Big Heads: The New Feminine

As many of you may know, it’s been very well-confirmed that people react to newborns very differently based on their perceived sex. Stick ’em in pink and they’re all tiny and delicate. Stick ’em in blue and they’re strong and alert. Yesterday, Mr Jender took a phone call from a baby group friend, letting us know that his wife had just had a baby girl. She is, apparently, very large: over 9 pounds. And she has a huge head, far above the average. This was immediately followed by “She’s so delicate, so feminine!” Just more proof that anything at all counts as feminine, if you really want to think so. (New father went on to explain that he was feeling utterly baffled at how to deal with this new baby, because he knows how boys think, but not how girls think. Mr J politely tried to reassure him that it probably wouldn’t be all that different for quite a long time.)

Have you had similar experiences? Please do tell us about them in comments– these sorts of stories are always very useful for teaching!

(Typo edited– thanks Sally!)

12 thoughts on “Big Heads: The New Feminine

  1. Did you mean knows how boys think, not how girls think?

    Another phenomenon, slightly different, is when a pre-verbal child points to something and the parent has to interpret. My nephew was sitting on his father’s lap and pointed out the window from the third floor of a city apartment. Who knew what he was pointing to? It could have been anything. But his father responded: yes, isn’t that a cool motorcycle down there?

  2. For the longest time my husband and I refused to dress our daughter in gender-specific clothes: pink dresses, frilly tops, etc. As a result, most (if not almost all) people thought she was a little boy. What I was most shocked by was how angry people got when I told them that no, in fact, she was a girl. I actually had people – a lot of the time older grandmotherly women – yell at me on the street to dress her in “appropriate” clothes… When my daughter was 2 months old, we took her on a whirlwind tour of Europe (mainly to see family and friends) and received a cute, but pink, jogging suit for her. By the time we got to Belgium, having run out of clean clothes we had her wear them. Unbeknownst to us, clothing and colour choice for babies is the reverse there: pink for little boys, blue for little girls. So when yet again faced with telling people that no, in fact our daughter was a little girl, we once again got yelled at for dressing her in “inappropriate” clothing. This is an example I use often in class to talk about the arbitrary and very early socialization of gender and most students are surprised.

  3. We moved from England to the States when our son was 3 and a half. Mothercare, an English store, had been stressing unisex clothing; this was 1976. People in the States were horrified. He had had dear little shoes which were rather like sandals. I remember a person in a shoe store telling me that boys cannot wear shoes like that ‘in this country.’

    The worst story of the times I’ve mentioned before, so will recount quickly here: our child being hit after he had been here for a week by another boy. He had never been hit before. He collapsed in tears and the school called me to say he had a problem.

    I remember in first grade – at a pretty expensive private school – teachers recounted how the very loud lunch bell upset all the first graders. I suggested – very nicely! – that they might find an alternative. Horror! One woman looked at me and said, “That might suit you child, who cries when it goes off.”

    His first grade teacher also explained to me that if I didn’t get him out on the soccer field by fourth grade, he have a hard time passing himself off as a boy “in this school.” She then told me that her second grade daughter was so tough that she and her husband discussed hiring someone to beat her up.

    What horrible rough red state was this in? Well, actually, the school was Princeton Day School.

    Tales from the mother of a gay son. Most fortunately, I thought they were all totally insane. I had left Berkeley for Oxford in 1965 and returned to see once again that adults certainly couldn’t be trusted.

  4. A friend of mine, upon giving birth, refused to tell her family members whether the baby was a girl or boy. As she lived quite rurally, remotely in fact, family members on both sides converged on her just after the baby was born. She would not allow anyone to change diapers and made them all go two days – TWO DAYS! — without knowing. It was a really, really difficult time for all the visitors. I always thought it would be a great experience to perpetrate upon others.

    My sister had three sons before I started my family of three girls, so my first born wore only boys clothes that were handed down. Additionally, she was bald until the age of 2 and a half, so she spent a good deal of time being referred to as a boy. Never bothered me, so I never corrected anyone — “what a beautiful boy you have there” “yes, he is rather isn’t he?” Oh, I purposely picked out unisex names, so no one could get a clue from that either.

    I am enjoying the stories. Our cultural sexism is insidious.

  5. I used to go around with my daughter dressed up in bright pink with every sign you could think of that it is girl (including pink hello kitty branded everything). But people (admittedly almost all non-NZders) still assumed she was a boy.

    OK if some get it wrong because babies can wear all sorts of colours – but nearly everyone? I think the underlying assumption was that it is less of an insult to be wrong about the baby being a boy than a girl.

  6. I’m a sucker for the girly clothes.

    I suspect this is partly because I was raised by a feminist so was put in fully gender neutral clothes with a gender neutral (i.e. pudding bowl) haircut growing up and the only compliments I was given by my parents were relating to strength or intelligence.

