Gender Policing Hurts Kids

My good friend recently confessed that she wished her eight-year-old daughter were more interested in ‘fashionable’ shoes, lamenting that little Maria always insists on wearing sneakers- even with skirts. “Some day soon,” my friend comforted herself, “Maria will want to be more like a girl – she’ll want to wear make-up, and shoes that compliment her outfits. I guess she’s still just a little young for all that.”

In light of that remark, I should have known when I agreed to babysit that Maria would show-up wearing shoes that limited her mobility. Had I been thinking of that conversation with her mother while arranging our day together, I could have saved the kid some pain. Instead, I thought of my own sneakered childhood, and planned to tour the neighborhood playgrounds, gardens, libraries, and ice-cream parlors with her – on foot. Since I don’t usually think of eight-year-olds wearing high-heels (although it seems to be a growing phenomenon), I didn’t even notice Maria’s ‘fashionable’ shoes until the poor kid started complaining of blisters and aching feet. Her mom had bought her the ‘pretty grown-up shoes’ the day before, and told her that big girls don’t wear tennis shoes with skirts.

Little Maria’s feet had fallen victim to gender-policing, the imposing of perceived ‘typical’ gender behaviors on another person.

As it turns out, gender policing is far from rare, and any kid who escapes adolescence with just a few blisters as a result can count herself lucky. According to research published in the journal Sex Roles, kids who’s parents over-correct “… gender atypical behavior (GAB) i.e. behavior traditionally considered more typical for children of the opposite sex” are at greater risk of developing adverse adult psychiatric symptoms:

Negative parenting style was associated with psychiatric symptoms. Structural equation modeling showed that parenting style significantly moderated the association between childhood GAB and adult psychiatric symptoms with positive parenting reducing the association and negative parenting sustaining it.

To put it a bit more succinctly, it isn’t being different that put kids at risk, it’s being punished for being different.

We are constantly goading kids, in a variety of ways, to conform to culturally-set gender roles. The rules can be so strict, that crossing a gender line can earn a kid punishment from parents, teachers, and peers. This hostile situation makes life particularly difficult for transgender children, for at an age when all children are seeking to define themselves, transgender kids are torn between embracing behaviors usually aligned with the sex they know themselves to be, and those behaviors that their society expects them to adopt. The more ‘gender atypical behaviors’ a child displays, the more severe the gender policing tends to be – increasing those children’s risks.

Yet, even for kids who identify strongly with their birth sex, gender policing can cause lasting problems. Girls run a constant risk of being taught to associating femininity with frivolousness, and we might be teaching boys a form of subtle misogyny as well. As Sociological Images notes, “unlike men, who are supposed to reject all things feminine, women are encouraged to balance masculine and feminine characteristics.” NPR’s article “Two Families Grapple with Sons’ Gender Preferences” seems to give credibility to this assertion. While the boys who name their animals girl’s names, identify with female characters in movies, and want to wear skirts might get taken to a psychiatrist; girls are expected to identify with male characters in movies (there might not be any female ones), can wear only slacks (I refused skirts and dresses for years), and are free to name their stuffed bears whatever they’d like (mine was Tom). The implication that girls can aspire to be male, but that boys shouldn’t condescend to act like girls is disturbing.

Of course, being aware of the problem doesn’t always solve it – and I’m even guilty of occasionally trying to police my nieces away from frilly versions of femininity. Knowing that gender policing is potentially dangerous for kids, how do we let our children explore their gender identities in their own ways – despite the messages all around them implying that anything but strict adherence to their prescribed gender roles is bad, or even unsafe?

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92 comments for “Gender Policing Hurts Kids

  1. sailorman
    July 18, 2008 at 10:15 am

    I wrote on this myself a while back, and agree completely with your POV:

    “Girls'” shoes suck.

  2. PhysioProf
    July 18, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Girls run a constant risk of being taught to associating femininity with frivolousness, and we might be teaching boys a form of subtle misogyny as well.

    “risk”? “might”? “subtle”?

    Check this shit out:

  3. July 18, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Yeah, I’m not so sure I’m with you on the “might” part of any of this; it’s clear to me that we do teach misogyny to our children, in exactly the way you’ve described, and there’s nothing particularly subtle about it. The message that boys shouldn’t want to be like girls, but girls should want to be like boys, is pretty clear about who’s valued in society.

    I’ve been worrying about this issue a lot lately; I’m approaching my third trimester and while I know that gender atypicality won’t bother me, I’m worried about how I’ll react to gender conformance, and whether or not that reaction will alienate me from a teenage boy who thinks mom just doesn’t get it. Le sigh.

  4. July 18, 2008 at 10:39 am

    The implication that girls can aspire to be male, but that boys shouldn’t condescend to act like girls is disturbing.

    Seriously disturbing. I actually had a conversation with my dad the other day. He asked me why he’s known so many lesbians/queer women who dress completely in “men’s” clothing but he hasn’t known many gay/queer men who dress in “women’s” clothing. I explained that I thought one reason for this was that our sexist society thinks it makes sense that a woman would want to be more like a man, because “of course” manhood is better than womanhood and therefore it’s no wonder that women might envy, mimic, or aspire to “manliness” – as long as women remember their place and don’t go too far with it. But men wanting to be more like a woman? Our society sees that as so strange, threatening, and perverse because it’s perceived as a downgrade, something nonsensical.

  5. July 18, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Also, poor kid. Maybe you can figure out a way to talk to Maria’s mom about letting up on her?

    And PhysioProf, the baby high heels in that link are SO FUCKED UP. I mean, come on. I’m not one to say that adult people should never wear high heels. But children, even BABIES? Fucking hell.

  6. July 18, 2008 at 10:51 am

    The shoe thing is a microcosm that represents a larger, more pervasive societal force that perpetuates a falsely polarized gender dichotomy by rewarding conformity and punishing diversion. The force is fueled by religions of all stripes, in the name of “tradition.”

    This force is especially harmful to children who happens to be trans.

    And PhysioProf is right to point out that the misogyny inherent within this force is not subtle. Not at all.

    The misogyny inherent in traditional gender-policing is pervasive, and has the inertia of centuries of “family tradition” fueling it.

  7. Habladora
    July 18, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Hey, PhysioProf, you’re right… I just forgot about our new lexicon. I totally meant that we’re hammering this fucked-up shit into the little bastards’ brains.

    As for talking to Maria’s mom… Jack, I’m trying. Despite being an incredible scientist and over-all a great role model for girls, she’s also a bit of… a gender essentialist. Sigh.

  8. July 18, 2008 at 11:09 am

    My soon-to-be nephew’s mother is very “don’t do that, you’re a boy, boys don’t do that” and it bothers me every time she does it. There’s no getting through to her, so that’s a lost cause, but I will share this with other new mothers and see if they are more open.

    I think a good way of dealing with it (just from cousins and my nephew- not yet a mother) is to just let them have fun with whatever that specific behavior is. If they’re old enough where you can ask them simple questions about it, then that’s fine as long as you try to curb how your own judgment comes across. I ask things like “where did you learn/see/hear that?” or “do you like doing/playing with that?” and then just listen to their responses rather than saying anything about whether it’s right or wrong.

    The only time I really say anything is when my little boy cousin says things like “girls don’t play sports” or “I can’t play with that, only girls do that.” I then say that it’s not true and that I know plenty of girls who do whatever he’s talking about. I give him real examples so that at least it’s in his head. He didn’t believe me at first and hasn’t stopped saying these things, but it’s gone down a bit.

  9. PhysioProf
    July 18, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Hey, PhysioProf, you’re right… I just forgot about our new lexicon. I totally meant that we’re hammering this fucked-up shit into the little bastards’ brains.

    Much better! LOLZ!

  10. July 18, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Although it has a bat’s chance in hell of being recognized as such by most people in this era, I really believe that this stuff is a form of child abuse. Not physical child abuse, for the most part — althuogh blisters and aching feet on a little girl who prefers sneakers start making me see red. But even when it’s entirely non-physical, straightjacketing kids into absurd, harmful, mind-warping gender roles against their will is just as bad as many other forms of psychological abuse. Now, some kids like gender roles, and that’s great. It’s the coercion that’s harmful. And I really hope that one day we’ll recognize that as a society. In fact, if we could avoid sounding like we’re overreacting and comparing it to belt-thrashings, and make it clear that most parents have no idea this stuff is wrong and messes up their kids, I’d advocate that we all start calling it what it is: bad, abusive parenting.

    But then, I have strong personal feelings on the subject, naturally.

  11. ShelbyWoo
    July 18, 2008 at 11:23 am

    Focusing on the shoes for a moment (I loves me some shoes!), I cannot fathom why parents let their young girls wear heels. FFS, I saw a 4 year old just the other day clomping about in 2 inch heeled sandals. They were square heels, but still 2 inches and she wasn’t walking well in them.

    Besides the gender essentialism (as well as the sexualization) associated with it, it’s damaging for an adult to them, how bad is it for a growing girl? I guess hot, sexy heels are more important than healthy joints and feet (not talking about adults, here – I wear heels, too, but I understand the possible physical ramifications as well as the inherent sexism). Uhg.

  12. ShelbyWoo
    July 18, 2008 at 11:25 am

    *it’s damaging for an adult to them, how bad is it for a growing girl?

