Why is it that so many people still seem intent on assigning gender and meaning to clothes?
When I’ve protested in the past about how clothing is used to code children’s gender, I’ve invariably been met with naysayers who insist none of this is a big deal.
That clothes are (ironically) "just clothes", and children don’t know what any of it means anyway. Yes, I’ve replied. That’s the point.
Children are not born knowing what ridiculous gender stereotypes the adults around them have applied to clothing, but they learn very quickly and begin assigning themselves on that basis.
More to the point, though, is this: even when children don’t know what clothes are "supposed" to mean, the adults around them do, and they will respond consciously or otherwise to the gender coding being presented to them.
A friend of mine moved to Queensland some time ago and enrolled her two children in a small, local ballet school. They both adore dancing, and her young son especially has embraced wearing tutus and other dance paraphernalia.
Recently, the school began preparing for its end of year concert. What followed was a disturbing insight into how deeply people still hold on to their assumptions and phobias about binary gender expression and the challenges this presents.
My friend’s son – we’ll call him "John" – was excited to join the other little dancers, wearing his tutu and dancing along with them. But apparently this didn’t accord with the teacher’s vision.
John was told that not only would he not be allowed to wear the same costume as the other dancers, he would also be performing in pants as the role of The Doctor, the character who (vomitously) gets to give all the little girls their spoonful of medicine.
For the past few weeks, my friend had been locked in a battle with the coordinator of the school. She has always been a strong advocate for both of her children, allowing them to express themselves and their personalities through their clothing as they please.
She had thought the issue was resolved, telling the teacher John should be supported to wear his tutu over the pants if that’s what he chose. This is what he wanted, and so he and his entire family turned up to the concert that day wearing tutus.
Imagine my friend’s horror when she watched as the teacher forced John to the side of the stage and began to remove his clothing to take the tutu off him.
My friend tried to intervene, repeatedly telling the teacher that she was not okay with what was happening while her son stood there crying. To make things worse, the teacher then gave John lollies to stop his tears.
Some people may think this is all an overreaction. But ballet is very traditional! You might be thinking. Stop making such a big deal out of nothing!
But, why is it considered to be "making a big deal out of nothing" when a parent advocates for the right of their child to express themselves in a way that causes no harm to anyone else, and also models directly to their child that they are worth standing up for?
We should not stand by while adults deliver confusing messages to children that lollies are a soothing balm for the times their clothes are removed against their will.
My friend has since written to the school to express her disgust and explain that her children won’t be returning, but there’s a lesson in this for everyone.
Clothes are just strips of fabric that we wrap ourselves in for comfort and personal expression. What the hell does it matter if a boy of two, or a man of 65, wants to wear a tutu?
Why do we continue to allow the tyrannies of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny to dictate how we force our children to dress?
If your son wants to wear a skirt, that’s fine. If your daughter wants to wear pants, who cares?
If your child decides they don’t know what they want their gender to be, just be their parent and provide space, support and love for them to figure it out. If your worldview is so fragile that it can be undone by an item of clothing, it wasn’t very solid to begin with.
As my friend told me in the lead up to this: “This situation isn’t even about a little boy, it’s about a grown up who can’t cope with expanding her understanding of the world she lives in.”
And this is what it comes down to. That it isn’t the responsibility of children to uphold our own regressive ideas of gender and expression. It’s up to adults to expand our thinking. It’s up to us to make the world a better place for them than it was for many of us. Why on earth wouldn’t we want that?