I’m standing in line at Sullivan’s Pharmacy waiting to pick up a prescription. My two year old is sitting in a chair nearby and the new baby is strapped to my chest. One of the women behind the counter says, “Look, its our little buddy! Isn’t he adorable?”
I like living in a neighborhood where most of the people who work in the square’s assorted businesses recognize me and my family. And of course, I like it when people gush about my children. The woman continues to talk about what a handsome boy my two year old is. Another woman I haven’t met before is ringing me up. She gives the first woman a weird look then her expression clears.
“Oh!” She says, “I thought you were talking about the baby. Clearly the baby is a girl.”
I look down. I can just see the top of the hat my friend crocheted for the baby–blue spikes run along the center of a green dinosaur head. The rest of the baby disappears into my kindercoat.
“How can you tell?” I ask.
“The hat has glitter. Of course a girl would have glitter hat. At least I hope you wouldn’t put glitter on a boy.”
I blink at her for a minute. I look back down at my daughter’s hat–yes there are metallic gold threads in the yarn that glitter in the light. I don’t really know how to respond.
“I would totally put glitter on my son,” I say. “I used to put him in pig-tails. His hair was down to here,” I say, pointing to the middle of my back, as if my son’s hair has any relevance to the conversation. I just feel the need to broadcast some sort of gender nonconformity in my parenting to counter the blue of my son’s shirt and the pink of the second-hand onesie that the woman behind the counter can’t even see. My son is at an age where he is a sponge–conversations no longer fly over his head and I know he is absorbing all of the subtle messages society sends about gender. My attempt to counter those messages in this moment is clumsy, but I am caught off guard.
I am always stunned at how one little detail that can be coded as feminine trumps everything “masculine” around it. My son’s hair is short now, his coat a boyish black and green, his boots are blue, and his mittens are pink. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been tramping around in the snow and I’ve been told how beautiful my daughter is. Because no matter how many ways he signals “boy,” the pink mittens override them all.
Our culture isn’t used to looking for signposts that “male.” Androcentrism is alive and well: despite moves by many writers to move away from a supposedly generic “he” to the more gender inclusive “he or she,” most people (sadly myself included) tend to absentmindedly revert to he in speech. “What’s that snake doing mommy?” “Oh, he’s wiggling in the dirt!” In our language, and therefore maybe also our culture, you are masculine until proven female. People see glitter or pink mittens or pony-tails as evidence that marks the wearer as “other” than the masculine standard by which the world is measured.