The "Elsa dress" that changed the game - Cat Wildman

Gender equal parenting, to me, means that I don’t treat girls and boys differently. It means that if my daughter chooses to play with the box of cars that’s fine. If my son chooses to dress up as super-girl that’s fine, at its most basic level, that is all it means. That’s how it all started anyway; my kids showed me what they wanted to play with and at no point did I ever direct them to stop playing with something because of their sex.

Clothing is a different matter and one which I had to break down some of my own barriers to get over. Like many people, I started off parenthood going to the section marked “Girls” for my daughter. At around 5 months old she became an extreme dribbler, gallons of the stuff, and she was also one of those babies who put everything in her mouth. Every time I would put her in a dress, she would gather up the skirt part and put it in her mouth and suck and chew it until it was completely sodden. Then she started to crawl and if you’ve ever seen a baby crawl in a dress you know it’s only going to end one way. Whilst babies face-planting can be amusing at first, it tends to hurt, so I quit the dresses for a while. I also noted that many of the clothes in the section marked “Girls” were much lighter coloured and made of thinner material. Much as I would like to think my wood floors are clean, the state of her knees alerted visitors to the fact that I am clearly a slattern - plus they got holes in them very quickly, so I started looking in the “boys” section. I loved the sturdy, dark coloured shoes for her (great for tree climbing), tracksuit bottoms to disguise the grass stains from cavorting around outside, coats without delicate or furry bits that would get ruined in the park or in the wash. All in all, the “Boys section” suited the lifestyle my daughter preferred, much better. When she was about 18 months old I was asked if she would model some dressing up costumes for a catalogue. I took her in and was about to put her in the big flouncy Disney Princess dress they had chosen for her to wear, when she kicked off the most almighty fit, and desperately did not want to put it on. No amount of coaxing or bribing could get her anywhere near it and I had to take her home. I’ll admit that I did quite want to see her in a dress for once but she didn’t want to wear it and I, quite literally, couldn’t force her to. At around 4 she started to show an interest in dresses. She loved Elsa (obvs) so I bought her the dress that Christmas. Then came the other side of the coin. By that time I had a little boy, who wore all his sister’s hand-me-downs - just the “boy stuff”. That Elsa dress was a turning point because my son also loved Frozen - and he put the dress on. I looked at my husband, hoping desperately he wouldn’t say anything that would stick with the kids, he didn’t, but it did spark a conversation that evening about how we each felt about boys in “girl” clothes. Neither of us had really thought about it before. Girls in “boy clothes” are fine but why is boys in “girl clothes” so...controversial? (by the way one of the rules in our house is that we don’t refer to anything as “boy” or “girl” stuff it’s just stuff. I am writing it here purely for illustrative purposes).

Next it was summer and my daughter was now quite open to a casual summer dress, I’d just received a load in a pack of hand-me-downs and she wore them almost every day, usually with shorts underneath. My son, who worships his sister as the grand high queen of his universe, wanted to wear one too. One day, she took him upstairs and put him in one. He looked completely adorable made even more amusing because she had also accessorised him with a floral headband and sandals - very Coachella. He thought it was the best thing ever to happen and they played like that all morning. When it came to going out to the shops, I told him to go up and get changed and her to put some shoes on. He asked why he needed to get changed and I found that I didn’t have an answer. He is a very compliant little person and by the time I’d helped my daughter with her shoes he’d reappeared dressed in his “boy clothes”. There had been no drama, but I was extremely uneasy about the fact that I’d done that. I thought long and hard about why, and I realised that it was because I was afraid of what people would think - of ME!

I’m shaking my head at the memory. I felt terribly guilty forcing my fear of being judged onto him. If he wasn’t afraid to go out in a dress and a headband then why on earth was I? Furthermore, if anyone decided that I was a “weirdo” or that they didn’t want to be around me because my little 2 and a half year old boy was wearing a summer dress then frankly, fine. I decided that the next time it happened I would front it up and bop round Aldi with 2 children in dresses, one of whom had just been mowed with the clippers so had a Ripley from Aliens 3 vibe going on.

The kids were having the most amazing summer, running round the garden in matching Little Mermaid swimming costumes from the hand-me-down pack and were blissfully unaware that if “society” were to come and look into our back garden we would be labelled with all sorts of nonsense. I was becoming activated.

It was around that summer that I was becoming completely embroiled in the “Females in STEM” issue at work. We couldn’t get women to apply for our Tech roles, the Gender Pay Gap reporting deadline had just been announced and gender was becoming a hot topic in the media once again. I was frustrated myself at the lack of female applicants I was getting and decided to research it, which I did, and that is when it all came together. Everything was related. The outrageous gendering of my kids - everything from animals (fluffy and cute for girls, ferocious and toothy for boys) to colours (at a kids party a mum starts to panic as all the blue plates are taken and there are only pink ones left “you can’t have this, it’s a girl’s one!” Anxious yelling to the host “Sarah! Sarah! Do you have any boys plates, Bobby needs to have his lunch!” (Bobby had just eaten a cocktail sausage off the floor).