    That should read: It’s damaging for an adult to wear them…

  13. July 18, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Holly – I finally picked up this book called I Don’t Want To Talk About It which is essentially about male depression, and the author over decades of treating men for depression has pretty much come to the exact same conclusion. I agree, too – it’s more difficult to call it what it is when it’s so firmly society-sanctioned. Of course, that was always the case with every other form of abuse, too…

  14. Roving Thundercloud
    July 18, 2008 at 11:46 am

    I recently became a new first-time parent and until then, I thought little girls who clomped around in icky girly attire had probably pestered their parents for the “grown-up shoes”, mock makeup, etc. But before our little girl even drew a breath of air, I was already completely baffled and depressed by how parent-driven these bad choices are. Every adult I met seemed to be in a frantic, breathless rush to make sure everyone knew the gender of their cute little blobs, lest they be mistaken for…a cute little blob of the wrong gender. They had to know ASAP what color to paint the nursery and whether to buy clothes with Bob the Builder or Dora the Explorer.

    And they were in just as big a hurry to box my little one in as well. We wound up passing along a lot of the stuff we were given, because it was SO girly and SO branded and SO damned pink. (If you shop where “just plain folks” shop, that’s pretty much all there is. And why do little girls’ shorts have less fabric, but cost more, than boys’?)

    I came to realize that if the little girls I saw hobbling around in ergonomically incorrect shoes HAD pestered their parents for them, it was only because they had already been indoctrinated by parents who had encouraged it in the first place. None of this comment is ground-breaking, but it was interesting to be suddenly immersed into the twisted world of gender expectations–both my spouse and I were raised by feminist moms and were not accustomed to seeing such rabid genderizing of tiny babes.

  15. Bushfire
    July 18, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Regarding the lesbian-in-men’s clothing bit, I have an alternate explanation. Jack was saying that it’s more acceptable for women to wear men’s clothing than for men to wear women’s clothing, but I don’t think it’s just about punishing the feminine in gender presentation or about the homos wanting to emulate the style of the opposite sex (although it can be). It’s also about comfort and practicality. If you compare men’s and women’s clothing, men’s clothing is comfortable, loose-fitting, and ideal for walking in. Shoes protect the feet, pants allow for running, walking, etc and shirts cover the torso in a dignified way. Women’s clothing was not made to be comfortable in. It was made to decorate a body. Shoes lift up the heel or show the toes or narrow the toes. Pants can be tight and difficult to move around in, skirts restrict what you can do with your legs without showing your undies, and shirts are meant to show off the breasts or are brightly coloured and silly. Loads of extra items like scarves and jewlery and shawls etc make the body look like a beautiful work of art. Except not all women want to be on display or look like a bird of paradise-they just want to walk to the store and buy some milk. I wear masculine clothing a lot because, since I’m not trying to attract men, I’d rather wear what’s comfortable. It’s not even about trying to look masculine. Men’s clothing is made for people, and women’s clothing is made for decorations. Young girls just naturally know that they are people, not decorations, until society beats that belief out of them. They’d keep wearing comfortable clothing, I’m betting, if they didnt’ internalize the idea that they are their to decorate the world for men.

  16. Lauren
    July 18, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Just a quick nitpick- when you write, “the sex they know themselves to be” in regards to trans kids, I think what you mean is “gender.” “Sex” refers to biological characteristics- chromosomes, genitalia, reproductive capacity-and is rigid. Gender refers to identity and is fluid.

  17. Thomas
    July 18, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    Mine are all small. My daughter is so rough-and-tumble that I sort of expect her to be all tomboy (and, based on finger-length pattern, I’m actually think she’s more likely than the general population to be queer, and a jock, though this research is still controversial). But she likes frilly stuff and nurturing, too. I just remind myself that the best thing for her is flexibility. If she can swing effortlessly from monkeybars to dolly tea party, and from hitting the heavy bag to pedicure, that’s freedom from the constraints of patriarchal gender roles. The more gender expressions are a la carte options and not mandatory packages, not only the better for her, but the better for everyone.

    I try to give my sons a leg up on many of the things that are denied to men as part of the deal for belonging to Class Man and getting all that privilege: a full range of emotional expression and affection, for one.

  18. July 18, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Great post and thanks for linking.

    I think we teach children misogyny – girls learn to hate women and femininity just as much as boys do.

    As for the shoe issue, it sadly does not stop there. In my post about all the 5th graders wearing high heels at the graduation, I mentioned how they also wore prom type dresses and had pedicured toes. The gender policing thus imprisons and harms the entire body ( and psyche)– not just the feet. The girls that are indoctrinated this way are well on their way to growing up wanting the surgical fix that I talk about here:

    As for the question at the end –“how do we let our children explore their gender identities in their own ways”– this is so, so difficult when they are bombarded with messages of how to do gender ‘right’. It’s like asking a fish to try and not swim in the ocean even though the ocean is horribly polluted. I think giving them “feminist lenses” to wear and helping them to become critical analysts of all the messed up rules about gender helps. They may not be ready for Judith Butler, but they can certainly see how breaking gender ‘rules’ is risky. And, as kids know that lots of rules are unfair, they usually quite readily will agree that all the ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls cross their legs’ rules are dumb. Unfortunately, not enough kids have people in their lives to help them learn to critically question the sexist heteronormative white supremacist patriarchy in which they live! We need more feminists/womanists out there teaching our children!

  19. Mireille
    July 18, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Whipping Girl by Julia Serano covers some of this, too, and is a great book. Examining the dismissal and sometimes demonization of femininity and the lionization of masculinity. A very good book I’d recommend. Heck, if someone wants, I can send them my copy, I already read it.

  20. July 18, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    I am currently dealing with this very issue. Destruction my 7 year old recently refused to take voice lessons because he was told that he sang like a girl, and this is despite our best efforts as parents to present gender in non conforming ways as much as possible. Despite the message we give our children when they are out in the world they will quickly learn that not to conform is to risk ridicule. I find it extremely frustrating and have yet to develop a strategy that effectively combats this..

  21. July 18, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    that really pisses me off.

    I HATE dumb frilly dresses they make for little girls, and I hate how some parents are so obsessed with dressing up their daughters like they are some kind of a Play-With-Me Barbie doll or something.


  22. July 18, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    I’ve been going through a battle to find sandals that aren’t completely impractical. I’ve had to buy men’s sandals. What’s the difference? Besides not having glittery shit all over them, they’re actually padded–whereas women’s sandals tend to be entirely flat and unpadded. Beauty is pain and all of that.

    Parents enforcing these gender rules disturb me–I think kids are perfectly capable of understanding that there’s no such thing as “boy” and “girl” hair cuts–but when they’re taught that, the kids who don’t conform suffer immensely. Who does it hurt if girls don’t want to wear skirts or impractical shoes? Who does it harm if boys want to keep their hair long? At the same time, how do parents teach their kids about gender construction when the media says that no there are gender roles and you need to conform or else you’re strange?

  23. neurolover
    July 18, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    I recommend Lelli Kelly’s. Expensive, but over the top “girly” while at the same time being perfectly good for the feet. I think people can get too bent out of shape about this — Maria’s mom may be enforcing gender stereotypes, but she’s also just enforcing a parent stereotype. She likes her shoes to match and is making her girl act like her.

    (I do object to shoes that hurt your feet, hence the Lelli Kelly’s).

    (And, how do we reconcile these complaints to the ads here for “slim sack” from American Apparel & Hippy Chicks. It’s OK for us to like clothes, even frilly girly dresses, as long as we’re doing it for ourselves. I hate dumb frilly dresses, if the kid doesn’t want to wear them. But, if they do, there’s nothing wrong with them.

    (And, honestly, the baby shoes are booties, they’re made of soft cloth, and are not particularly different from putting little cars or moose on your baby’s feet. They are not like putting high heals, which cause blisters, on your 8 year old).

  24. July 18, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    In fact, if we could avoid sounding like we’re overreacting and comparing it to belt-thrashings, and make it clear that most parents have no idea this stuff is wrong and messes up their kids, I’d advocate that we all start calling it what it is: bad, abusive parenting.

    Holly, I absolutely agree. Though I think we’re miles away from the point at which most people could hear this without getting mad defensive and angry.

    @Bushfire: I get your point and agree that the versatility/comfort/practicality of masculine clothing has something to do with things, too. But I do think that there’s this outrage and disgust generated when male-assigned people wear clothing designated for women that doesn’t happen as much, or as quickly, when female-assigned people wear clothing designated for men.

    The more gender expressions are a la carte options and not mandatory packages, not only the better for her, but the better for everyone.

    Thomas, I think that’s a really good point. Even “alternative genders” can be really constrictive when they’re strictly policed as mandatory package deals.

  25. Panopticon
    July 18, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Holly, I agree with you that it is CHILD ABUSE to coerce or attempt to control a kid’s gender identification or sexuality. UGH.

  26. July 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Count me in as one raised like that… it was never-ending harassment, all the time.

    I ended up as one of those hippie feminists who sneered at women for wearing high-heels, make-up, etc… and I now realize it was because that stuff was FORCED on me, EVERY day, ad nauseum… I fought, I screamed, I howled in indignation, but NOOOOO–thou shalt wear DRAG every DAY–was the sensibility I was raised with. It was considered next to God and Country, or something.

