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?