This frantic gendering and seeming phobia of stepping out of the “correct” box led directly to the pipeline issue I was seeing at work and the gender pay gap. It all clicked; the nonsense “books for girls” about curing colds by flying frigging unicorns to a rainbow and catching sunbeams in a jar (seriously) and the fact that girls in school apparently cared more about unicorns than they did about science, were related. The science kit that my daughter got with a picture of five boys on the front and the T shirt that she’d received the same birthday with “I’m a future princess” on it couldn’t possibly be unrelated to the fact that girls don’t think STEM careers were for them. Of course they were related and it’s utterly mind boggling now that I didn’t realise it before I had kids and witnessed these gender stereotypes being forcefully thrust upon them at every turn.

Even with all the ridiculous inequalities for women still at play I felt that I could help my daughter to weather it by myself. After all, I had grown up with all sorts of ridiculous gender stereotypes into (according to my dad anyway) “a successful but bolshy woman” (not intended as a complement). As a kid, I was constantly told to “sit like a lady”, “act like a lady” dragged to church every Sunday in a dress and - my ultimate horror as a 7 year old - lacy tights. I was told “children are to be seen and not heard”, “you can’t play football in your best shoes”, “girls don’t do XYZ” but no matter what people told me, I paid no attention. I climbed trees, made dens and mud pies and potions. There was little else more delightful in life for me as a child than collecting slugs, snails and frogs from the garden. I remember once “surprising” my mother by appearing in the kitchen asking for a bucket, with my “pet snails” crawling up and down my arms, a big, fat toad clutched in my hands. She may have screamed, and shouted “Good God! Get out! Get out! What on earth is the matter with you child?” but she did get me a bucket once she’d calmed down. I felt like I had all the tools necessary and all the fight in me to power through all the utter nonsense girls are bombarded with, to bring my daughter up to be a similarly “successful but bolshy woman”.

My sons on the other hand were a totally different matter. Looking into it and finding that systematic gender stereotyping is as damaging to males as it is to females is why I feel the need to fight a somewhat bigger fight for them. Our daughters are growing up with a myriad of ill effects from gender stereotyping which knocks their confidence, “keeps them in their place”, blames them when they are sexually harassed or assaulted and leaves them in a world where they are more at risk of rape, being beaten by a partner and more likely to earn less money. Then I turn to my sons - they are growing up in a world where they are more likely to be in prison, they are more likely to assault someone, maybe a partner, and they are more likely to kill themselves. But breaking down those male stereotypes is a different ball game entirely - and a much more controversial one.

My son with painted fingernails in the school holidays or wearing pink pyjamas to bed, raises eyebrows and elicits all sorts of comments. People ask if I’m “worried he will turn out gay” they say “he’ll grow up confused” (The answer to those two alone are a whole other blog post) and at times, I do wonder if it’s worth it. Maybe I should just tell him “No. Because people don’t like to see boys wearing stuff like that”. But then I’m reminded about why breaking down these ridiculous rules about “what a man should be” is so important. It became my issue when I had sons and I'm damned if I'm going to let society tell them who or what they are “supposed” to be. My sons can decide who and what they are going to be, and I see it as my job to make sure they have all the options. I emphasise that I am simply saying “yes” to his choices, I never force him to do something and I never say no if I am letting his sister do it (unless it’s dangerous because he is younger than her). At some point he probably won’t want to be just like her anymore and will be desperate for his appearance to fit into the “boy norm” and that’s absolutely his choice, because it’s not actually about dresses and having your nails painted - at all.

The Samaritans credit “gender inequality” as the number 1 reason for the higher rate of male suicide. “Men don't cry” “men don't talk about problems” “men don't ask for help” “men don’t show weakness” “men don't go to the doctors”. I thought, well, that's easily fixed as long as I'm their mum because “men do” in our house. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to get this message across to them - how could I break through this prolific gender stereotyping with a simple message that my kids can understand, so that when they are seeing and hearing these messages without me around, they have it as a talisman. I decided on “boys AND girls”. So that's our philosophy at home. You ask my kids “who can be a nurse?” They'll chorus “boys AND girls”. “Who can cry?” “boys AND girls”. “Who can be a boss?” “boys AND girls”. “Who can talk about their feelings?” “boys AND girls”...And that will be their answer to everything, and they believe it! They believe it fiercely in their very cells - of course they do, because it’s true!

So if my son asks “who can wear dresses?” I'll answer “boys AND girls”.

Cat Wildman | Founder of The GEC

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