    And so, I rebelled and was very proud of that, because it took every bit of strength I had.

    Later, when I confronted the concept that some women had actually chosen these things, it was virtually inconceivable to me.

    I still think it can only be a CHOICE, if it isn’t forced. Let’s hope we can reach a happy medium.

  27. July 18, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    “Sex” refers to biological characteristics- chromosomes, genitalia, reproductive capacity-and is rigid. Gender refers to identity and is fluid.

    my surgeon, therapist, birth certificate, driver’s license, social security card, and husband would disagree that “sex” is “rigid”.

  28. Erin
    July 18, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    (delurks) This is a really hard subject especially since I’m a mom of a 3 year old daughter. We do a lot to “de-genderize” toys in our house. Sad to say it starts with the little boys that come around. Whenever they say a something is a girl or a boy toy we correct them and say “No, they’re just regular toys” we even have a few boys that come around and play with dolls now(though I’m sure they would never do it outside of our home, but we’re a safe place)

    For you’re nieces the only thing I can think to do is buy them tennis shoes to keep at your house and try to neutralize the gender stereotypes as best you can. =\ Best of luck

  29. July 18, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I also recently saw high heels for babies – sick! At such a high price it has gender and class issues all over it. Wearing heels was a rite of passage when I was young and most of my friends and I were not given the priviledge until we were in high school. Pantyhose was also considered off limits to us as kids.

    I had to set alot of boundaries for family members in terms of clothing. I refuse to put sexy animal print on my daughter along with a whole host of teenager style clothing. And I am sick of pink for everything. It seems that the clothing industry lacks an age group because size 4T is the same style as for tweens.

  30. Katy
    July 18, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    I think a lot of the reason women are more likely to wear things that are considered male is because much of what is made for women is impractical. High heels limit your mobility. Some skirts can limit your mobility (I know not all, I wear skirts too), lower cut shirts that make it so that if you lean over or slouch (or try to be comfortable or do something like, pick something up without showing the top of your stomach) limit your mobility. Many of the things that have been made for women are made for dolls that don’t do anything, so for many women that want to do something, like move naturally, it’s not that practical.
    Many women may feel more comfortable in certain things and don’t feel limited, but for some, wearing what is considered feminine clothes is often uncomfortable and strange.

    Sneakers are not boys’ shoes, they’re for walking or running or playing. Pants are not men’s clothes, they’re for going out in mild or cold weather, or for going to work. Button-down shirts are not men’s clothes, They’re for looking professional and sitting at your desk without flashing your coworkers. Crew-neck t shirts are not boys’ clothes, they’re the essential casual shirt for doing anything you could possibly imagine inside or in mild or hot weather. All the things that boys and men wear are designed to allow certain mobility and function, which are things that women are now allowed to participate in. So they’re no longer for men and boys, but people.

    Clothes that are designed for girls and women typically don’t allow full mobility and function. So what you do in them is kind of limited. Little girls are trained to be careful of their dress, and don’t scuff their little mary janes, and older girls might feel uncomfortable doing the monkey bars, or climbing a tree in a skirt or dress. A woman wearing a nice dress to an occasion might feel self-conscious about her low cut dress, or in pain from her feet being jammed up on a ramp with all the weight of her body pressing on her toes. So if men want to look pretty and feel whatever they feel with these kinds of clothes on, and ask someone else to go get them something because their feet hurt, then they’ll wear them. And many men and women do enjoy wearing feminine clothes, and that’s fine. But when women are living outside of the traditional role of women from our history, then their clothes are going to have to adapt. Hence women and girls wearing “boys” clothes.

    So I agree with the larger points, that men are discouraged from acting, dressing, talking, ANYTHING like women, and are brutally punished in one way or another, while girls and boys and women learn that anything like women is not to be taken seriously, and despised in some ways. And that women are also punished for acting like men, but expected to dualistically identify with them as the human default, and know that acting too much like a woman will bring ridicule. This is a terrible problem that has been ruining our chances at peace for a long time.

    But evolution is taking place and part of that is women being involved in many things that require functional and appropriate clothing, while the need for “doll” clothing is getting more narrow. Most women I know don’t wear heels unless they’re dressing up for something, as their jobs require them to stand or walk a lot. Actually, most of the men I know sit at a desk, so heels would be more appropriate for THEM to wear.

    So to accuse girls and women of trying to be more like boys and men by wearing sensible shoes and pants, is just ridiculous. We’re trying to be more like people that can bend over and pick up a kid without being embarrassed, or walk down the street without being in pain. When things are designed to change and morph your body into different positions or make you unable to move naturally, then I don’t see why we should feel bad about calling it what it is. It’s to make us less human.

    But that is entirely different than our society’s disdain for what is feminine beyond the physical, which is deemed weak and silly and disabled. That’s the part we have to fight against, and change the mindset to allow all people to embrace both feminine and masculine qualities and appreciate them in others. If we all stop stunting the growth of the feminine energy in us all and stop passing down this dangerous, violent legacy to our children, we can be whole and more human.

  31. Mindy
    July 18, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I was raised by a woman who had BTDT with makeup and girly clothes. She didn’t want us being sissies or weak. Dresses and fancy shoes or clothing and the color pink were passive aggressively discouraged.

    I felt horrid that I wanted to wear girl clothes, I was positive there was something wrong with me for liking girly things, heels, dresses, caring for dolls. I never felt I had my mother’s approval since I liked all these things that she and my older sister actively hated.

    As a result I am working damn hard to make my kids know that their choices are their choices and color and glitter aren’t gendered. High heels on the other hand are only from grown ups except at dress up time.

    Weird aside on the high heel thing I have recently after years of waring negative heel shoes been wearing heels and my knee problems have gone away. Heels make me stand with a slight bend in my knees using the muscles in the right way. Health and fashion are individual things. Of course I made sure I have shoes that fit right and are comfortable and I do not wear any of my shoes for extremely long periods (I change shoes at lunch) and I always make sure I can run in what ever I put on my feet.

  32. Kelsey Jarboe
    July 18, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I’m the only girl, so my mom tried her darndest, and still does, to convince me to adopt traditionally feminine behavior.

    Good thing I can use having brothers as a scapegoat for why, despite her efforts, I’m still just me. :)

  33. July 18, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    All this talk of clothing reminds me of when Elisabeth from The View (I seem to be agreeing with her a lot today– bizarre) told the story of finding out that the reason her daughter wasn’t running around and playing is b/c she realized that she was wearing tight, low rise jeans. And in a follow-up show she mentioned that she found LOW RISE PANTIES for little girls! You know, to match their low rise jeans.

    Things like that really upset me. My hope is that people don’t realize it unless they actually check the labels. I found a pack of these at Target and hid all of them in some basket so that nobody would accidentally buy them for their daughter. I can’t imagine a parent actually looking for the low rise panties for their little girls, although if Roving Thundercloud’s account is reflective of a lot of parents, then I’m really bummed.

  34. Kit
    July 18, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Did you tell the Mom that your plans were for playground hopping? Or were you emphasizing the library and the ice cream shop? If she knew it was to be playgrounds, then it isn’t just the shoes that were out of place.

    I’m of the grandmother age. I’ve raised four daughters and have two granddaughters. In our family we do, in fact, dress our kids in ways that are not terribly gender neutral. Yes, I’m a feminist. My latest granddaughter – all of a month old – has a sleeper that says “Daddy’s little all-star” on the front. So I don’t avoid gender neutral. Small boys and girls are not significantly different in shape and I feel free to shop for them in store areas marked for the other gender. Little boys pants are generally sturdier and more comfortable for a lower price. (And I’m no fan of trying to get ground in playground dirt out of a pink pair of pants.) Boys t-shirts have more fabric in them – which appeals to me right up through puberty. But generally you wouldn’t have any difficulty figuring out if the kid with me is male or female.

    My general rules – never dress a little child in something that you would describe as “grown-up”. Little girls shoes don’t have high heels. They generally are mary jane styled. Children’s shoes don’t take sensitive balance and they don’t take care to keep them fastened to the child’s foot. (If you are prepared to let them go barefoot, why pay money for shoes for the occasion.) Little girls wear dresses that will not be destroyed if they are played in. If fragile lace is mandated by some really special occasion, I’m prepared to take it off and have the kid wear something else for the majority of the day. If dresses are worn for daily wear there will be shorts or bloomers underneath. (Dressing a child in skirts for the playground is neither modest nor physically protective of the poor child’s body.) Those shorts or bloomers will be longish – they’re more for protecting little thighs than for keeping people from seeing underwear. Kid’s climb, slide, dangle, and fall. Prepare for it.

    Lastly, I will not buy – nor let a child in my care wear – anything that could be considered sexually suggestive. I am willing to go for snark – and as my kids got to be teens they enjoyed snark – but not sexually suggestive anything. So the t-shirt that read “You, Off my Planet” – fine. The one that read “Boy Candy” – nope, never. Cute is one thing. I like cute. Miniature adult is another. (No, I won’t put a little boy in a miniature suit either.)

    So I’m fairly conservative on the topic of kid clothes. I have reason.

  35. SarahMC
    July 18, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    I am with you, Holly. I wish people like that wouldn’t have kids.

