I have a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. They are both cisgender, at least at this point. If the word “cisgender” is confusing or unfamiliar, I’ll share a link to an article on the topic below. The definition of the word cisgender is simple: It is the opposite of transgender. So when I say my children are cisgender, I mean that their gender identities correspond with their biological sex.
The reason I use the term cisgender is because in my opinion, if transgender is an identity, cisgender is as well (gender is not binary though, so these are not the only options of existing as a human being). In other words, the label cisgender, much like heterosexual, or white in discussions of race, is necessary (imo) because otherwise we are perpetuating the idea that being non-trans is the “normal,” default identity. Using the term cisgender recognizes that there is no “normal,” and there is no “better.”
I like the article below because it not only defines the word but explains the context surrounding it, including the ways the word can be contentious within the transgender community (it can also be contentious to people who don’t want to be “labeled” cis, to which I say too damn bad).
All of that said, I am NOT an expert on trans issues or non-binary gender issues, and I have a lot to learn,* so please read this article, which was written by someone who knows what they’re talking about.
The process of writing this post is making me realize that this topic is HUGE, and I will probably need to write about it many times. There is a lot to dig into here. Just know this: sex and gender (which are not the same thing) are more complicated than you think. Gender is a social construct, and when you start thinking about that, it calls absolutely everything most of us have been taught about gender identity (and therefore EVERYTHING) into question. I find it overwhelming, almost at the level of contemplating the goddamn universe. I’m not going to get into all of that in this post because I will spiral into a state of confusion and despair, and because this post is about my own children. Also because this post is about my children, I will be talking about boys and girls, so just know that I am aware that gender is not binary.
Sure takes me a long time to get to the fucking point, huh?
My children are not only cisgender but their expressions of their gender identities are, in most ways, what could be described as gender typical (or stereotypical, depending on how you look at it). My daughter loves ballet and has absolutely no interest in competitive sports. She is drawn to stories about friendship, relationships are important to her, she is very sensitive to other people’s opinions and emotions. Her fashion choices are what most people describe as “girly.” I’ve described her this way myself. She has insisted on picking her own clothes since she was 2 (and I genuinely LOVE the outfits she puts together). She loves pink and purple. She loves sparkles and unicorns. She loves “pretty” things. For a long time she refused to wear pants AT ALL, and would only wear skirts or dresses. She is starting to grow out of that part, but still almost always chooses skirts or dresses. (Note: She also loves playing in the mud and dirt and climbing on stuff.)
My son is currently obsessed with sports and video games. He is a loving, open-hearted kid, but not always particularly tuned in to other people’s feelings. The first thing he showed a real, genuine interest in as a toddler was cars. He doesn’t care at all about fashion. In fact, I sometimes work hard to convince him not to pull his pants up to his nipples because it’s just… hard for me to look at. Other times he wears over-sized rain boots with shorts to school and I’m like, “OK dude. You do you.” (unless he has P.E. that day, because the rain boots don’t work so well with that. But I digress.) Many people have said, with regard to my son, “He is such a boy.” (Note: He also loves My Little Pony and playing highly imaginative, usually Harry Potter-themed games with his sister.)
We go with whatever our children choose as far as these things go. In addition to sports and video games, my son loves My Little Pony and recently got his nails done at a salon–red polish with flowers on them, which he proudly wore to school. And I’ll be honest with you. I was nervous. I talked to him about how people might say that only girls paint their fingernails and we practiced what he would say if that happened. He was confident, proud of his beautiful shiny nails, and didn’t seem the least bit worried (in fact, he was sure the other kids would love them), which made me happy and proud. I’m raising a confident kid, a kid who can express himself in non-typical ways and feel comfortable. As it turned out, the only person who made a semi-derogatory comment (to him and then to me later) was a male staff member. Of course. If there’s one thing bros love it’s perpetuating gender stereotypes.
I have tried not to push any particular gender identity onto my children. They know they can wear whatever they want to wear–my son often brings up the fact that it’s OK for boys to wear dresses, he just chooses not to (he used to love wearing tutus but he’s been socialized out of that)–and be interested in whatever they want to be interested in. My daughter and I have talked at length about the fact that being “pretty” is not what matters. I have these conversations with her because so many people’s first comment to her is about how pretty she is, or her dress is, or the bow in her hair is, or her fucking shoes are, or whatever. I have also brought these things up with regard to female characters in movies we watch. We talk a lot about different characters and what we like about them, OTHER THAN how pretty they are. And you KNOW I have been very clear with her about the fact that Ariel is an idiot for giving up her voice for some dude. What a dumbass. Another side note: My daughter is also terrified of Ursula, which bums me out because Ursula is BY FAR the best, most interesting character in that movie. I want Ursula’s back story. Someone get on that.
