Pink Pajamas and Sex-Role Stereotyping

I remember finding at a porch sale one fall just the pair of thick warm pajamas that I wanted for my son--in a shade of bright pink. I hesitated obviously, and the woman, noticing the pile of boy's clothes on my arm, sized up the situation. "You know," she said, "my son wore them all last winter, and nobody died." I bought the pajamas.

I would like to think of myself as fairly enlightened and flexible in the area of sex-role stereotyping, not one to limit children on the basis of societal rules about what boys and girls are "supposed" to be, do, or wear. But... this was a startling lesson in how deeply imbedded is my training on what's appropriate, and how scary it can be to deviate from the norm.

My son upped the ante on me several years later, when he was four or five. We were browsing through a thrift store when his eye was caught by a pair of dancing shoes. They were slim and white and pointy with little bows in front, and he lost his heart to them. I wasn't sure if I could handle it and tried a diversion, suggesting that before making any decisions, we look around the store and see if there was anything else he wanted more. There wasn't.

My mind was full of images of all eyes turned to his feet wherever he went, of taunts from peers and hidden looks and smirks and secret wonderings about his parents from adults. But there was no logical reason from his perspective to not get them, and I could see how perfect and totally desirable they might look to him. So I took a deep breath, gave him information about what might happen if he wore them outside (we had some tough little boys on our street), and let him decide.

We walked home with his heart's desire in a bag. He wore them all afternoon in dress-up play, then to the art museum the next day. I was acutely embarrassed. (Can a little boy who loves white dancing shoes survive in this society--and what will people think?) But he had a fine time, looking at some art, then playing on the hill outside with his friends, building teepees out of sticks and leaves, then getting into a wild chasing game in the form of a buffalo hunt. If anyone had a problem with sex-role stereotypes, it clearly wasn't him.

And, for all the toughness of the little boys on our street, one of the main attractions at our house was the dress-up trunk. They liked the cowboy boots and the karate suit, but they also went for the slinky skirts and lacy shawls. Here was a place where they didn't have to fit any single image.

I'm glad I noticed what was going on for me in those moments and chose to act on my best thinking rather than my fears and embarrassment. The pink pajamas were handed down to his brother, as warm as ever. The white dancing shoes were outgrown, went to a delighted friend (female this time), and are giving her as much pleasure as they gave him. My boys seem happy, healthy and normal. I think I did it right. I only wonder how many other times I've not even noticed, and that deeply-embedded sex-role training has caused me to limit my sons' choices, box them in, narrow their vision of who and what they can be. Not too many, I hope.