    Although I now understand the rationale behind this, at school my head teacher told me I was “not a proper girl” (curse that woman) so couldn’t join the netball team/sewing circle/cookery club. That really hurt and I would have given my front teeth to fit in more easily.

    As such, with my daughter, one of my main aims is to help her fit in BUT I had not banked on my sense of alarm at the increasingly sexualised presentation of femininity in the media and society in general. I feel that I’m stuck. I don’t want her to be squarely in the hairy-leg camp by default as I was (often literally) but the ‘up-for-it’ versus ‘uptight’ dichotomy of the construction of feminity frightens me.

    Oh well. She’s only two so I have plenty of time yet to work it out.

  7. I’m going to be an uncle sometime around the end of November. While visiting family earlier this summer, my mom (who loved her women’s studies classes back in the ’70s, but never quite wanted to call herself a feminist) was showing off various small frilly pink things she had bought her first grandchild. I rolled my eyes, threatened to buy toy trucks and little blue overalls, and decided to take my future niece camping and to science museums as often as possible.

  8. I’d been a feminist for a decade when I had my first child, a boy. When pregnant with the second, I experienced something I thought a bit weird when it came to knowing what gender of child I “wanted”. Well, either of course. But I felt that I should want a girl, since I already had a boy. I didn’t quite feel that. When I had a boy, I was actually relieved. I felt I knew how to deal with boys because I’d been doing it for three years. Having another boy rather than an “alien” girl seemed to dispel a bit of anxiety about how to do childcare. Now what was THAT about?

    And wow, can I ever relate to the story about little boys CRYING. My youngest was a sensitive soul who expressed his frustration and anger with tears. I’ll never forget a baseball game he played when he was six. Yes, SIX. He was catcher and absolutely determined to prevent anyone from crossing that plate. It was a hard fought game and went into extra innings – FIVE of them. Championship game, very hot Sunday afternoon, everyone heat stricken and exhausted, including the umps. But would my son let anyone cross that plate? No. He would not. Finally, in what just about everyone agreed was a call that came from desperation and exhaustion, the plate ump called someone safe at the plate who was pretty clearly out. End of game. End of championship bid. In the sweat and dust surrounding the plate, my son collapsed in a vale of frustrated tears in the face of the obvious injustice. And didn’t everybody think that was just the most “unsportsmanlike”, girly, weak-kneed thing! I truly couldn’t believe the comments people made. And my son didn’t make the All Star team because, as the coach said, “he’s a crier”. OMG. OMG. How we do mess our children up!

    And by the way, my son is a very lovely young man. As is his older brother. The women with whom they’ve partnered are pretty great as well and the relationships are very, very far from traditional, in a good way. I LOVE it! and will have my first grandchild soon. I’ve got the green overalls ready.

  9. I’ve taken way too many sociology classes and women’s studies classes. I’m so worried about having my first child and how in the world everyone around them is going to shape them…

    I love the idea of not telling anyone the sex! I wonder how long I could keep that up.

  10. In today’s People magazine (yes, OK, I admit it – I read People) Brad Pitt says about his three week old twins, “Viv is proving to resemble Ange in spirit, attitude and physicality. And Knox, a bit of me.”

  11. My husband’s mother had him when she was 17 so we were blessed with a baby sister two and a half years ago (we’re both 25). I have bought her a variety of different clothes from both the boys and girls departments because I quickly grew tired in seeing her in nothing but pink at first. She had a birthday a few months ago and I asked Mom what to get her and she told me that since they dig in the garden and play in the mud everyday, she would like shovels, rakes, dumptrucks, and other similar outside toys. Well, that’s what I got for her.
    Grandma had a fit about the dumptrucks. Those aren’t “girls” toys.
    We took our sister to Wal Mart one day and she seemed most interested in one of those plastic play tool benches. She stays with her grandparents most days and her grandfather has his own tool bench in the garage and she watches him work a lot. To me, it was natural to want such a toy. We dropped her off at home and I told Mom that we would probably get her that toy work bench for Christmas.
    To which Mom replied, “Oh, have you found a pink one? I’ve been looking and can only find the blue ones.”
    Our sister will more than likely receive the tool bench but I get frustrated when trying to make sure her mother and grandmother don’t put her into a very constricting pink box.
    I never did understand this. I was born to older parents who did not believe they would have another child so I did not have the same level of gender restraints placed upon me (at least until my surprise, change-of-life brother arrived 5 years later).
    We don’t have children but I already know that if we do have one, I will have specific rules about “gendered” clothing and toys.

  12. Excellent stories, all of you! You may be amused to know that the brother of the big-headed ultra-feminine newborn came to Jender-Son’s party over the weekend. Went straight for the cooking toys, totally ignoring the diggers, etc. Probably the first chance he’s had to do that!

    I’ll add on another baby group story (there are so many!), as I can’t resist. We remarked to another mother of a 9-month old boy how much Jender-Son had enjoyed going to an art museum, waving his arms and whooping at landscape paintings in particular. She replied pensively “I wish I had a girl so I could take her to museums”.

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