  36. July 18, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Katy, I agree with you on how women’s clothing is non-functionable. Everything is so low cut it is inappropriate for work. I was thrilled when longer styled t-shirts came back in style because not everyone can wear half shirts to work. This issue can be an entire different post. There seems to be a disconnect with what Hollywood and the fashion industry promote and the way they make ready-to-wear.

  37. Bushfire
    July 18, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    “my surgeon, therapist, birth certificate, driver’s license, social security card, and husband would disagree that “sex” is “rigid”.”

    Nexyjo, you just made my day!

  38. Jay
    July 18, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    It’s not always the parents. My eight-year-old daughter prefers tight clothes, short skirts and glitter. She’d wear high heels if I’d by them and makeup if she thought she could get away with it. I am trying hard not to do what Mindy’s mother did. I really don’t want my daughter to think that she’s what I’m angry with, or disapproving of, in the world. But at the same time these choices do send messages and show an internalization of a standard of femininity that I find very troubling.

    Today, for example, we’re at the beach on vacation. We’re hanging out at the house for a break between outside activities. She’s wearing a pink flowered skort and a fuschia halter top and will likely add the aqua wedge sandals when we go out, or possibly the pink shell-decorated flip-flops. I’m wearing a white man-tailored shirt and a pair of khaki walking shorts.

    Her gender conformity is not coming from me.

  39. July 18, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Her mom had bought her the ‘pretty grown-up shoes’ the day before, and told her that big girls don’t wear tennis shoes with skirts.

    Oh god, the poor kid.

    It’s amazing what kind of abusive behavior parents can get away with because it’s considered appropriate, even kindly – to damage a child’s feet because the parent thinks her feet look ugly if they’re comfortable? It would be lovely to think that this went out with footbinding.

    “Some day soon,” my friend comforted herself, “Maria will want to be more like a girl – she’ll want to wear make-up, and shoes that compliment her outfits. I guess she’s still just a little young for all that.”

    Is she still your good friend, or are you going to explain to her that she’s an abusive mom?

  40. luzzleanne
    July 18, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    In regards to Maria, maybe you could point out to her mother that plenty of adult women wear sneakers with skirts, and that it’s actually becoming something of a fashion trend? I know that “It’s totally fashionable!” isn’t the best way to negate gender essentialism in the world, but at least it would get the poor girl into some shoes that she’s comfortable in. (Links are just a couple of results from the first page of a Google image search).

    In regards to gender expectations for kids in general, though, I honestly wouldn’t say parents’ wishes are the primary impetus for conformity. It certainly help to have a parent on your side if you wanted to fight gender conformity, but I know that my girly-girl and tomboy stages coincided far more with what my friends and classmates were doing than anything else. My mom sometimes wanted me to be a mini fashion plate, but I was perfectly willing to fight with her on that. My friends? Not so much.

  41. luzzleanne
    July 18, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    “It certainly help to have a parent…”

    It would certainly help….

  42. joncoit
    July 18, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    I’ll never forget the night a waitress “misidentified” my daughter as a boy, and to overcome her own embarrassment, told *her* in a goo-goo voice that *I* should dress her in a more gender-appropriate way.

    But I agree with DaisyDeadhead and others here; one can be as responsible a parent as you like, but this poison is going to get in your kids and the best you can do is provide an environment where they can, in the long term, come to realize it is a poison and decide for themselves how to deal with it. These objects are powerful but we are better off acting as if they aren’t all-powerful–perhaps it will be easier for the kids to figure it out for themselves later.

    It works in other funny ways, too though–the stalwart defender of gender lines at my daughter’s daycare (who asked why I had brought her “boy” pullups) decided, when the kids began to talk about who they were going to marry, to marry a boy (presumably b/c of the logic–girls are icky, I don’t like girls etc.). I was torn between fervently hoping his parents heard the story and wondering what would happen to him if they did.

  43. Suki T
    July 18, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    An ancedote about why this is really pervasive and sad: A few years ago I worked at a major corporate toy store that almost all americans and many of our sisters and brothers from around the world are familiar with (you know which one.) and I can’t count the number of times I had parents come through my line in tearful hysterics needing my reassurance that they weren’t making their son’s freaks by buying them the doll they desperatly wanted. One woman was (seriously) terrified of how her husband would react if she brought the offending toy home (I wanted so badly to “meet” this husband with my car. I know I know!)

    It wasn’t bad enough that the store was not so subtly gender segregated with section names like “Dolls” that was alarmingly pink and it didn’t only carry the dolls in that section but all of the “playing house” toys, princess costumes, and the enormous varitiety of dolls (with a huge section for those anger inducing Bratz!!! grr) And across the eisle the “Action” section with the action figures, swords, trucks, remote controlled vehicles, play guns, robotic stuff, play armor, all surrounded by primary blues and reds in a comic book style. Though they did try with the “imaginarium” section, this had the thomas the train engine(enjoyed by both sexes of children) art supplies, and the career dress-up costumes, legos and all the building toys, leapfrog systems. This area was very gender neutral, and more “educational.” and thankfully it was a very popular section and located centrallly in the store. As much as the store had those gender stereotypical things they did attempt to spice it up with branded items that worked for both, including many Pixar related items.

  44. July 18, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I have written about this subject several times, mostly for school papers, but I am so agreed.
    I really started to notice with the way in which we use language.

    I’m no linguist, but I think our use of language shows what we do and do not value in our culture. For example, the small insults children use. The worst, even as we reach adulthood, are related to equated or with being female..”throw/run/cry/etc…like a girl”…then I began the deep long fall into reading and researching feminism.

  45. SoE
    July 18, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Then I guess I’ve been unfashionable for quite some time, since I wear sneakers with skirts rather often…

    I just wonder whether people don’t think before they dress and style their kids. All too often I see a girl trying to remove her scrunchy or barrette – just to get it pushed in her hair even firmer. Even if she insisted on wearing it, why not just remove it and put it in the bag? Where’s the use to teach girls to say NO later if we deny them the basic rights about their bodies before?

    And don’t get me started on dresses. There seems to be some spell on them, making the wearer wary. I only once wore a dress when i was a little girl. It totally ruined the whole birthday party because everybody else was trying the new skateboard out and climbing trees and I felt too uncomfortable to do anything.

  46. Cathexis
    July 18, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Holly: You make an excellent point — what is this, if not “brainwashing” — cultural conditioning of young minds to adopt an arbitrary (and self-limiting) perspective? Although, just as with most child abuse, victims often seem to grow up to be perpetrators, perpetuating the problem.

  47. purpleshoes
    July 18, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    My frankly awesome roommate reports overhearing a man in the park scolding his little girl for climbing trees like a boy the other day. Apparently said roommate turned to the person next to her and said, loudly, “I can’t believe he just said that! What a terrible thing to tell a child!”. I am not for parenting drivebys, but seriously.

    When I was a child I wasn’t allowed to wear heels because my mother believed they were bad for the soft bones of children’s feet (and probably because she didn’t want her seven-year-old all sexified. Honestly, though, age 7 was the last time I fit into trendy shoes, so there is a little regret there.)

  48. July 18, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    @Jay Her gender conformity is not coming from me.
    That is the struggle of a feminist parent. Children quickly see that there are rewards for performing gender. We can have the most non conforming household on the planet but everything around them encourages them to live out the gender binary. I struggle each day with my boys. I know that I have had some effect but not nearly as much as I would like.

  49. July 18, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    It is interesting to see how little kids view gender differences, though.

    I’ve have very short (boy’s cut) hair. My hair is very thick and curly and I don’t like dealing it, so I’ve always kept it very short. During elementary and middle school I was constantly mistaken for a boy because of it, even after puberty came and I grew boobs. (This still occasionally happens, usually when I’m wearing a winter coat.) Back in middle school I volunteered as a teacher’s assistant for some art camp programs (school kids doing art activities in a daycare-like setting during school vacations), and despite being introduced to the class by my real name and being referred to as “she” by the teacher, the kids still thought I was a boy. Just because I had very short hair.

    This makes a lot of sense in kid reasoning, though. Kids at that age are usually not aware of the changes puberty brings to their bodies, and girls and boys are pretty much built the same way until they hit 10-13 years old. So the only immediately visible difference between boys and girls is that boys have short hair and girls have long hair. No ifs, ands or buts.

  50. July 18, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    I think I’ll throw in some racial issues here.

    I always felt humiliated and embarrased when my mother wanted to put me in feminine Indian clothing (We are South Asian), because I always felt that traditional Indian clothes were more “oppressive” than Westernized female clothing.

    I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. I really HATED how my mother forced me to wear Western and Indian dresses when I was younger. It made me so angry and humiliated. I rebelled and fought hard against her. I cut all my hair off when I was 12 and I looked like a young Indian male rickshaw driver. Heh. It horrified my mother and all my South Asian relatives who were disgusted and disturbed by how I looked like a boy.

    then it got ugly. Everybody accused me of trying to be “white” because I refuse to be girly.

    Funny shit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  51. Zardeenah
    July 18, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    My son is a bit of a gender bender at 5…he has long blond hair, likes to wear leggings and tights, and the occasional sparkle too. He gets called a girl all the time, both maliciously (at school) and not (at stores or restaurants). It upset him so much, that he stopped wearing his favorite shoes, which were sneakers with pink sparkles and light-up soles.

