Blue For a Girl And Pink For A Boy

24th June 2011

Heather Harris explores the world of children who don’t fit the gender stereotype

“Mascara,” was the answer my daughter gave, when a doctor asked recently if she was allergic to anything. Aged 14, she had just fallen off a horse and ended up in A&E – but, even with concussion, she knew what she did and didn’t like. I should have guessed there was something different about her when, at five, she spurned Barbie in favour of Ken.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like other girls. She would happily play dollies with her pink-clad friends, but dressing up was a step too far. As the ‘princesses’ twirled around in their oversized silver high heels she would take cowboy pot shots at them while riding the broom handle.

And for me, as an over-analytical first time mother, the whole scenario was made worse as her twin brother was busy trying on the nurse’s outfit complete with plastic stethoscope.

Fast forward a decade and they’re both just back from their School Activity Week – my daughter clutching a trophy for the ‘most adventurous child’ while my son was announcing loudly and proudly that he’d read four great books.

But he’s got a girlfriend (a proper one that he holds hands with when parents aren’t looking) so that rules out any stereotypical assumptions. And my daughter is forever discussing the relative ‘fitness’ of Robbie (Williams) compared to Gary (Barlow): not exactly an accurate measure of her future sexuality, of course, although had she been ogling Martina Navratilova I may have read more into it.

Nadine Portman had a similar experience with her daughter, who refused to wear any girls’ clothes up to the age of 11. “She wouldn’t even wear the school uniform summer dress,” she says, recalling shopping trips where, without a flicker of embarrassment, Maddie would head straight for the boys’ section. “I did wonder what others thought, especially as she was also more friendly at school with the boys,” Nadine admits.

For Maddie it was the transition to secondary school that was the catalyst for change. “Suddenly she wanted to look like her new friends, with the right shoes and even a handbag!”

There’s no way of telling what caused this about-turn. “I don’t know if it was peer pressure per se or just an awareness of fashion and music? She does still wear what I call ‘non-girlie’ clothes though,” Nadine says, adding that she doesn’t have a skirt or dress in her own wardrobe so perhaps the reason for her daughter’s behaviour lies closer to home.

The structure of the family also has an impact. Studies show what common sense suggests. Live in a house full of boys and you tend to be more of a tomboy – unless your Mum’s Victoria Beckham, when you’ll be in matching nappy and heels before you can say ‘girl power’.

For 11 year-old Helena Rowland, a love of rugby was, according to her father, Richard, sparked by watching her older brother. Her passion for the sport has been constant. “When asked what children I have,” Richard adds, I say, a son, a daughter and a daughter who wants to be a son.”

From an early age Helena was always “a rough and tumble child, preferring to play football rather than dancing.” Currently the star of Tring Rugby Club 11 And Under A-team, she finds that any teasing from the opposition boys soon stops when they see her play. “One tackle normally earns their respect,” Richard smiles.

Sadly, the current law states that teams can no longer be mixed after the players reach 13 years of age. This made Helena’s transfer to secondary school a dilemma. Should she opt for a mixed school where she couldn’t play rugby or go to a girls’ school which had a girls’ rugby team? She chose the latter.

“And we both support her and her rugby just as we would with our other children and their hobbies,” says Richard, whose older daughter is “more into horses”.

The importance of this level of support is expressed too by Tim Stirrup whose 12-year-old son, David, is a talented dancer attending full-time ballet school.

“I strongly believe having the dad involved is the key. The ballet world can be intimidating, but if more men went then maybe the entrenched attitudes towards boys and ballet may change,” he tells me. Tim is an active participant in the website set up by Richard Jones, a talented ballet dancer as a boy, who gave up dance because of peer pressure and has regretted it ever since.

“I also became aware that my father wasn't that keen,” Richard explains to me. “There were never any explicit comments from him but children have a habit of picking up on unspoken feelings.”

David had a similar ‘blip’ when he started school. “He came home and said he wanted to stop ballet and ‘play with boys now’. But this only lasted a few months,” Tim says, admitting that he is sure people do question his son’s sexuality but that attitudes change when they see how his strength also makes him good at football.

For another dancer, 11-year-old Joe Weir from Chesham, such acceptance has not been so forthcoming. “When I moved to a boys’ secondary school, I got called ‘weird’ and ‘gay’. The teacher stepped in and spoke to them but recently it’s got worse again. It does upset me but I try not to get wound up about it,” he tells me, adding that he does have some close friends who are ‘genuinely interested to hear about my shows and training’.”

The problem is that, in today’s society, the term ‘gay’ is the most common insult banded around the playground to both boys and girls. When Annie Armitage’s son Josh was running around in girls’ clothes and playing with My Little Pony a couple of decades ago, other children didn’t even know the meaning of the word.

“Everyone just accepted it and happily joined in his fantasy game of Josh’s Hair Salon,” she recalls, before admitting that his primary school teacher did finally encourage him to stop wearing dresses as it ‘confused the other children’.

Recently graduated, Josh is now a confident, well rounded, young man equally popular with women and men. And he makes an excellent flatmate. “As a child he burnt out three Hoovers with his obsession with cleaning, and that’s one thing that hasn’t changed!” his mother says.

The key seems to be that if a child is encouraged to celebrate their individuality rather than be ashamed of it, the end result is to be a young adult who exudes self confidence.

As Maggie Hughes, proud mother of the only girl in her local County Cricket and school football teams succinctly puts it, “I admire Jenny for the fact that at 11 years old despite the attitude from other children – and parents – she has the confidence to do what she wants… I really believe it will stand her in good stead in future life.”

And the world’s most famous mother-of-six agrees. Proudly showing off her rainbow brood in Vanity Fair last summer, Angelina Jolie explained her five-year-old daughter’s unusual appearance thus: “Shiloh likes suits. She likes to dress like a boy. She wants to be a boy. So we had to cut her hair. She likes to wear boys' everything. She thinks she's one of the brothers.”

Later in the year, Jolie expanded her opinion, in an interview with British magazine Stylist: "I want [Shiloh] to do what's in her heart and what's in her heart is to dress like that… I think it's beautiful."

Hopefully, such a celebrity endorsement will help unique girls everywhere stick to their guns (with or without an accompanying cowboy hat).

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