T and I were in the toddler section of Target when I spotted them. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle underwear. I freaked out with excitement as I pointed them out to him. My Mom had scored some Transformer boxer briefs for him in the spring and he loves the hell out of those things, but all summer he had been asking for TMNT undies and I hadn’t been able to find any. He really didn’t need more unmentionables, but sometimes I’m a softie and I was all ready to buy them.
He grabbed a pack, but then his eyes drifted to the right. “Mom!” he shouted “They have Princess underwear! Can you believe it? Can I have some?”
Writing about gender issues and T isn’t new for me. Z and I are committed to letting him explore what he enjoys without coloring his choices with gender bias. We are committed to that in theory, but we were both raised late 20th century America. We try to fight against gender expectations, but they are deeply ingrained in both of us.
After a few beats I told him he didn’t need any new underwear. “Anyway” I said, “The Princess underwear doesn’t really have room for a penis and testicles. It is made to fit vaginas.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth I regretted them. I wasn’t helping. I was making it about gender. “Why do vaginas fit in them?” he asked. “Vaginas take up less space. They don’t stick out in the same way that penises and testicals do.” “But what do vaginas really look like?”
Remember, we were standing in Target. It was a Sunday. There were a lot of people around.
“Um, how about we talk more about vaginas in the car?”
For the rest of the trip I tormented myself about the underwear. Should I have just put it in our cart? If I let him have it would the other kids make fun of him at school? Did I care about the whole thing more than he did?
As soon as I strapped him into his carseat he said, “Can we talk about vaginas?” I had no problem having the conversation with him. I don’t want him to think that our sex organs are shameful or embarrassing or secret. Of course, I don’t really want to talk about sexuality yet. I think he is a bit young to get it. And at this point sexuality doesn’t play into who he is. I mean, four year olds are not sexual beings.
So about the Princess undies. Z and I talked. We talked about navigating the tightrope of letting him be who he is while making sure we were not setting him up to be a target for teasing simply so we could self-righteously live our cultural and political beliefs. “Why don’t you ask his teacher what she thinks?” was Z’s suggestion.
His teacher assured me that no one at his school would make fun of him. She told me he was in a supportive environment. She said I should buy the underwear. On Wednesday of last week I picked him up from school and drove him to Target. He chose the underwear he wanted. I washed it as soon as we got home and let him decide which pair he would wear first. When Z joined him in his room to read a bedtime story T pointed out the undies. “Do you see my beautiful Princess underwear with Ariel on them? Aren’t they beautiful? Aren’t I beautiful?” Z told him he was.
But the next morning when I dropped him at school he asked me to not tell anyone about his underwear. “I don’t want them to make fun of me.” My heart sank. I thought I was discreet when having conversations concerning the undies. Did he hear me? Why did he think the kids would make fun of him? On my way out the door I told the teacher he was wearing them and he wanted to keep it quiet. She told me it wasn’t a problem.
He wore another pair on Friday. I put a third pair on him after bath time on Friday night. On Saturday morning I noticed he was wearing Transformer boxer briefs. “What happened to the Princesses?” I asked him. “I do Princesses for two days and then I do Transformers for two days.”
Later Z told me during stories on Friday night T kept grabbing at his undies. “Are you comfortable?” Z wanted to know. “They…just don’t…fit right” T complained as he continued to adjust them. That’s when he switched to the Transformers. “So stop beating yourself up over what you said about his penis fitting” Z told me. “Turns out you were right.”
My sister told me that someone she knew posted a similar picture to FB last week. But it was Superman briefs made for boys and purchased for a little girl. The gal’s Mom couldn’t find Superman undies make for little girl bodies, so she got her daughter the briefs. Z and I talked about buying some princess fabric and fashioning boxer briefs out of them, but wouldn’t it be cool if all of the prints were available in the styles that properly fit both boys and girls?
Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith
Yesterday T decided to deal with the minor discomfort and rock the Princess underwear at school. He even told his teacher about them and how much he likes them.
Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith
The more I think about this the more I wish it could just be a non-issue. My beautiful and normal boy loves Transformers, Star Wars, Legos, TMNTs, Princesses, and Doc McStuffins.
(I mean, yes before we were parents we were sure that we’d prevent him from being exposed to all this commercial-plastic toy-cartoon junk. And for the millionth time I’ll say I sure was a better parent back before I had kids than I am now! I knew everything. So yeah, the reality is we let him consume pop culture junk. I’m not even going to bother with feeling bad about it.)
The truth is I’m glad his interests are so wide ranging. I’m glad he goes to a school that will support him as he is figuring out his place in the world. Frankly, I also look forward to a day when there isn’t a boy and girl section in the clothing and toy departments. Our kids deserve that.