    After reading some threads like these, I had a talk with him. I told him that when people accidentally call you a girl, it’s *not* bad. It’s like accidentally calling a jaguar a leopard, or confusing two similar kinds of dogs (a scottie and a westie). Since there’s nothing wrong with being a girl, there’s nothing to be upset about. Just correct the people and move on. He’s doing *so* much better since I figured out what to say. We also told him that when somebody says “Boys don’t wear pink”, they’re really saying “What you’re wearing makes me feel uncomfortable and insecure with myself because you’re challenging me”…
    The comments here (and elsewhere) on these threads have really helped. Thanks everybody!
    Now to decide whether to buy him those red (practical) maryjanes that he wants or not….hmmm….

  52. July 18, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    We deal with this a bit in my household. My husband understands why I don’t want our daughter restricted by her gender, although she’s quite into the whole Princess thing anyhow. Thank goodness she also loves digging in the garden, pretending to be an archaeologist and such. We just try to teach her that dresses are for quiet play, and pants/shorts for more active things. And no heels!

    But when it comes to our son he struggles quite a bit. Our son likes to dress up in his older sister’s princess dresses. He’s only 3, and likes her makeup too. I keep telling my husband that he will grow out of it, but since he has only a couple friends his own age who are boys, of course he’s going to emulate his wonderful older sister right now. I figure going to school there will be enough societal pressures for him to conform that these interests will probably fade on their own. But having his son do ‘girly’ things still his hard for my husband.

    I’m working on him.

  53. Nanabooboo
    July 18, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    All this reminds me of an episode of “Medium” in which the middle daughter “Bridget” falls in love with her new bike helmet and insists on wearing it everywhere, even for her school pictures. The father is upset and keeps trying to get her to wear something more appropriate for her picture, mom doesn’t think it’s a big deal.

    Mom and Bridget win and she wears the bike helmet in her photo. Of course, the day after she decides she loves her galoshes more and starts wearing them everywhere.

    It was really cute & funny and, I thought, made a great point about how we try to make our children conform, to be “normal”.

  54. SKM
    July 18, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    In my personal experience dresses are not just for quiet play. Some of my early fond memories are of sitting in the dirt digging around in one or another of the dresses my mother made. I also climbed trees in dresses. If one’s not worried about the dress (and the girl) getting dirty, why not? I realize that tight frilly dresses are restrictive, but a nice A-line play dress is a pretty free-you-up garment. I only mention this because I am wary of coding “girl clothes” as quiet and passive and pants and shorts (“boy clothes”) as go-get-em active wear in a child’s mind.

    My nephew was very interested in makeup, toenail-painting and dress-wearing at three. At 5, he came home from kindergarten saying that girls can’t be doctors, only boys can (his teacher told him so!). I preferred the lipstick phase….

  55. July 18, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with my sister. As we were driving by Troy University she noticed a man wearing hospital scrubs coming out of the nursing department. She was dissapointed that he would want to be a wussy feminine nurse.
    I was quite surprised and asked her if its’ okay for women to aspire to anything why can’t a a complete strange man aspire to be a nurse. She told me that its’ not masculine. I was tempted to start an arguement with her about it and discuss gender but I did not think it was worth it.

    Sometimes I forget because I try very hard to be a progressive that many people, even in my own family do not share my values. As usual thank you for raising this subject since its’ something that we can all be aware of and check ourselves for when we are around children

  56. Rosa
    July 18, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    My 3 year old son’s favorite color is pink, but all his clothes are hand me downs, so he doesn’t have much pink.

    He’s really skinny, so we have a hard time finding underpants for him. His grandma took him to the one store I’ve found that carries 2T underpants for a special birthday treat. He picked the pink ones.

    She called me on my cell phone when I was at work to ask what to do. I talked her into buying the pink underpants, but when she got to the checkout the clerk talked her out of buying them. “They don’t fit the same way”. Yeah, like he’s not so skinny that the underpants sag off his butt anyway.

    It’s just *infuriating* to me. And this is the non-homophobic grandma, not the one I was worried about this crap with.

  57. Christine
    July 18, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    I don’t have any children, but I often think about how to handle this stuff down the road. I live in a city and don’t plan to homeschool, so I imagine my future kids will come home with all sorts of ideas about what they want to wear, say, eat, do, and so on that they did get from me. The exercise that has helped me think through what we should all do about this kind of crap described in the post (fashion police on one’s own kid? lame) is to think about what it means to be an ally. Not just a parent or a feminist, but an ally to our kids, nieces and nephews, and friends’ kids, which I guess is actually the most feminist move. (For me, feminism = anti-oppression politics and action.)

    Sometimes I think about what I would do if one of my kids turned out to be a republican. I would not be psyched about this, which might be the understatement of the year, especially since it doesn’t match my choices or worldview, but to be an ally to my perhaps republican kid 25 years from now, I will need to listen, be respectful, be myself, respect his/her space, live my values, be flexible, and love love love that kid and be on her/his team even when I’m infuriated. I do this thought exercise since one of my kids being queer or trans would not be a crisis for me, so I have to come up with something that would be surprising and challenging for me to a huge degree. I have the same approach to the gender conformity stuff we’re all talking about. What is it to be an ally to young kids? To let them wear what they want when it makes sense for their mental and physical health. I need to have a good reason beyond I don’t like it or I feel like a bad feminist because you want to do that (i.e., your conformity makes me feel less than as liberal and flexible as I want the world to think/know I am) before saying no. Same goes for choices about drug use, sex, why you have to do your homework. If we strive to be the best allies to kids that we can be, there is infinite room for flexibility.

  58. July 18, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    This is such a daily struggle, seriously. We work hard to give our daughter (2.5) gender-neutral choices, and she doesn’t seem to care yet (loves her dresses, loves her SpiderMan sneakers), but everyone around us seems to care so much!

    I actually had to have a conversation with my mom who was going through this whole litany of, “So-and-so is a boy, so he’ll grow up to be a man. Other-person is a girl, so she’ll grow up to be a woman,” and I interjected, “And we know some boys who grew up to be women, and girls who grew up to be men, and some people who aren’t men or women.”

    I try not to over-react by taking away all the pink in her life, but sometimes I do feel the need to de-gender-norm things just so that it’s clear there’s an option other than the one societal pressure presents.

    Luckily we got a redhead, so we have a good excuse for at least limiting the fluffy pink clothes.

  59. roses
    July 18, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    My parents weren’t generally the gender police, but they did cut off my little brother’s beautiful curly hair when people kept mistaking him for a girl. The saddest part was, my brother loved his hair. He cried for days afterward, crying: “My curls, my curls!” and trying to curl what was left of his hair around his fingers. It was heartbreaking. (Hmmm, come to think of it, maybe that’s why he insists on having long curly hair now that he’s older and more identifiably male).

  60. July 18, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    In fact, if we could avoid sounding like we’re overreacting and comparing it to belt-thrashings, and make it clear that most parents have no idea this stuff is wrong and messes up their kids, I’d advocate that we all start calling it what it is: bad, abusive parenting.

    In my experience, way too many people accuse you of overreacting if you call belt thrashings child abuse.

  61. roses
    July 18, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Actually, now that I’m really thinking about it… my mom wasn’t the gender police, but my dad was. But he only was for my brother. It was just fine for my sister and I to dress and act like boys from time to time, but he did not like my brother dressing or acting like a girl. But that seems to be somewhat of a general trend… it’s okay for girls to act more masculine because masculinity is good, but it’s not okay for boys to act feminine because femininity is bad.

  62. July 18, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    I’d like to ditto the person that said, as long as the garment in question is comfortable for the child (and why would you be buying a tight dress for a child anyway) there’s no reason to restrict dresses to “quiet play.”

    My daughter has a variety of clothing styles, and some days she wants to wear a dress, some days she wants to wear pants. Some days she wants to wear her sneakers, some days her girly sandals. Some days she wants to wear pajamas. As long as it’s weather-appropriate, I could care less.

    (Although I do admit I don’t allow corporate logos on clothes, with a few exceptions, and give away anything too tacky.)

  63. Blinkey
    July 18, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    I had a teddy bear called Emma, and I’m not a very feminine guy now. I think, despite what a kid’s told to wear, most of them will become teenagers and wear the opposite of what their parents tell them. Gender policing is more damaging, at least in the long term, for very feminine boys, and very masculine girls, who could grow up far more confused, and damaged, if they don’t like what they’re told to wear. On the whole boys wearing skirts thing, if a boy was to wear a skirt, or other traditionally feminine clothing, they would suffer quite a bit of abuse and ridicule from their peers. So, in a sense, gender policing can prevent harm.

  64. Zardeenah
    July 19, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Blinkey: You have a point about the ridicule, but at some point you have to teach your kids how to deal with ridicule — because the bullies will almost always find something.

    As far as skirts go, my son likes them, so we got him a kilt. I talked with his teacher, and we set it up that he gave a presentation on Scotland before he wore it to school. It worked really well — the teachers reported only one “what are you wearing”, but that child was reminded about Scotland, and only said “oh.” So there are ways to work around things too.

