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In her article "Parenting the Non-Girlie Girl," in this week's New York Times, writer Hana Schank wonders why her five year old daughter wants a boy's name and clothes.
The story felt familiar.
My daughter too wanted to be boyish. She refused to wear a dress -- ever -- which raised some issues in our traditional orthodox Jewish synagogue on the sabbath. We consulted our rabbi, who said she could wear whatever she wanted, as long as she came to synagogue. We dressed her in the most stylish black corduroys we could find.
She refused to be referred to as a girl, preferring instead the term "kid." And anything pink or frilly or "girlie" was strictly off-limits. She was the only girl at the princess party dressed as Zorro (complete with sword).
In the New York Times article, Schank runs through several possibilities for her daughter's gender-atypical behavior. She eventually favors this one: Her daughter's school class happens to consists of mostly boys, so being boyish seems an efficient way to be popular with the people in class who matter the most.
Our situation was the same, and changed dramatically when our daughter was ten. Her school had a policy of separating the boys and girls beginning in fourth grade, and when this happened our daughter's behavior changed completely.
Now that there were no longer any boys in class, she began to dress to maximal social advantage under the new conditions. Within weeks, she wanted her ears pierced. Jewelry, accessories, and dresses soon followed. I discovered an important truth about having a girlie-girl: It's much more expensive.
During my daughter's tom-boy phase, I remember reflecting on how easily our neighborhood seemed to accept her gender-atypical behavior. If she'd been a boy with girlish tendencies, it wouldn't have been so easy. People smile indulgently at a tom-boy girl. A sissy-boy doesn't elicit the same kind of indulgence.
As a sex therapist, I couldn't help being reminded of attitudes towards sexual orientation. As I discussed in a recent article "The New Bisexuality," female bisexuality is pretty much now regarded as normal. Whereas any discussion about male bisexuality remains something of a third rail in most marriages.
People seem intuitively to understand that girls and women have more "fluidity" to their natures than boys and men. And in various ways, research has confimed this. In the New York Times article, Schank's daughter, who eschews pink, wants to hang onto her pink duvet cover, "For when I like pink again." She is intuitive about her own potential fluidity.
It would be difficult to imagine a doll-loving boy wanting to save his baseball-themed duvet cover "For when I like sports again." As a man, I envied my daughter's ability to be fluid about these things.
Are most men's sexual orientations and gender-activity preferences really more fixed, and most women's more fluid? There are always exceptions. But in general the answer appears to be yes.
Some of us get to choose whether to play dress-up or baseball. Some of us don't. It's not exactly fair. But neither are most things where gender is concerned. Biology assigns us one role or another. Culture finishes the job.
And we do the best we can under the circumstances to be true to ourselves.
Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD 2014
www.sexualityresource.com New York City
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