A new article just came out in the New York Times Magazine this week about "boys who want to wear dresses". There is a trend lately in the media to feature stories about families raising what are referred to as “pink boys”—those boys who want to wear long hair, paint their nails, and wear sparkles. I am always fascinated by these stories. Anyone that studies gender stereotypes has an uphill battle getting people to care about stereotypes, so media attention to the topic is always appreciated.
One thing I like about these stories of boys struggling with their predefined gender roles is that they highlight the ways rigid gender norms harm boys. Most conversations about the damage of stereotypes focus on girls and their performance in math and science, or the excessive value placed on attractiveness and sexuality, or the princess culture. These are all very legitimate concerns and worthy of dialogue and social change. However, in American society, girls are given substantially more freedoms than boys. Girls are allowed to be tomboys, and their parents don’t need to send a letter to the child’s teacher warning that their daughter may want to play sports. This year’s Olympics highlighted this freedom by celebrating female athletes who now compete in boxing, archery, and taekwondo. Men are still not allowed to compete in traditionally feminine sports such as Olympic-level rhythmic gymnastics. And if they were, I doubt their stories of pluck and grit would be highlighted by Bob Costas.
More importantly, there are rigid gender norms for boys that extend much deeper than not wearing dresses or painting their nails. Boys are still discouraged from playing with dolls, a type of play that fosters traits such as nurturance, care-giving, and perspective-taking. For parents to buy a baby doll at a toy superstore, they must venture into the pink aisle, something most parents won’t do. And yet, nurturance and perspective-taking are wonderful human traits that should be fostered in all children.
Girls are allowed to show independence, competition, and ambition. But the range of emotions that are acceptable for boys is much more narrow.
In adulthood, women are given more work options. They can be a stay-at-home parent or full-time employee, whereas men who stay at home often need to blame their decision on a slow economy. Women are entering the fields of computer science at much faster rates than men are entering the field of child care. So, although gender discrepancies that harm girls and women are still important and worthy of discussion, it is beneficial to keep in mind how boys are limited by their gender norms as well.
On the flip side, there is some danger in these kinds of stories. Stories about “pink boys” lull parents of more typical children into a false sense of security. This is always someone else’s kid, the NIMBY rule for parents.
By pointing out these extreme examples, these gender fluid boys who wear dresses and sparkle shoes, parents are often unaware of the ways that their own children may be affected by gender norms.
Most of us have children who readily comply with wearing clothes more typical of their gender and we rarely have conversations about which pronoun we should use in describing our kids.
Yet studies show that one-quarter of boys show 10 or more behaviors considered atypical for their gender. Research also shows that children who feel at all atypical for their gender, and this means children who fall far short of being gender-variant, have lower self-esteem, more depressive symptoms, and greater anxiety than more typical children. This can be as mild as the girl who does not feel feminine enough or the boy who is not good at sports. Why the drop in mental health for such mild variations from some norm? Because even mildly atypical children are less popular, less liked, and teased more often by their peers. Parents who are grateful their son doesn’t ask to wear a dress should also recognize that a boy who writes good poetry, or wants to read a book with a girl on the cover, may also be getting teased.
Perhaps at some point in society’s evolution, these discussions about gender atypicality will be moot. If there is substantial variation from the norm, then the norm ceases to exist. However, until that day, while there are still strong preconceived notions of what a boy should be and what a girl should be, it is ultimately beneficial to hear about the exceptions to the rules. It helps us recognize that maybe the rules should be rewritten.