    On another note, I’ve really noticed that boys/men are the super gender police around my son. Women/girls hardly ever say anything except “I’m sorry” when they make the wrong gender guess, but men have to tell me how he was going to be all messed up and not manly, and boys persistently tease. My son painted his nails black and every day for a week, our transit operator bugged me about it, and talked to my son about it until my son finally took off the polish. And we live in San Francisco! I really feel for people who live elsewhere.

  65. timothynakayama
    July 19, 2008 at 12:34 am

    My parents weren’t generally the gender police, but they did cut off my little brother’s beautiful curly hair when people kept mistaking him for a girl. The saddest part was, my brother loved his hair. He cried for days afterward, crying: “My curls, my curls!” and trying to curl what was left of his hair around his fingers. It was heartbreaking. (Hmmm, come to think of it, maybe that’s why he insists on having long curly hair now that he’s older and more identifiably male).

    I can certainly resonate with this.

    Having been schooled predominantly in Asia, I have experienced firsthand the extremely strict adherence to gender norms. For a society that is often seen as a feminine one (which I agree to a certain extent, in the sense that uber-masculinization is definitely not the norm here, which allows men slightly more freedom to express themselves, albeit AFTER school…), it is strangely surprising how rigid the education system is in forcing kids to fit into the societal view of gender.

    Uniform is a mandated requirement, for one thing. Boys in pants, girls in skirts.

    The reason why I empathise with your little brother is that, in my school, which, like any other school, was extremely authoritarian in style, they would have these “checks” every week or every two weeks.

    There would be a teacher who entered the classroom, and he (always invariably a male teacher of course!) would check every single boy’s hair in the classroom. Any boy that sported hair that was outside the norm of short and cropped he would physically drag outside the classroom, still in full view of the rest of the students (due to transparent window panes). And then, displaying no sense of remorse nor caring for the offending student’s sensibilities, he would use a scissor (not the ones stylists use….it was one of those that you use to cut paper or cardboard with), and generally hack off their hair, and lest you think the boys would rejoice in getting a free haircut, this man was no Tony and Guy hairstylist. The blunt instrument, coupled with the intention to publicly humiliate, meant that he left the offending boys with extremely unbalanced haircuts (with tufts of hair here and there, all of the wrong length ).

    Needless to say, I was invariably always one of the boys there, and I really had to be stoic while the teacher was doing all of this, lest I give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. But really, deep down inside, I really, really wanted to cry, and always wanted to shout out at the world why boys could not keep long hair. But who was I going to complain to? The headmaster? My parents? My friends? Living in a culture where long hair on men was viewed as being a drug addict, gangster, troublemaker….no one offered any pity or even empathy.

    These happened all the way until finally I was free. University was a completely different scenario where no one cared about hair, or clothes, and you could do whatever the hell you wanted, even sport a blue Mohawk if that was your wish. It felt so free, like a bird finally escaping from its hellish cage, to soar through the azure blue canvas above, free at last.

    However, going back into the workplace, it all happened again. Working for a prestigious accounting company, one must fit “the corporate look”…and the corporate look is one where the males are severely punished for displaying any non-conformity. Whereas women could freely dye their hair, sport curls and layers, wear sleeveless tops to work, and wear colourful clothes, the men all had to sport short hair, ties, dark shoes, dark pants, with lighter shirts. There used to be a junior partner who would roam the halls, and take aside any man who so much as sported any hair that went below the ears, and would threaten them to cut their hair, or he would report and black note them to HR.

    I spent 2 years there before finally breaking away (because of other things as well). Now I work in an insurance company, and while the men are still required to wear office wear from Mondays to Thursdays, we don’t need to wear ties (free from feeling like a noose is tied around your neck!) and no one gives a rat’s ass about hair length.

    But I still have nightmares about school and working in that accounting company.

    Clothes that are designed for girls and women typically don’t allow full mobility and function.

    I will agree with you on that point. In my experience, women’s clothing often are not as durable, have very very strange size measurements, and for some selected items, are more expensive than a similar men’s item given that they use less fabric. I cannot imagine running to catch a train in high heels (although I don’t discount it as being impossible), nor trying to rush up past a flight of stairs or getting across a crowded room in tight-fitting skirts/pants (although I do have to admit, I like my jeans to be reasonably tight). The only thing I can think of that would inconvenience or make a man feel uncomfortable is the tie (speaking from my own experience of course…maybe some men like to wear ties…)

    I also agree that there is truth in the reason of why men can’t wear women’s clothes, but women can wear men’s clothes is that because masculinity is seen as the default, while feminity occupies its own niche.

    But I also have to reconcile all these with the fact that many, many women have stated that women simply have a much larger option of clothes to wear. Even some feminists on this blog and other feminists blogs have commented on this. Impractical, yes. Uncomfortable, no doubt. But in terms of sheer variety and options? Women’s clothes win hands down, this even despite men’s clothing having more options than 20 years ago.

    And the fact that women can wear men’s clothing but not vice versa increases this gap in option disproportionately. I would think that one of the reasons is that, while there are certainly a lot of women who actually wear clothing meant for men (with the sizing and cutting based upon men’s size), there are also women’s clothing that while the “concept” of it come from men’s clothing, have been tailored and sized and fitted to frame women’s often curvier frame. For example, “man-style” trousers and shirts. Also, the suit and tuxedo (with pants), long thought of to be a male bastion in sartorial circles…these have been adapted to fit to female frames. Often, when we see women wearing pant suits, or even tuxedos, the cutting and sizing are according to women’s shapes, to flatter their curvier disposition, rather than the more straight-lined men’s suits and tuxedo’s which frame a man’s general Y-shape.

    However, even after going through a reasonable amount of men’s fashion’s mags, I have yet to see skirts, or dresses that have been tailored to fit men. There are no “woman-style” dresses and skirts for men to wear. Perhaps, this is because what you mentioned earlier, of men’s clothing being seen as for everyone, while women’s clothing is often seen as for women only. As you said, if my female colleague should show up to work tomorrow wearing a pants-suit, masculine though it may be to small-minded people, it might draw a few looks, but life goes on….however, they’d literally force me to go home if I wear a skirt to work.

    It is also has always amused me, that while a man in a tuxedo/sharp suit is often thought of as sexy (despite having almost every part of his body covered), for a woman to be considered sexy, she often wears a dress that exposes cleavage/back/shoulders, etc. Just look at any Oscar award, where the women are wearing all sorts of such dresses, while the men generally stick to the ubiquitous black tuxedo.

    Though I agree very much with your disposition that women’s clothing is at times impractical and uncomfortable, I doubt very women would trade away their sheer amount of options for men’s significantly more narrow options. Afterall, when we think of women’s clothing such as when they go to the Oscar awards, or even fashion shows, the word “glamorous” comes to mind, which , to me, is often seen as such a gendered-word. I have looked through men’s fashion mags for “glamorous” designs….and this often involves the male models wearing things that not many men (not even the ones who are inclined to dress up nice) would wear (ie. Sequins on rich leather jackets……….)

    At the very least, women have the option of choosing clothes with more utilitarian purposes if they need to do functional/utilitarian things, AND they also have the huge option of dressing to be “glamorous” if they want to. Sure, high heels might be the Patriarchy looking to control women, but it is something that women have the option (one among many) of availing themselves to it if they want to (ie. Guilty pleasure). I would think that this gives a slight favourable advantage to women’s clothing.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong though. This is just my opinion.
    Also, apologies for the long post.

  66. timothynakayama
    July 19, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Oh, and I’ve meant to ask for a long time, what is the coding required to do those Quote remarks (the one with the space, centre alightment and little dotty lines)? I’ve always used the “I” for italics, but I find it looks too much as part of my own text….

  67. Rosa
    July 19, 2008 at 2:17 am

    TimothyNakayama, women have a wider range of acceptable clothing because women *fought* for that. Women were not able to wear slacks in most public high schools in the US until the 1970s. I think they still aren’t allowed to wear them on the floor of the Senate unless they are a Senator. I have read 2nd wave women (Marilyn Hacker, for one) talking about the amazingness of how big the pockets were in men’s jeans compared to women’s slacks.

    And there are still a lot of places where “professional” for women in the workforce includes heels, pantyhose, and lipstick.

    It does seem that as part of the conservative backlash the acceptable clothing choices for men has become narrower, though the “metrosexual” look is less hypermasculine (and so I see a lot of ridicule of it in the media.)

  68. exholt
    July 19, 2008 at 3:51 am

    So, in a sense, gender policing can prevent harm.

    Blinkey: You have a point about the ridicule, but at some point you have to teach your kids how to deal with ridicule — because the bullies will almost always find something.

    In my childhood working-class urban NYC neighborhood in the 1980’s, Blinkey would be correct as boys/men who didn’t conform to gender social norms would often not only social ridicule….but also physical violence and possible death due to their contempt for perceived weakness of being feminine and homophobia. What’s worse is that even assuming the neighbors or the police got involved, the victim and his parents would often be blamed for the attack due to his gender nonconformity. Understandably, no parents or male children wanted to take such a chance when there were already plenty of other “blameless” reasons for being bullied and attacked.

