made a statement one way or the other about any outfit I wore, and he reprimanded the girlfriends sharply when they tried. Whether I was in torn jeans and a threadbare Snoopy T-shirt or a riot of floral prints, he genuinely didn’t care. My curly white-blonde hair was usually a snarled mess because it was so fine it tangled instantly, and only in middle school did one of my father’s girlfriends teach us how to braid it so it would stay under control.
Sometimes I was mistaken for a little girl, sometimes for a little boy. My notion of gender and gender expression was consequently highly fluid depending on my mood and the day, and the ability to be flexible prevented a lot of angst for me. Unlike a lot of trans kids, I wasn’t forced to conform with a gender I wasn’t, and I didn’t experience tremendous pressure from the people I counted on to take care of me to be someone I would never be.
Which is why I was intrigued by Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s recent piece on the Huffington Post about her own relationship with her daughter. Like a lot of mothers, she initially seemed to have a lot invested in making her little girl look “pretty,” by which she really means “feminine.” She puts a lot on herself to appear a specific way and to take on a feminine appearance, and she projected that onto her daughter as well.
There’s this kind of idealized dream of little girls, as sugar and spice and everything nice, which results in huge amounts of pressure to make them as femmey as possible at all times. There’s a reason Disney princesses and pink loom large in girls’ décor and entertainment. When a mother is investing time and energy in feminine gender expression, she often wants the same for her daughter; and Bradley-Colleary was self-aware enough to recognize that her desire for her daughter to “blend in” and “not attract attention” had more to do with her desire for femininity than concerns about her daughter’s role in school.
After all, young kids are actually pretty darn flexible when it comes to dealing with classmates who have fluid gender expression. Tomboys aren’t that uncommon, and most kids deal with it just fine. It doesn’t necessarily make them targets unless the adults around them make a point of turning them into targets; and for someone who is naturally a tomboy, full-on feminine drag can actually be more jarring for classmates than the student’s normal gender expression.
Bradley-Colleary talks about wanting a picture of her daughter with her hair down for the annual school photograph, and being ultimately disappointed with the result.
When I got Clare's school picture a month later my mission was achieved. She did indeed look very pretty with her flowing locks. But she also looked, well, not quite like Clare.
The experience turned out to be a valuable lesson for her, because she suddenly understood that what matters about her daughter isn’t whether she’s femmey enough, but who she is, and what she loves to do. Clare is a girl who likes sports and Dungeons and Dragons and making weapons and reading and playing the piano. And maybe that’s all she is; a tomboy who will probably grow up to be active in school athletics and popular among her classmates because she’s not being forced to suppress who she is, and can develop into an emotionally balanced young woman.
Or maybe she’s transgender, and that’s something that will emerge over time. There’s no way to tell, but suppressing her gender expression now would be a recipe for disaster; at least this way Clare can explore her identity in safety with the support of her mother, rather than feeling like she needs to hide things from her family or feel ashamed of who she is. Bradley-Colleary is making the right choice for her family and her daughter’s happiness by giving up on notions of who she wants her daughter to be and letting her daughter be who she is, even though it might seem like a hard choice right now because it involves trading the dream of motherhood for the reality of life.
And who knows, maybe later on Clare will like dressing femme occasionally, and will start to own that as part of who she is; I went from loathing feminine clothing and avoiding it at all costs to adoring dresses and skirts, for example. And hopefully her mother will always remember that it’s not about how Clare dresses or looks on the outside, but who Clare is on the inside, because with your family supporting you, you can have the strength and confidence to be who you are with integrity.
Because what I see in the picture accompanying the article is a radiant little girl who is totally happy to be who she is. She’s absolutely beautiful, and she doesn’t need to be forced into a dress and waving golden tresses to show it.