Today’s Masculinity Is Stifling

Jessica Love

This article was originally published in The Atlantic.

In hindsight, our son was gearing up to wear a dress to school for quite some time. For months, he wore dresses—or his purple-and-green mermaid costume—on weekends and after school. Then he began wearing them to sleep in lieu of pajamas, changing out of them after breakfast. Finally, one morning, I brought him his clean pants and shirt, and he looked at me and said, “I’m already dressed.”

He was seated on the couch in a gray cotton sundress covered in doe-eyed unicorns with rainbow manes. He’d slept in it, and in his dreaming hours, I imagine, stood at a podium giving inspirational speeches to an audience composed only of himself. When he’d woken up, he was ready.

He walked the half block to school with a bounce in his step, chest proud. “My friends are going to say dresses aren’t for boys,” he told me casually over his shoulder. “They might,” I agreed. “You can just tell them you are comfortable with yourself and that’s all that matters.” I thought of all the other things he could tell them. I began to list them, but he was off running across the blacktop.

I scanned the entrance to see whether any parents noticed us as they came and went. I hadn’t expected my stomach to churn. I felt proud of him for his self-assuredness, for the way he’d prepared for this quietly and at his own pace, but I worried about what judgments and conclusions parents and teachers might make. And of course I worried somebody would shame him.

When he walked into his classroom, sure enough, one child immediately remarked, “Why are you wearing a dress? Dresses are for girls.” A teacher swiftly and gently shut down the child’s commentary and hugged my son tightly. He didn’t look troubled, didn’t look back at me, so I headed home, tucking a backup T-shirt into his cubby just in case his certainty flagged.

In the afternoon, he was still wearing the unicorn dress. He skipped down the sidewalk, reporting that some kids had protested his attire, but he’d assured them that he was comfortable with himself.

With that, the seal was broken. Most days since, he’s worn a dress from his small collection, though he also favors a light-blue guayabera—the classic collared button-down worn by men and boys in Cuba and the Philippines. Classmates’ objections continued, but with less frequency and conviction. One day when my husband dropped him off, he heard a little girl stand up to a naysayer and shout, “Boys can like beautiful things, too!”

But they can’t. Not without someone looking askance. To embrace anything feminine, if you’re not biologically female, causes discomfort and confusion, because throughout most of history and in most parts of the world, being a woman has been a disadvantage. Why would a boy, born into all the power of maleness, reach outside his privileged domain? It doesn’t compute.

As much as feminism has worked to rebalance the power and privilege between the sexes, the dominant approach to launching young women into positions that garner greater respect, higher status, and better pay still mostly maintains the association between those gains and masculine qualities. Girls’ empowerment programs teach assertiveness, strength, and courage—and they must to equip young women for a world that still overwhelmingly favors men.

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