    At the very least, women have the option of choosing clothes with more utilitarian purposes if they need to do functional/utilitarian things, AND they also have the huge option of dressing to be “glamorous” if they want to. Sure, high heels might be the Patriarchy looking to control women, but it is something that women have the option (one among many) of availing themselves to it if they want to (ie. Guilty pleasure). I would think that this gives a slight favourable advantage to women’s clothing.


    As a male, I would very much disagree that the wider variety of choosing between “glamorous” and utilitarian clothing that women have compared to their male counterparts is an unqualified advantage.

    First, it betrays a bit of socio-economic privilege as there are plenty of people who do not have enough financial resources to purchase enough “utilitarian clothing”…..much less an entire wardrobe of that along with one of glamorous outfits, a situation my family and those of my high school classmates, regardless of gender. For that reason, I was fortunate that most students at my urban public magnet high school could care less about what other students were wearing as they were often far too distracted by GPA/SAT/extracurricular competition to be the academic top dog and Ivy dreams….and even more fortunate that my undergrad campus not only didn’t care about what you wore…but would actually disparage anyone who would judge others by their clothing choices/appearances as “shallow jackass” at best and at worst, a brainwashed tool of the evil capitalist fashion industry.

    Second, not only does not having such a wide variety of “glamorous” and “utilitarian” clothing as women are required to have to conform far less of a burden financially*…….it also means one less complicated thing to deal with in my daily life. Set up 3-4 business casual/formal outfits for the workweek….and afterwards toss on any random t-shirt available along with a pair of worn jeans, dockers, or shorts for evenings and weekends. I certainly don’t welcome the “privilege” of having the vexations and annoyances of having to choose which “glamorous” or utilitarian outfit to wear, whether it looks good on me, and then having to deal with the far greater levels of fashion policing women face.

    * Further reduced by the longer durability of male targeted clothing and a far greater societal tolerance of males wearing extremely worn hole and rip ridden clothes than for their female counterparts….though this does vary somewhat by geographic region.

  69. Em
    July 19, 2008 at 7:31 am

    Timothy, the code is

  70. Em
    July 19, 2008 at 7:31 am


    July 19, 2008 at 9:10 am

    I worked in an upscale NYC lower school a while back and let me tell you, young boys can be pretty-fied without consequence, you just need to look outside of LL Bean (white clothing). The little ones can, of course, wear a panda costume to school and that’s all good, but from kindergarden to their first encounter with corporate dress codes, boys also have the option of LOOKING COOL. Hip Hop culture gets ridiculed (by old folks, some of whom know how silly they sound) for this peacock effect, but intense and intricate t-shirt designs, awesome sneakers, and multi-colored hoodies turn heads and drip personality.

    “Sure, but that’s only for you city folk,” you say “wouldn’t fly here in _____.”

    Bullshit. You may not like it (or may find it jarring on white people) but a backwards hat and hip t-shirt are pretty small beer the world over at this point.

    Wu Tang Clan: Misogynists? Quite so. Bland dressers? Absolutely not!

  72. Jamie J
    July 19, 2008 at 10:22 am

    I have a friend who’s a mom and who lets her son do up his long hair what various conditioners, shampoos, and other things so that it’s nice and silky smooth, and she gets crap from other parents for letting him do it. Luckily, Tiff tells them off, saying she’s not going to limit how her son looks just because of what other people say, while the son remains nice and happy.

    Still, I don’t see how wearing what one likes, regardless of gender, hurts anyone else and has to be shut down hard. Heck, I have a pink guitar case (mainly because there weren’t any other cases) and while I tell myself that I don’t care, I can still feel that silent insistence that as a guy, pink is a big NO-NO for me.

  73. July 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Timothy, the code is like this (since I can’t preview I just have to hope my HTML turns out working):

    < blockquote >Type the thing you want to quote here.< /blockquote >

    Which looks like this:

    Type the thing you want to quote here.

  74. July 19, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Er, remove the extra spaces between the brackets and the things inside them.

    <blockquote>Type the thing you want to quote here.</blockquote>

  75. Ellid
    July 19, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    I sure hope Habladora pointed out to her friend that her child was *injured* by her insistence on putting her in the wrong shoes. I also agree with whomever said that Habladora should have a pair of sneakers available to loan the child so she’ll be comfortable the next time this happens (as it almost certainly will, since Maria’s mother seems determined to force her child to conform).

    The weird thing is, that it happens to adults, too. For years all I could afford was like Filene’s Basement and local bargain outlet stores, and the cheapest and best-made tops were men’s t-shirts and turtlenecks. Even though I bought clothes in colors that looked good on me, a couple of so-called “friends” threatened to send my name in to “What Not To Wear” so I could be publicly humiliated by a couple of rich New Yorkers because I didn’t have the money to go shopping for “feminine” clothes that would fall apart in a couple of years.

    Drove me absolutely nuts, and stopped only when I said, in public, that not only would I refuse the $5,000 VISA card and tell Stacy and Clinton to take their camera crew and get the hell out of my sight, I would never speak to whomever nominated me again. Harsh, but it worked.

  76. Habladora
    July 19, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Don’t worry, Ellid – I made my opinions known (I tend to do that anyway – which can make living in the South a little awkward). I’m watching Maria again next week, and I’ve mentioned to her mother that she’ll need to wear comfortable shoes. If she shows up in pumps or platforms again, we’ll make shoe-shopping our first priority. Oh, and good work not letting your friends push you around – it is amazing how often friends and family say that sort of hurtful nonsense, all under the guise of ‘constructive criticism,’ of course.

  77. Ismone
    July 19, 2008 at 2:13 pm


    I hear you. While I also hear what exholt is saying about classism, one thing that is true about women’s clothing is that it is much easier to show off our bodies (if we want to). Because that type of display is mandatory, and inconvenient, many women do chafe against it. But as someone mentioned upthread, many women also enjoy sort of the artistic or exhibitionist side to clothing. Nancy Friday once wrote that she thought the reason that some men were so aggressively rude to women who wore ‘provocative’ clothing was that they were jealous because they wanted to show off their bodies, but weren’t permitted to.

    Another side to the (very problematic) “a woman’s nude body = sex” dynamic is its corollary, “a man’s nude body =/= sex.” I remember being the only child in my 7th grade class who, when we were playing with gendered adjectives in sex ed. class, thought the word ‘sexy’ could be used to refer to a man. Being a het. female, I thought, well, duh, men are sexy.

    I can’t remember who, but someone on feministing a while back posted a comment talking about how female bodies are sexualized, and she (I think she) said: “why do we focus on how different women’s breasts and curvy hips are, instead of on men’s broad shoulders, which V down to their waists, and their muscular buttocks?” Put that way, a man’s physical characteristics were much more real and sexual to me–she didn’t describe the man as a default, instead, she described women as the default and men’s differences from women in a sexualized way that had a fairly visceral impact for at least one person oriented towards men (that is to say, me.)

    I am really glad to hear that parents are sticking up for their boys, too. I think a lot of times it is easier to let the boys be boys, and let the girls be boys too. Letting the child be him- or her-self with regard to gender and other idisyncracies, is the most important thing, I think. One of my profs. once said, you can’t make your children one way or another. You can just make them happy or miserable based on how you react to who they are.

  78. blankets
    July 19, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    I am grateful to my parents, every day, for the way that they fought off the gender police when I was a kid. As the much more gender-savy person I am now, I look back and notice all the things they did for me, to protect and liberate me from all of that, and I’m amazed. I’m still fighting my internal gender police, and I always will be, but I’d be so much worse off if it weren’t for their efforts.

    For an example in line with a discussion already going in this thread, My first favorite stuffed animal I named Baby and gendered female (which is to say the rabbit was my baby, rather than it being the feminine pet name, if there’s any ambiguity there). I even had some doll clothes that my parents found that would fit her, and there were definitely surrogate doll aspects going on. After several years, sometime in elementary school, I caved in to the internalized gender police I had picked up at school and stopped calling her Baby, at which point my parents recognized what was going on and pushed back until I reinstated the name.

    I fucking love my parents.

  79. Harvester of Hearts
    July 19, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    First, it betrays a bit of socio-economic privilege as there are plenty of people who do not have enough financial resources to purchase enough “utilitarian clothing”…..much less an entire wardrobe of that along with one of glamorous outfits

    Absolutely. Also, the more one deviates from thin and standard-proportioned in other ways (e.g. small shoulders, hips/boobs neither unusually big or small, etc.), the fewer options one has.

  80. rayna
    July 20, 2008 at 9:10 am

    The most interesting thing I find about parents as gender-police, is that adults who are otherwise quite tolerant of a range of gender identities in other adults, are not for kids. Adults who recognise, and even engage in, a more fluid gender identity, will still be quite rigid in the case of their children. Because of this, I think we can generalise about why ‘we’ are like this, not just specific parents.

    My favourite actor (because he is sooo representative!) who can freely play with gender in his personal life and sexuality as well in the roles he takes, will still say of his daughters: “oh, with boys it’s all running around and with girls it’s all emotional drama” (ok I paraphrase). Uh-huh.

    Probably such a stupid example weakens my point, but judgements many adults would never think of making of other adults will automatically and unconsciously be made in the case of children. It’s like we have default settings we revert to, and we don’t customise until the subject grows up. Er, bad simile?

