Does our son look like a girl (and does it matter)?

I started writing a blog post and, not for the first time, during the writing of it I realised that what I actually wanted to say, what needed saying, was not what I had originally intended to say, so once again have ended up writing something that bears little resemblance to my original idea, but really, what else is new?!


First of all, here’s the context for this blog post: today we made our bi-annual trip to the dentist, where not for the first time in his life (and I assume not for the last either) our 3 and a half year old son was persistently referred to using feminine pronouns by the reception staff.

This is a thing that happens a lot, so much so that it really elicits a reaction from me anymore.  Sometimes I correct the person/people in question, but I have to say that a lot of the time, I can’t be bothered.  The trouble with saying “ACTUALLY, he’s a boy” is that:

a. People are embarrassed and apologetic.  I feel like I’m being an arsehole pointing out their mistake.  They are usually flustered and basically no one wins.

b. Their (usually emphatic) apology suggests that to be mistaken for a girl (or indeed, be a girl) is in someway derogatory, or inferior to being recognised as male and no amount of “really it’s fine”s can seem to stem their horror or prevent that message reaching my children’s ears.  This is clearly not something I believe because…well…uh…I am a girl myself.  And don’t see “looking like a girl” (whether or not you identify as one) as an insult.  In fact really, when someone says “Oh, but he looks like a girl” they are just saying “I applied my socially constructed ideas of gender to your appearance and one or more criteria met what I imagine a female to look like” That’s not really an insult is it?!

The trouble with NOT correcting people is that:

a. If we aren’t leaving immediately, they may just keep going ON AND ON, and eventually his 5 year old brother will likely correct them and then they’ll be EVEN MORE flustered and also be looking at me like “WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SOMETHING?”

b. I kind of want to teach my kids that if someone gets something wrong you can call them on it, even if it’s an adult, and this is one of those occasions where I could do that, except it feels like the wrong one to use as an example but there aren’t many other instances when I can demonstrate it?!

So, you see my dilemma.

This is a thing that happened at Halloween a couple of years ago when we went trick or treating:


Stranger: “Oh look a spider! And what is your baby sister dressed as?”

(Then) 3 year old: *looks around in confusion for baby sister he wasn’t aware he had*

Me (eventually): “It’s his little brother.”

Stranger: “Oh I’m so sorry!  I couldn’t see him properly in his buggy/costume/the dark”

Me: “It’s fine, please don’t worry about it”

Stranger: *showers the kids with sweets and shuts the door really quickly*

I genuinely don’t care that people think he is a girl, and seemingly, he doesn’t either.  I reckon half the time he’s oblivious (given as he’s only just learning about pronouns himself anyway) and the other half of the time he’s just *meh*.  A couple of weeks ago, when accosted by some girls in the school playground who were admiring his hair, he was outright asked if he was a girl by them and he said “yes”.  I think more to be agreeable than because he identifies as one, but his older brother thought it was hilarious and immediately ran over to tell me all about it.

His brother, you see DOES care if people mistake his brother for a girl.  Because he is FIVE and since starting school he is all about THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A BOY AND THAT IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A GIRL AND THERE ARE NO GREY AREAS.  This sudden hatred for all things “girly” and indeed, even the identification of what is girly, has been very sudden and without mercy and is already driving me absolutely crazy.  I can’t believe the difference that school socialisation has made to his concept of gender and identity within the space of 6 months.

As for his Dad, I wouldn’t say he is ‘bothered’ if people mistake his youngest son for a boy, but he has on more than one occasion suggested a haircut as the solution.  Something I disagree with because it surely isn’t our job (or his) to bow to societal expectations of appearance just to make it easier for people to correctly identify our kids gender when there’s actually no need for them to do in the first place?

And that, is where my issue lies, I think.  In the need for people to assign him to one of the gender binaries immediately on coming into contact with him.  Like they can’t interact with him as a human until they know if he is male or female.

He is three and a half.  He had short hair last year (at his request, he was keen to get a “big boy’s haircut” like his brother and his Dad at the hairdressers) but has since declared he wants me to only cut the front of it (so he can see where he is going) and leave the back of it long (which I have done).  He mostly wears traditionally boy-ish clothes, i.e. lots of blue, and shades of mud, emblazoned with superheroes or monsters or dinosaurs.  He is shy around strangers but rambunctious around those he knows well.  He can usually be found in a puddle, or halfway up a climbing frame (upside down).  He also loves watching Frozen and Tangled and The Little Mermaid (oh my god, The Little Mermaid, 3,000 x a week on repeat)  He’s very affectionate (much more so than his older brother who is all “GEROFF ME” when you try to cuddle him).  His two best friends outside of nursery are girls, but at nursery he seems to mostly play with the other boys (one or two in particular who he is constantly mentioning by name).

He is who he is.  Just like I am who I am.

If you see him scaling a fence in his Batman wellies with his golden ringlets and think he’s a she, then on one level I’m glad that you don’t immediately think “must be a boy because a girl wouldn’t do/wear that” but on another level- really wouldn’t it better if we all just asked?

I mean, in the wider sense, if we didn’t spend entire bus journeys staring at someone down the aisle from us thinking ‘BUT REALLY IS THAT PERSON MALE OR FEMALE” driving ourselves crazy speculating and (presumably) making the individual in question feel uncomfortable, but just decided that since we don’t know them and they don’t know us, it isn’t in fact any of our business and what difference does it make to us anyway?  And then, when we are actually interacting with someone whose gender we’re not sure of, maybe just ask them which pronouns they’d prefer and take their word for it, since…well…they would know, being themselves and all?

