Why a gender equal society starts at home

why gender equality needs to start at home

This term - for the first time ever - our junior school introduced the uniform option of trousers for girls. Previously, they had needed to wear a loose tartan tunic with either a plain turtleneck or shirt and tie (I know - at least my 5 year old already knows how to get dressed for the boardroom), and now they can opt for long grey trousers like the boys.

This was a radical move from a still slightly new headmaster because just a couple of years ago, a friend of mine had had to beg with the school governors for her daughter to wear trousers (she had said she would rather go in naked than wear a dress and everyday had turned into a battle). My friend convinced them. But only just.

That said, the idea was a slow burner. A couple of innovators came in on the first day of term with trousers, tie and shirt (respect), a handful more joined them a couple of weeks later with the trouser and jumper option, and my 7-year-old daughter - an early majority in this respect - took until half-term to bite the bullet.

The weather plus the current girl craze for handstands (no-one wants to show their pants off at this age) has helped to sway a late majority, and now we are probably at a third of the female population of the school in trousers (my 9-year-old won’t go near them).

Which I think is brilliant. Because it’s been a child-led innovation and it shows just how little they are even aware of the gender stereotypes that society and we as parents so often unconsciously project onto them.

And I believe that we have a DUTY not to. However embarrassing we might find it to be the parent of someone who wants to stand out and look different.

Because it is hypocritical to tell our children to follow their heart and their dreams, to own their voice and to speak up for how they feel, if on the other hand, we won’t let them express themselves physically in the way that feels appropriate to them at the time.

I like to think I have been championing this approach - however tricky at times - with my middle daughter, who asked to have her hair cut short aged nearly 6. As someone who has never(ish) been scared to experiment with my own look and who asked to have my own hair cut short at 7 (I have no idea for what reason now) I of course said yes.

But what she hadn’t banked upon was people being quite so unobservant and as a result, she got very upset at continually being mistaken for a boy (especially when wearing a dress). Indeed, her childlike logic lead her to make the decision that she could no longer wear a dress or skirt because people would laugh at her. So for her 7th birthday, we got her ears pierced. As an external badge of her femininity.

Has it worked? Kind of. Unobservant folk are still unobservant. But what I found even more interesting was the reactions from fellow English parents: on the one hand complimenting me on my courageous (?) move and yet on the other, not allowing their daughters (who had immediately wanted to do the same) to follow suit. Because it looked good on mine but they couldn’t possibly do the same. Only children with foreign parents could be that outlandish.

The same happened when my son asked to do ballet last term (inspired by his elder sister’s progress). One of his inspired male friends has been allowed to join him whilst another has not because “football is for boys, not ballet”. Which gives you some background on why I described the school’s uniform decision as a radical one.  

We all have our cultural prejudices. And it seems that in the UK, length of hair is one of the largest markers in children of gender, over and above their choice of clothes, facial features or body type. Which is odd. Because in India where we spent 4 months, a year and a half ago as part of our year-long travel adventure, the biggest marker there was jewellery - specifically bangles - and because my son (aged 3 at the time) wanted to be like his sisters and wear lots of them, I would repeatedly get told off for not following the appropriate gender-related etiquette. Never mind that the Indian men surrounding us were wearing kohl eyeliner, gold earrings and were demonstratively affectionate with each other in public, the bangles were a cultural step too far.

So when it came to the kids choosing new slippers last month, I was not so surprised when my son went for the pink, velour, unicorn option and my middle daughter for the green and black, hairy monster kind. After all, he often chooses to wear his Burmese sarong instead of shorts (another hang over from our one month spent in Myanmar where all men wear ‘skirts’ and vests).

What did surprise me was MY attitude to their choice. Because whilst I only questioned my daughter over her choice once, I questioned my son four times. Not only because he is very indecisive but also because I was slightly embarrassed.

Which made me realise that at the root of this was my unconscious opinion that girls can be more gender fluid than boys. Which is of course wrong. And which must, to some extent, be behind the growing number of male suicides in the UK - boys are not allowed to express their feminine sides as much as women are able to express their more masculine sides, despite the fact that we share both energies equally.

Tragically, this attitude leaves them with only a very narrow window of gender self-expression, heavily shadowed on one side by the Trumps and Weinsteins of this world.

Once I’d got over this and decided to no longer let it play out, I felt proud. And happy. And sad. Proud of him for expressing himself, of me for bringing my kids up in a way that means they don’t think twice about choosing whatever appeals to them, sad that I have partly lost that naïve courage myself, and worried that they might get bullied for it later.

But times are changing. And a gender equal society starts at home. So right now I have a girl with short hair, earrings, trousers and monster slippers who has only just this weekend found the renewed confidence to wear skirts; another (more stereotypical) girl with a penchant for flowers, ponies and pretty dresses; and a boisterous, boy who likes sharks, ballet, arm-wrestling, sarongs and pink fluffy slippers.

Who knows how their tastes will evolve as they grow older. All I know is that this is not up to me. My duty is to let their personalities express themselves freely and fluidly - despite the prevailing stereotypes - and to champion their life and aesthetic decisions in the most enthusiastic and non-judgemental way that I can.

What are your thoughts, mamas? Do you let your children express themselves as they wish, however embarrassing it can sometimes seem at the time? And do you allow your daughters more aesthetic freedom than your sons? Let me know in the comments below!

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