Every night while my daughter is sleeping I whisper in her ear: “I love you, my strong, smart, brave, kind girl.” Funny and creative should be added to that list too. And honestly, I’ve probably talked about these things more than I need to. I’m probably trying too hard to offset the message she’s going to continually get, which is that her life matters only if she’s deemed attractive. But I’m going to keep trying to offset it because I can’t help myself, and because I am determined to raise a girl who loves herself and is confident in who she is. In other words, I am determined for her to have a different experience with herself and her body than I have had.
Here’s the fucked up thing: I don’t feel a need to say these things to my son every night. I don’t need to reinforce all his good qualities, because as a boy, they are already reinforced by the world around him. His worth is first measured by his skills, his interests, his personality. What I do try to focus on and further cultivate with him is having a kind, loving heart.
The experience with my son’s fingernails and my own anxiety about it made me think a lot. I am so glad he feels confident enough about who he is to go to school with painted nails and with a My Little Pony water bottle (which he did at the beginning of the year). I am so glad he has such an open heart and mind. But it’s interesting too: When my son does something that is deemed “girly” I worry about him being teased. If my daughter were to express herself in a typically “boyish” way, she would be considered tough, spunky, or athletic.
Here’s what I’m getting at: What the hell is so wrong with being “girly” anyway? My daughter is both girly and fucking badass, but we see “girly” as weaker, meeker, less important. I have often found myself wondering if I’m doing something wrong because my daughter loves princesses and pink. What does that say about how we (I) feel about “girl” as a gender identity? Now, I know there is a whole shit ton of societal context and history to answer that question and a lot of this has to do with my own experiences with parts of my own family. I would like to dive into all of that at some point. But for this post, on a simple level, this is my point: If I am a feminist, I should be open to and accepting of however my children choose to express their gender identities, including being into princesses and pink. I haven’t told my daughter that she needs to be pretty, but she is drawn to pretty things anyway. Is this socialization? Yeah. Can I do anything about that? No. But what I’m trying to do about that is to allow her to make her own choices. I’m allowing her to develop her own taste and wear the clothes she feels comfortable in. I’m embracing her penchant for pretty things while doing my best to focus on her more important qualities and educating her about strong, diverse women. I don’t tell my daughter she’s pretty. Not because I don’t think she’s pretty (I think she’s absolutely beautiful actually), but because I’m trying to recover from a lifetime of being told in various ways that I only matter if I am attractive to men. And there it is. All this stuff is about my own issues.
It’s complicated to be a feminist with body issues trying to raise feminist children. I don’t focus on prettiness with my daughter, but I do wear a small amount of make-up almost every day and she knows that. It’s hard to explain this to her, even though I feel strongly about the fact that every woman’s choices around these issues should be respected. I don’t feel shame for wearing make-up (I used to, but as I mature I become more self-accepting), I just don’t know how to explain the why to my daughter in an honest way. Because to be honest with you, I wear make-up because I don’t like the way I look without it. Expressly for that reason, I make sure there are days when I don’t wear make-up. And perhaps the lesson is that it’s OK to care about how you look, it’s just not the most important thing. Everyone makes their own choices about this stuff and those of us who say we are feminists need to stop judging each other and embrace our different expressions of who we are.
I’m trying to raise feminist children. Right now a big part of that is accepting them as they are and how they express their gender identities, while explicitly accepting other people as they are and how they express their gender identities. Because as I increasingly realize, true feminism, or at least the kind of feminism I want to subscribe to, is about acceptance of each other and the ways we move through life. As women. As girls. As boys. As transgender or non-binary people. As human beings.
*A couple years ago I told a very dear friend of mine that they were a girl (I said something like, “You ARE a girl, you know”), and they were like, “Um, no. I am not transgender but I don’t identify as a girl,” and I apologized profusely because guess what people: We don’t get to assign people gender identities based on their biological sex! Luckily my friend loves me and knows me and forgave me and we talked about it, but I still cringe when I think about it… sorry, buddy. Thanks for your patience with me.