When I was six, I called the cops on my mom for putting me in a dress before my first grade Winter Formal. I dialed 9-1-1 from our 1996 landline and hid behind my bed until they came.
Now, I’m in no position to know why I do the things that I do today, and I’m not going to try and understand the rationale of the six-year-old version of myself. It wasn’t even like I was at the door when they arrived to try and get them on my side, to use the strong arm of the law to slap some sense into my mom. I just peeked my head out from behind the futon bunk bed I shared with my sister and watched my mother apologize. The next thing I remember is standing in the freezer of a trailer known then as the “Winter Wonderland,” pledging my allegiance to the flag in a blue floral dress, eyes as red as the stripes representing liberation I couldn’t feel.
That previous sentence sounded more melodramatic than I intended, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve always hated dresses. There are a handful of other anecdotes I could allude to in support of this—like the time my sister got married and I couldn’t be a bridesmaid because I refused to wear the dress—but I think I’ve made my case. That’s not all being a woman is about.
Being a woman means bleeding unexpectedly, getting free well drinks on Wednesday nights, having the general imposition of compassion. There are legitimate, chemical differences between men and women. Professionals and scientists have proven this with testable hypotheses, and we have confirmed it by being the lone member of our gender in a group setting. Side note: even the most "bro" of lesbians can only “bro-out” to a certain extent.
My niece is six years old and laden with the responsibility of being a Disney princess. No, really, the new Disney princess kind of looks like her—and it’s all the same to her, so I hope that you’ll play along, too. When she was four, it was more difficult to get her into anything that wasn’t a dress than it is to get me into anything that isn’t sweatpants when I’m not at work. She loves long hair, playing dress-up, and reinforcing gender stereotypes.
There are some glaring differences between my niece and I. Like the fact that she’ll probably never know what a landline is, for example. If there’s one thing we have in common, it’s that we have both been six-year-old girls. Something tells me that if I could time travel and be six years old in her playground, she would have a lot of questions for me. I know this because, she is full of questions for present-day me. Fortunately, I’ve had 17 years to think of the right response.
We’ve had countless conversations on the subject gender, and why her aunt looks the way that she does, but there are a few that stand out the most. One of the most notable was the conversation we had about hair. One day she approached me and asked why I had short hair. So we started Googling pictures of women with short hair. Together, we pulled up images of Natalie Portman, Halle Barry, Winona Ryder. I asked her if she thought that they were women, she said, “Yes.” I, then, asked her if she thought that they looked pretty with short hair and responded, again, “Yes.” We went on to look at pictures of men with long hair and, she seemed to understand that hair had almost no correlation to gender.
I thought we were done with that conversation until she asked me the next logical question: “Why do you dress like a boy if you’re a girl?” This was less simple to explain. I asked her if she liked what she was wearing that day, if she liked the clothes her mother buys for her? She said, “Yes.” I then told her that I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing what she was wearing, even if it were in my size. Then, I asked her if she would want for me to wear something that I wouldn’t like to wear, and she said, “No.”
I’d like to say, “And that’s it, folks! That’s how you get kids to see the world in a more individualistic way!” But that isn’t the case. My niece has been around me since the day that she was born in 2006. I have looked exactly the same as I do now since about 2005, and she still refers to me in the occasional male pronoun.
My recently divorced sister has a new boyfriend. He’s a great guy and my niece has taken an immediate liking to him. The one thing she has a hard time getting past is the fact that his hair is longer than hers.