Basically, when I first started writing this blog post, my instinct was to go off and google famous males with blonde wavy hair and litter the post with those images in a SEE AND NO ONE IS QUESTIONING THEIR MASCULINITY sort of way:

heath ledger Chris Hemsworth Brad Pitt

and it was during this (admittedly quite pleasant, but a little bittersweet, because: Heath Ledger) distraction that I realised that my approach was all wrong.  I was trying to defend my son against being called “a girl” because of his hair when actually

a. Being called “a girl” doesn’t bother him right now, so he doesn’t require my ‘defence’ on this blog, IRL, or indeed anywhere

b. The problem is not that people think he’s a girl because of his hair, the problem is that people think outward appearance is indicative of identity and/or worth.

So then I decided instead to write out a list of things I wanted our sons to know:

  1. You can be male and be masculine and have long hair
  2. You can be male and be feminine and have long hair
  3. You can actually have any kind of hair you want
  4. You can actually be whoever you want

So then I wrote:

“You can be whatever the fuck you want to be, identify with any gender, or consider yourself gender fluid, and have whatever the hell hair you like or none at all, and really it’s no one’s business but your own and it’s your choice which parts of your identity and body you share and who with and when and actually this blog post is spiralling out of control….argh.”

Does our son look like a girl?

I don’t think so.

Does it matter?


Should I correct people when they mistake him for one?

I still don’t know.

So if anyone has any answers (or painkillers, since I have now given myself quite the headache thinking this all through) then please let me know!


4 thoughts on “Does our son look like a girl (and does it matter)?

  1. starryeyedfirefly 08/04/2015 / 9:57 pm

    I have had this with T for 5 years. In fact, you‘ve probably seen various Facebook rants about it. From birth he was referred to as “she”, and equally N as “he” even when she‘s wearing a pink Hello Kitty dress. T had long hair, as you know, and last July on the last day of term, in front of the entire class at registration, the teacher said to me “The head says now his hair is longer than chin length, he needs to wear it up, but I‘m sure you‘ll be getting it cut over the holidays anyway”. Oh really? So during the summer holidays I said he had an option – bobble or haircut (he had previously refused on the basis that “people will think I‘m a girl if I wear a bobble”). He said he wanted hair as long as Rapunzel so no way was I cutting it. So he continued to wear his hair long and tied up in a bobble. He got a few snide comments from little shits at school (in his class as well, I never knew 5 year old boys were such bitches!! And they did in front of me!!) but he didn‘t seem to notice or care. But everywhere he went he got “she” and “her” and so on. Again, despite being 5 he didn‘t seem to notice or care. One day in M&S an older lady came over and said “Oh aren‘t they lovely” (T&N) and then said to T “Do you like being a big sister?”. I just froze and thought OMG how is he going to react?! He didn‘t seem to notice but was being shy so didn‘t reply so I said “Brother, he‘s a boy, she‘s a girl”. The woman gushed “oh I am sorry, he‘s just so pretty, isn‘t he?”. But the classic was with a man at school. He‘s one of the dads and he does the school run every morning and is generally as late as I am, so we‘re always pulling up at the same time and if one of us is leaving as the other is arriving we joke about how we‘ve beaten the other and so on. He has 2 sons at T‘s school, and I‘m pretty sure one of them went to preschool with him so his sons have known Theakston to look at, or be aware of, if not talk to, for nearly 3 years now. So one morning I was trying to brush Theakston‘s hair and scrape it into a bobble outside the classroom and he kept pulling away from me and eventually I got it in and he started scuffing his feet and I rolled my eyes at the bloke and he said “Aww there‘s a good girl, well done getting your hair done” or something. And I just stopped in my tracks and said “boy…. he‘s a boy” and instead of just apologising, the guy‘s like “What? No… Seriously? A boy?!” and starts looking through the window to get a better look at him, despite having seen him every day for 3 years!!! He had gone THREE YEARS thinking T was a girl!! I mean, it goes to show he‘s either unobservant or non-gender specific with clothing as T obviously wears trousers, and boy style Spiderman shoes and a blue Scooby Doo coat to school, and at preschool wore jeans and t-shirts with superheroes and monsters and things on, and I guess his name is so unusual that it could be either. But I was just gobsmacked!!!

    Anyway, he got too stressed about his hair going in his mouth and asked to have it cut and now has it in a kind of Owen Wilson style. I haven‘t noticed any comments either way as situations haven‘t arisen but I guess he looks more like ” a boy”. But I honestly don‘t think it matters. Yeah it‘s a bit cringe correcting people but at 5 I felt he was probably picking up on it so I stepped in every time, but he never once said “why do people think I‘m a girl” or showed any awareness of the situation. And he‘s very into the whole “I don‘t like Frozen, boys aren‘t allowed to” and today was “I don‘t like girls” even though I was able to reel off about 6 girls he is friends with. But he never put that together with having long hair and wanting it like Rapunzel!

    • rlholland 21/04/2015 / 9:15 pm

      Rudy is also a Rapunzel/Tangled fan so I wonder if that is a factor?! Also, until you made this comment I didn’t realise you were YOU iyswim?! Haha.

  2. starryeyedfirefly 08/04/2015 / 10:01 pm

    And in answer to your first question, if I didn‘t know what gender Rudy was, I would say I couldn‘t be sure as his hair is kind of non-descript as are his facial features, as in, he has soft features like T, so I would probably be really controversial and go by the clothes and assume boy. But I have in the past said to people in the park or whatever “How old is your… is it son or daughter? Sorry but I always struggle with this age!” or something like that. So I do tend to ask if I‘m not sure. Or wait until they say either way. I find the easiest is to say “How old are they?” and then they say “She‘ll be 2 in May” or whatever!

    • rlholland 21/04/2015 / 9:18 pm

      Yeah that’s the way I tend to go about it with other people’s kids too. And I do think his baby face throws people…at his age Toby looked much older and more ‘masculine’.

Any thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s