Ahh, getting dressed. That age-old ritual. I wonder how it was in caveman times. “Honey? Do you want to wear the fig leaf or the buffalo skin loin cloth today?” Did two-year-old cavebabies shout “No!” at their mothers and throw their bamboo leaf underwear across the cave? Or were they better behaved and wear whatever their mother put on them before smacking their sibling across the head with a club and writing on the cave walls with a stick covered in soot?
How will it go today, I wonder? A quick painless two minutes? Or an agonizing forty-five minutes of “I don’t want to wear my crocs! I wear my neakers!” (Toddler talk for sneakers.) Ahh the adventures of dressing a two year old with very firm opinions on wardrobe choices. “I completely understand,” I say, gazing at my own eighth grade school photo of my asymmetrical haircut with raspberry pink highlights—hey- it was the eighties! I always loved that my parents let me dress however I wanted. They never put the kibosh on any bizarre outfit I could dream up, and believe me, I dreamed up plenty. I used to look at the couture wear in Vogue and create my daily masterpieces, like wearing my mom’s bright red muumuu that dragged on the floor behind me and creating a bustle in the back with rubber bands. But high fashion, or in my case, low fashion, was my passion, my expression, my artistic creation; and to my parent’s credit, they never squelched me, even when I came home with avocado green hair. They just laughed and nodded and said they were glad I hadn’t gotten a tattoo. That would come later when I went to school in Paris.
But back to my toddler.
“How about these shorts and shirt?” I say, holding up some adorable play outfit.
“No! Poople dress!” my two-year-old shouts, referring to my four-year-old daughter’s purple sundress.
“Sweetie, why don’t you wear your shorts? It can be tricky to play in a dress. It’s much easier to run and jump and climb in shorts.”
In an act that can only be described as a mutiny, my toddler grabs the clothes out of my hands and throws them across the room.
“No shoats! Dress!”
“You won’t be able to play in it,” I warn.
After glaring at me and engaging in some deep thought, my little fashion plate stands with arms folded and says, “Eotar,’ which is toddler speak for “leotard.”
I can’t argue with that. Leotards are easy to play in, but in an ingenious maneuver, I say, “But how will you slide? You need pants or shorts on.”
My willful two-year-old trots over to the dance bag and triumphantly pulls out a pink tutu. “Tutu!”
I suppose in some ways it might be easier for me if I made my children wear whatever clothes I chose for them, but I feel like they have so few choices about their lives at this point, clothing choice is a harmless concession. It seems, however, I’m out of step with the rest of the world. My “munchkin”, you see, is Henry, my two-year-old son, and he absolutely insists on wearing dresses and leotards every day. Partly because he wants to emulate his big sister, but partly because he just likes fun clothing. He loves to dance, especially ballet, and he likes to wear something that will twirl when he spins. Even on the days Annabelle wears t-shirts and shorts, Henry still wants to wear her prettiest dresses.
I truly don’t mind. Children aren’t gender specific until they’re older, they often want to emulate their older siblings, and dresses and leotards are more comfortable on round little tummies, but you’d think I’d committed an atrocity with the reaction I get from the general public. A fellow Mom socks me on the arm. “You big goof! Why are you dressing your son in a tutu?” she says. First of all, I didn’t “Dress him,” he dresses himself, and honestly, why shouldn’t he be able to wear what he wants? He’s two! If my daughter was wearing the clothes of her older brother, everyone would think it’s perfectly fine, so why does the world have a fit the other way around? Is our patriarchal culture so ingrained that boys are considered “weak”or “weird” if they wear girls’ clothing? Why shouldn’t all clothes be interchangeable, especially as toddlers?
My 24-year-old nephew calls me from California. “I hear you’re letting Henry wear dresses,” he says. I sigh again. If I have to give another lecture on gender politics I just might scream.
“Yes,” I say. “He’s two. He’s not gender specific yet. He can wear whatever he wants. Blah blah blah.”
My nephew pauses. “As long as he grows up to like girls.”
I silently count to ten, breathing deeply, before I reply, “I don’t care who he grows up to love—it can be women or men. I just hope he grows into a kind, compassionate, non-judgmental person.”
“Whatever,” my nephew replies. If nothing else, these youths today are succinct!
This nephew is the tip of the iceberg. We were just visiting my macho family in Utah. My sister’s friend came over with her young son, a macho man in training. “My son’s been racing dirt bikes for three years,” she says proudly.
“Wait a second, I thought you said he was six?”
“He is,” she says. “He’s been competition racing since he was three.”
Uh, huh…and I’m being roasted for letting my son wear what he wants, while other parents are applauded when they put their toddlers onto dangerous machinery. The he-man six-year-old dropped his jaw when he saw Henry doing pirhouettes around the kitchen in his leotard and ballet slippers.
“Why is he dressed like that?” he asked me, his face a mixture of horror and fascination.
“Because he likes ballet,” I answered.
“Boys don’t do ballet,” he said.
“Oh, they sure do. There are many amazing male ballet dancers, and you can’t believe how high they can jump!” I reply, as Henry leaps past us in the pantry. “Even pro-football players are often required to take ballet—it helps with fast footwork and moving around the field.” I could see the wheels turning in his little head. Maybe someday he’ll trade in his dirt bike for tights and slippers.
I don’t see many other boys wearing dresses, but I have heard tales of boys who loved wearing princess dresses and high heels until they’re about five. And another of my nephews (I have twenty three nephews and nieces!) always wore dresses as he grew up. He always decorated his room with The Little Mermaid and I remember being at my parents, and saying, “What’s that smell?” My nephew came strutting down the stairs wearing a green velvet dress, full make-up, high heels, a black hat and ve
il, and massive amounts of perfume. All the kids in the room clapped their hands over their mouths and snickered, the adults laughed uproariously, and my brother—his father—leaned over to me and said, “He’s going to very famous in Vegas one day.” When anyone asked Brandon what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d say “A belly dancer,” and his favorite activity after dancing was crocheting. I still have the oven mitt he made me. Brandon is now 20 years old, and is one of the most stellar human beings I’ve ever known. Responsible, kind, unusually considerate, Brandon was a high school football star, graduated with honors, learned to speak Czechoslavakian and is nearly finished serving a two-year mission in Prague. Brandon is only 20, there’s still time for him to move to Vegas and become a belly dancer, but so far, he’s just a nice person doing amazing things. I would be ecastatic if Henry followed in his footsteps.
So what do I do with the general public that will tease and scoff at Henry and me? I want Henry to follow his heart, to march to his own drummer, to be a non-conformist, to revel in his individuality. I don’t want him to grow up and hate me because I let him wear girl clothes when he was little. Before I had children, I always thought it was weird that Hemingway’s mother put dresses on him when he was a baby. This seemed to explain a lot about his machismo issues, but the difference is, I don’t dress Henry—he dresses himself. I usually give it the old college try “Henry, don’t you want to wear shorts and a shirt like Daddy?”
“No! Dress!” he shouts, and I can’t think of one good reason why he shouldn’t wear what he wants.
Tonight I came home to Henry wearing his sister’s Minnie Mouse costume complete with red polka-dotted dress, sparkly high heels, and mouse ears with a bow. He was dancing to his favorite music, Hannah Montana.
Well, I guess I got my wish as for marching to his own drummer. I hope he hangs onto that as he grows. I hope he always follows his own truth, regardless of what the masses are doing. And most of all, I hope he always follows his dreams whether that entails wearing a football uniform, a business suit, a leotard, or yes, even a dress.