    On top of this, we live in a culture where parenting and mums especially are watched by the mum-police. The media, industries based on teaching you/selling you how to parent, other parents, are very judgemental of you. I’m not a parent yet but I have this to look forward to. I do remember however in my Children’s Media class, a parent told a story of how her daughter wears all boys clothes, for a couple of reasons. The judgement she faced from other parents! There was something wrong with her daughter – but it wasn’t just the clothes. Because her behaviour was more tomboyish, people sought to correct it, treated it as a behavioural problem. Aside from that it’s completely horrifying, why???

    If an adult woman does things which might be gendered masculine, even if it’s not inherently masculine, say rock-climbing – do we treat it as a psychological disease??

    It’s just so FUCKED UP.

  81. Julie
    July 20, 2008 at 10:51 am

    I thought I was doing much better with this when I only had a daughter- My daughter has always been encouraged by both her father and I to play with whatever toys she would like to- I remember a Christmas where we bought her both a tool set and a fairy dress, with lots of stuff in between. As a result, my daughter is the one who at a recent birthday party was doing the monkey bars in a dress and tights, to the amazement of all the parents there whose daughters were afraid of the monkey bars. She literally had parents staring at her because here is my not very big for her age 4 year old whipping across very high monkey bars, not letting her party dress get in the way of her having a good time. In any given week, she can wear jeans and a t-shirt one day, a dress the next and she really feels comfortable in either. I am now embarrassed to admit that I did tell her she really shouldn’t wear sneakers with dresses, but I usually either have change her into a pair of jeans or she has numerous pairs of causal type play shoes (no heels, rubber soles, think of a mary jane type design) that I have her wear. I now promise to stop though, because it really doesn’t matter if the kid wants to wear her sneakers. Honestly, I think part of my problem is that because I was pretty young when I had her and we don’t have a ton of money, I always worry people are going to judge her (and by extension me and my parenting skills) if she’s not well dressed and matched. Sigh.
    Anyway, the actual point of this comment was to say that I realized I was not doing nearly as well as I thought was when my son was born. I mean, I’ve put him in pink sleepers at home, because no one at home gives a shit what color he wears. I do try- he’s worn his sister’s coats in public, likes to wear headbands or have his hair put up like pebble flintstone and has a pair of pooh bear sunglasses with flowers that he loves. He plays dress up with his sister, loves to play with dolls and stuffed animals and thinks dancing in the kitchen while helping mommy cook is one of the greatest things ever. He also LOVES Dora the Explorer. I’ve even painted his toenails (My daughter saw mine were done and thought it was cool, so she asked if she could have hers done too and then he wanted to do it too- they both just got a clear glittery color though). That being said- we keep his hair in a short “typical boy” haircut (of course, he’s not old enough to express a preference yet– he just turned 2. I don’t think I would have a problem letting him keep it long, but his father probably would struggle with it), his wardrobe consists mainly of dark clothes- blue, black, green, gray, red- his sneakers have dump trucks on them and his birthday presents were pretty much books and “boy themed” toys- trucks, Diego toys, cars. It’s frustrating because I think I’m doing ok, and then when I reflect back I realize that I’m not doing anywhere near as well as I could be. The most important thing that I think we’re doing though is that both of our kids are allowed to express a full range of emotions- my son is the more affectionate and cuddly one who wants hugs and kisses when he’s said, my daughter has a far more aggressive personality and is more likely to get mad than want hugs (although she does like hugs too!!). We also really try to crack down on it when she comes home saying stuff like “Girls can’t be firefighters” or “Boys don’t like to dance” and emphasize that boys and girls can do, like and be the same things. I think improvement comes just by being aware of this and trying to combat it the best you can.

  82. Kakalina
    July 20, 2008 at 11:00 am

    I have one pair of shoes that I wear practically all the time, whether it’s outside, at school, or on the volleyball court. I really, really don’t like heels and stuff (and have an apparently very odd way of identifying them–anything with more than a 1/2 inch heel and isn’t in sneaker for is a “heel”, this includes penny loafers), though I have two pairs. One of which I only wear around the house because if I wear them all day my ankles hurt, the other pair which I wear for dress up only (which mostly means Christmas, and eating out at nice restaurants during School trips), but take off if I’m walking outside and it’s not rainy/any other kind of wet, and if I’m inside and I need to walk faster. So basically the only time I’m wearing those are when I’m sitting down, lols.

    There’s a nice shoe store called “Omnyodo” (google it) which has a lot of fun designs (for men and women–the women’s shoes are “identifiably” feminine, but there’s no reason a guy couldn’t wear any of them :)), and are properly made ^^ No heels or anything! So, predictably, I’ve got about four of their designs on my wishlist :)

    My mother wears men’s slacks because women’s slacks don’t fit her–they’re all designed to fit a girl who’s got a specifically curvy kind of body, which my mother resolutely doesn’t have; and could care less about it. My entire childhood was with complete disregard to “gender roles” and I liked the full gamut of “boyish” and “girlish” things with the exception of sports except for floor hockey and dancing. I guess it’s not too much of a surprise that I didn’t have too many friends, but really I didn’t care too much either, and still don’t. I guess one could say I’m more mature about it now, but I still don’t pay much attention to gender roles.

  83. Kakalina
    July 20, 2008 at 11:02 am

    “anything with more than a 1/2 inch heel and isn’t in sneaker for is a “heel”, this includes penny loafers”

    sorry, meant to say “in sneaker form/design”

  84. Alexandra V.
    July 21, 2008 at 12:01 am

    Great post. I’m 31 and I wear sneakers with skirts! :D
    (mostly if it is hot out and I need to walk a lot — otherwise I’ll probably wear sandals, and those have to be comfortable, too)
    I’m fortunate that my mom never made me, or encouraged me, to wear heels.
    Thanks, mom!

  85. Mel
    July 21, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Bushfire, while I agree that men’s clothing is generally more practical than women’s (although the thought of wearing men’s shoes frankly makes my feet hurt–they might be comfortable for men, but they are the wrong shape for my very narrow feet–I have never had a problem finding comfortable and practical women’s shoes), I don’t think decorative clothing is an expression of gender. The desire to adorn ourselves is a deep-rooted human instinct, and it’s only fairly recently that we’ve shifted towards women adorning and men dressing lazily. One can adorn oneself because one likes bright colors or interesting textures without doing so to attract male interest. One can be decorated without desiring to be a decorative object.

    And I know more than a few men who complain about how boring modern men’s clothing is, and envy women the ability to buy shirts with interesting cuts and a real range of colors. That doesn’t mean women are luckier, but I think it supports a desire for adornment as a human trait, not a specifically feminine one.

    I am not very fond of impractical clothing on most occasions, and absolutely against uncomfortable clothing–but I don’t want to perpetuate the usual “boy things good and practical, girl things frivolous and bad” attitude. There is nothing wrong or frivolous or impractical about wearing colors, and not all women’s clothing is uncomfortable and restrictive.

    Incidentally, I keep seeing people puzzled as to why women’s clothes cost more and use less fabric: it’s because labor also goes into them (even if it’s sweatshop labor). Women’s clothes are generally more fitted, ergo they require more labor. Fabric is pretty cheap these days compared to labor (historically, labor was cheap, fabric was pricey, and nothing was off-the-rack unless it was secondhand).

  86. Constance
    July 26, 2008 at 8:43 am

    As a mom of a beautiful 3 year old boy who wants to grow up to be a princess and takes ballet class. I am open minded as they come. I have not told my son that boys cannot be princesses or that ballet is for girls. I try… I still struggle however with hoping whatever path he chooses is the easier one and gender “normal” path. Not because one is right and the other wrong but I really don’t want him to be punished by teachers or peers. I want his journey into himself to be an easy path.

    I selfishly take comfort that after he is done running around in his skirt and using his high pitched voice he deepens his voice and magically becomes superman. I do not react differently from one to the other but it takes every bit of strength within me.

    I appreciate your article, thank you.

  87. exholt
    July 26, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    The desire to adorn ourselves is a deep-rooted human instinct, and it’s only fairly recently that we’ve shifted towards women adorning and men dressing lazily.

    Unless you’re talking fancy clothing on rare formal occasions….and even this has a limit depending on a given individual’s/family’s financial state, the people who had the means to pay more attention to fancy adornment and colors tended to be the upper and later the middle classes. I recalled the vast majority of poor farmers and laborers before industrialization were “dressed lazily/sloppily” by the standards of their times not necessarily because they wanted to…but due to the constraints of their economic circumstances. There were also sumptuary laws in certain regions prohibiting the wear of certain decorative pieces of clothing/certain materials. Dressing “lazily/sloppily” has always existed…..only difference is that there is much less rank classist prejudice against those who do so now than in the not-so-distant past….and far more widely accepted in our society.

    I’m glad I didn’t live during the 1950’s and early 1960’s where not wearing a suit and tie would be sufficient grounds for a prof to toss you out of class as a boomer-aged friend experienced as an NYU undergrad in that era…..or in past eras where clothing was a far more visible marker of social class through the use of sumptuary laws where those who were deemed “too low” in the socio-economic class hierarchy were prohibited from wearing materials like silk and gold/silver thread and/or wearing certain decorative colors…..and those of higher classes were expected to conform to their strict dress standards on the pain of facing social ostracism and sometimes even punishment for offending the sensibilities of other powerful people.

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