Gender-bender: is that a boy or a girl?

Do your children fit visual gender stereotypes―people’s expectations of what a girl, a boy should look like? Mine didn’t, especially when little, long-haired, and sporting Princess dresses and combat boots.

One of my most vivid memories about this mis-fit takes place at a swimming pool in March, 2007. Cinder is not-quite 5, Flora is 2.3. Ender’s just a speck of unclaimed cosmic dust.

Setting: swimming pool in Banff National Park. The story unfolds thus:

My long-haired boy and long-haired girl, wearing identical great white shark swim shorts and shirts (they insisted on identical ones–Flora tried to sell Cinder on pink mermaid bikinis, but he said mermaids weren’t real and sharks were, and that was that), had spent the last few days (in said swim outfits) being variously and randomly called boys, girls, boy and girl rightly and wrongly. None of us really reacted much, because, well, whatever, right? Finally, here and now, after a lifeguard told Cinder and me to “make sure she could touch the bottom when the waves came,” Cinder tossed his head, looked up at her, started to say, “I’m a bo…” then turned to me, and said,

“Mom? Shouldn’t there be a word that means both boy and girl? You know, like she and he, but one that’s both she and he, so that people can use it when they don’t know if someone’s a boy or a girl or when it doesn’t matter if someone’s a boy or a girl?”

There should.

But there isn’t.

2013: Flora, 8, is ultra-feminine now, hair to her waist, and almost always in a dress these days (with pants or leggings underneath, “In case I need to kick someone’s ass in a hurry, or run away from Aunt Josephine.”). No one’s taken her for a boy for a long time… Cinder, 10.5, has always been such a boy-boy in behaviour and choice of clothes (or weapons), but he’s got blond, curly hair that he keeps long (if never brushed and generally, frankly, dreaded) and eye-lashes to die for. He still gets called a girl on average once a week. One day, I will capture the resulting eye-roll in a video. Wonderfully, he still doesn’t care. And Ender, 3 and change, is just where Flora and Cinder were in the shark suit story: he’s got long hair, so it doesn’t matter how butch he looks or acts, he gets called a girl. Especially when Flora dresses him in some of her favourite “hand me down” clothes. Or the Princess dress.

There should be a word that means boy or girl (man or woman) that you can use when you don’t know the gender of a child―or when you just don’t care.

But there still isn’t.

More like this: The Return of the Princess dress.

You can still talk about play: What is play?

31 thoughts on “Gender-bender: is that a boy or a girl?

  1. I actually could relate, because when we were kids, I dressed my younger brother up in my old Halloween costume (Smurfette). He truly made the cutest Smurfette, but damned if I knew that he was a boy and shouldn’t be dressing him in girls clothes, lol!! I think all kids go through a phase like this, but a word for this would be nice.

    • I know Flora modelled herself very much on Cinder when she was little-little, and I’m looking forward to watching what happens with Ender, with a strong boy-boy and girl-girl role model in his siblings.

  2. Oh, I love how accepting kids are when they are young. It’s so sweet and refreshing.

    In Asia, someone who is a boy but likes to dress like a girl is called a “shim” (she + him), but that’s a totally different situation… 😉 Brilliant name, though, don’t you think?

    I often have people call my daughter “HIM”, even when she’s all decked out in pink? So strange. But hey, who cares, right?

    • See, sane people don’t care. Insane people–or people so mired in convention they do not not see that they are teetering on the verge on insanity, do care. Especially if it’s a boy who looks/dresses like a girl.

  3. “In case I need to kick someone’s ass in a hurry, or run away from Aunt Josephine.” PLEASE high-five Flora for me.

  4. Oh yes, I’ve been through that with my 5 year old son when he was younger and had a curly mop of hair and gorgeous eyelashes. It didn’t matter if he had a t-shirt that said “Tough Boy” he always got called a girl! And just yesterday, my 2 year old son got a “hello there you sweet boy” from an old lady at the store and when he said “hello” back she looked at me and said “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was a little girl.” Apparently his voice was too small and sweet to sound like a boy!! haha!!!

  5. I can definitely relate. Yiannis was constantly mistaken for a girl until I chopped his beautiful locks off (not for that reason of course) and Iliana always looked like a boy even if she were dressed from top to bottom in fuchsia & pink!!

  6. From the mouths of babes, eh? There definitely needs to be a word that describes BOTH boy/girl if the sex can’t determined. My son has long hair too and I refuse to cut it. Yet, people mistaken him for a girl on a weekly basis. I am beyond trying to correct them. What do you tell those who mistaken Cinder for a girl?

    • It depends on how I’m feeling. Sometimes, nothing–Cinder and I just roll our eyes. Sometimes, one or the other of us will say, “I’m/he’s a boy actually.” (Once, he said, “I have a penis. Do you want to see it?” — he felt really provoked because in that particular case, the questioner–a waitress!–kept on coming back to our table and saying that he was just too pretty to be a girl). Most of the time, we just exchange The Look.

  7. I hear you on this one. I myself have always been a bit of a tomboy. My oldest is all girl, my middle is tom boy in a dress… and my youngest is all boy. It is fun to watch these differences.

  8. That is so awesome. We definitely need a word. Both my kids have buzzed hair, both like to wear dresses, both wear hand me down girl coats (not that I didn’t buy my son an ‘appropriate’ coat that actually fit, he just likes his little sister’s coats better even though they are too small), and both like to wear boy underwear, (until we got some cool neon girl underwear which they now both like to wear…). I get a lot of the same with two girls, two boys or god knows what they are. I’d like to be totally cool with it and mostly just let it be but I do worry about how he will be treated in public so sometimes gently remind him he may not want to deal with people’s responses out in public if he is wearing sequins to his first day of classes etc. It is so nice to have role models who have navigated these waters so graciously before me!

  9. There should SO be a word. I agree. My mom really needed a word one time for the McDonald’s worker she was trying to get the attention of, instead of saying Ma’am? Sir? Ma’am??

  10. Cinder seams too smart for his own good! This post reminds me of when we were pregnant both times. Everyone kept asking us what we were having and each time we chose not to find out. My husband would get all pissed off and say, “Why does it matter whether or not there’s a d- or not?” Well of course it matters, I would tell him, to someone’s visualization of what our family will look like either way. However, once the baby’s here, we don’t really care whether either one of our kid wants to wear high heels or tote a play tool belt. Pink or blue. Long hair or short hair. Who cares?? And I totally agree with Cinder, there needs to be a word, for sure. 😉

  11. Our son is sometimes mistaken for a girl. Although, it’s happening less frequently the older he gets. Sometimes I don’t even bother to correct folks. It doesn’t matter to the kid yet and I would hate to make the person feel “guilty” or be overly apologetic for an innocent mistake.

    • I don’t mind or care if it’s an innocent mistake… but every once in a while, we do get the “Really? He’s a boy? He doesn’t look like a boy!” reaction and I kind of want to pummel that innocent, but a-social person…

      • Wait. What?! Oh dear. I can see how that would be a little off-putting. It takes all kinds doesn’t it?

  12. Pingback: Quote This: Carl Rogers on self-discovered learning | Undogmatic Unschoolers

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