Tank tops, and my five-year-old son’s revulsion for them, made me rethink our gender-neutral parenting
Last fall, my son’s kindergarten teacher urged us to get tank tops to layer under our children’s clothes. My son already wears short-sleeve undershirts on cool days and wool long-underwear on cold days, but she encouraged tank tops as another layering option for even warm days (warmth is a big deal at his school). So I went to a big box store to shop for warm-ish tank tops.
The “boys” section only had thin, ribbed tanks that would be way too long for my short little guy and not thick enough to provide much warmth. So I wandered over to the “girls” section. I scoured the shelves for some gender-neutral option that provided better coverage without tell-tale lacy edges or little embroidered strawberries. I managed to find one package that contained three solid, simple tanks in white, blue, and pink. I figured I would introduce the white and blue first then put the pink one in his drawer after he fell in love with wearing them.
I also bought a package of the long, thin, ribbed variety—just in case.
A couple weeks later the weather shifted so I suggested my son try one of the new tanks. “How about the blue one?” I prompted. He put it on and came to the doorway of my bedroom to complain with a two-syllable “Mom!” that it was a “girl’s” shirt.
How did he…? I studied him for a second, then asked, “What makes you think it’s a girl’s shirt?”
He tugged on the shoulders and said, “I don’t know. It’s just shaped like a girl’s shirt.”
“But it’s blue,” I replied, feeling some feminist muscle deep inside me involuntarily twitch. Then I sighed and released him to find something more to his liking.
I was bummed my extra effort to find a gender-neutral option was wasted, but after inspecting the tanks again there was no visible “tell” on the shirt. So as an experiment, I decided to stock his dresser with the long, thin, ribbed tanks. At the next opportune weather moment I prompted him to try one and again he came to my doorway, exasperated, and said, “but this is a girl’s shirt!”
This time I protested and told him it really wasn’t and asked again why he thought it was. After a second he replied, “because it doesn’t have any sleeves.”
For my son’s entire short life we have tried to be careful about how we present gender to him. We tend to think gender stereotypes are mostly bogus so we instinctively avoid them. We talk about our division of labor as interchangeable—Daddy works at his office across the highway, Mommy works in her office upstairs. We trade-off chores so he sees Daddy washing dishes, folding clothes, and changing diapers and he sees Mommy fixing lamps, shoveling snow, and doing the taxes. We change gendered words like “fireman” and “waitress” to “firefighter” and “server.” We even listen to Free to Be You and Me in the car. We have discussed the more obvious anatomical and biological differences (I can’t tell you how many times we’ve cataloged which extended family members have penises and which don’t, only to end with “but they all have butts!”). But we’ve tried to debunk as many other differences between males and females as we can.
Yet somehow my five-year-old son has come to associate sleeves with maleness.
Even though this sex-linked association is relatively harmless, it still bothers me. We want our son to be free to wear whatever (weather appropriate) clothing makes him comfortable, regardless of which section of the store it comes from. We don’t want him to feel limited because he’s in the fifth percentile for size and not as “big and strong” as some of his male peers. We want him to show empathy and compassion just as easily as he shows courage and self-control. We want him to know that his dignity and rights come from his personhood, not his penis. And we want him to see every other person—male, female, or in-between—as deserving the same dignity and rights because of their personhood.
I know just enough about child development and the psychology of identity formation to know that at some point nearly everybody builds a gendered identity, usually (but not always) based on which body parts they have. But I also know that a lot of this identity is shaped by the role-models a child identifies with, which is why we try to be as gender-neutral as possible around here. And that’s why these two fleeting exchanges with my son caught my attention.
Up until the tank tops, I had felt pretty confident about our gender-debunking. But now provocative pronouncements like “girls are crazy” are appearing at the dinner table. At first, I shuddered to think it was all for naught—he was going to pick up stereotypes no matter what we did. And sure, with two small boys, our household has lots of wrestling and not a single princess anything in it. But after I thought about it some more, I came to realize the tank-top episode actually proves the opposite. It goes to show why all our gender-neutral parenting is really important after all.
Initially I wondered if he picked up the “tank-tops are for girls” idea from classmates or friends, but the kids don’t go around with just their under-layers showing, so I decided that couldn’t be it. Then I thought about images in the media, but his exposure is so limited (and the images are so mixed anyway) I figured that couldn’t be it either. Then it struck me that his Daddy’s undershirts all have sleeves. My husband doesn’t prefer them because of gender, however, it’s because he thinks an undershirt’s primary job is to protect his dress shirts from his armpits, which a tank can’t do. But my five-year-old has concluded there is something inherently feminine about tanks because Mommy wears them and Daddy doesn’t.
My son absorbs every big and small thing his parents do. Which means in addition to all the gender-bending we do around here, he knows his body is more like Daddy’s than Mommy’s and that identification cascades into every other difference between Daddy and Mommy. Tank tops are a small thing, but it illustrates the larger picture of how boys see themselves and their bodies—as little mirrors of the male bodies around him. We have sexed bodies, as any small child knows, but what that means beyond our anatomy is largely influenced by what’s around us. In this case: sleeves.
If my son’s identity is this sensitive to what the males around him do, then it is even more important for us to keep using gender-neutral language, debunk gender differences when they come up, and walk-the-walk of gender-neutral parenting. If we want him to see personhood as paramount, then we need to make the differences between Mommy and Daddy less and less relevant. So I’ll bide my time until the day we come across a man in a tank-top and pounce on that teachable moment to say, “See!” And, in the meantime, we might add some dress shirts to Daddy’s collection that have a little more pink and lavender in them. Couldn’t hurt.