Snips and Snails, and Puppy Dog Tails

That’s not what little boys are made of. That doesn’t even make any damn sense. Still, girls are supposedly made of sugar and spice and everything nice, and God help that poor little girl who has a will to stand up for herself. “She’s bossy and feisty and mean.” Meanwhile, she was just practicing her own autonomy. There are countless myths we teach our young children that force them to white-knuckle their way through childhood, seeking approval at only the right, precise times and squashing their authentic “no’s.” Kids will tell you if they are uncomfortable, verbally or physically. But we are so consumed by maintaining appearances and politeness and gender norms, that often we do a disservice to our children.

“Go kiss your aunt and uncle goodbye, or you will go in time-out.” From toddlerhood onward, we force children to kiss or hug their relatives or family friends hello and goodbye, despite the children’s clear discomfort. What parents fail to consider is that either there is a legitimate reason for discomfort, such as boundaries being crossed that a parent may not be aware of, or the child is simply uncomfortable showing affection to people they do not know. Regardless of the root cause, when forced to follow through with physical signs of affection toward a person they do not want to hug, the child is taught that their feelings and boundaries and consent do not matter. They should instead force themselves to stifle their “no” and let someone else cross their boundaries, often facilitated by those meant to protect them. Parents often forget that much of children’s lives are decided for them by their parents. It is the parent’s responsibility to keep the child safe but also to prepare them for life in an unsafe world. To do this, the child must be accustomed to using their own voice and forming their own opinions. Small opportunities to make choices that have minor consequences teach children that their voice, and thus consent, matters. Conversely, if a parent never asks a child their opinion on their clothing, food they would like to eat, or activities for the day, the child will have a very underdeveloped sense of bodily autonomy and self-value.

An insufficient sense of autonomy and a low self-worth make way for malleable boys that are susceptible to toxic myths perpetuated by media, peers, and authority figures alike, such as, “Boys do not cry; do not act like a sissy.” William Pollack describes the boy code as the necessity for boys to act stoic, independent, macho, athletic, and phobic of anything deemed feminine, such as warmth, empathy, and sensitivity. If boys do not align with these traits, they are wimpy losers, ridiculed relentlessly not only by their peers but often even their own fathers express disappointment in effeminate sons. A demand for perpetual strength and stoicism forces boys to suppress their emotions. Extremely corrosive, boys lose the opportunity to develop adequate emotional intelligence, because they feel pressured to not fully experience and indulge in the full range of human emotion. Sadness, hurt, and disappointment are all valid aspects of the human existence, but due to societal pressures, boys are taught to channel those feelings into aggression and anger instead.

That inappropriate processing of aggression can lead to perhaps the most damaging and toxic belief we feed to our young children: “He is teasing you/hurting you/pushing your physical boundaries simply because he likes you.” First of all, wow okay how insulting to that little boy. Secondly, perpetuating this myth makes boys believe that inapt processing of emotions and outward displays of physical violence will go unpunished. “Boys will be boys,” after all. This is not just a boy’s issue, however. It teaches girls to expect violence and inappropriate displays of affection in their relationships. From grade school onward, young girls are taught that boys will take advantage of them and tug their ponytails and steal their pencils and kick sand at them, and all of it ultimately gains the boy respect. We as a culture do not value the discomfort of females, from the playground to the boardroom.

Binaries, Boots, and Bows

Gender reveal parties have been an economic boon to stationary companies and party supply stores nationwide; a search for “gender reveal” on Etsy yields 46,711 results. But when you look at them through objective eyes, you can see that there is a whole lot of toxicity bundled up in cute little pink or blue packages, ready to be absorbed by the masses. Gender reveal parties are a divisive issue parents choose to tackle long before they even know their child. Some say they are harmless. Others, like Dr. Leena Nahata of Ohio State University believe they are covertly insidious. “By celebrating this single ‘fact’ several months before an infant’s birth, are we risking committing ourselves and others to a particular vision and a set of stereotypes that are actually potentially harmful?” she asks. After extensive work with transgender children and their parents, she noted that it seems that we as a culture are unsure of how exactly to identify a child as a whole if we are unable to identify their gender. As our knowledge of pediatric healthcare advances, we must reexamine our understanding of gender as a hard-and-fast binary. Presently, there is a false dichotomy of male or female, masculine or feminine. Destructive erasure of intersex people, this stigmatizes nonbinary identities. Cordelia Fine explores whether sex and gender are truly at their core a neurological phenomenon as well as genital in her book Testosterone Rex. If it is not, perhaps the sex divides served more of a purpose for our evolutionary predecessors but as significantly more advanced creatures, sex hormones and male and female brains are thought to continue indissoluble distinctions, making for deep-rooted inequalities in modern society.

Diane Stopyra wrote for Marie Claire, “My discomfort with the gender-reveal party goes beyond my standard objection to fanfare surrounding gestational markers—which is primarily that, because we don’t celebrate non-pregnancy-related milestones with the same enthusiasm, we’re reinforcing the archaic notion that a woman’s value rests squarely in her ability to grow tiny humans.” We have to examine why and how precisely these parties may effect the child and our attitudes regarding this tiny human.

First of all, gender-reveal parties don’t actually reveal gender—they reveal anatomy. Gender is a wholly different thing, inextricably tied to the social constructs around it. (Fun fact: Blue used to be the color most associated with little girls, due to its association with the Virgin Mary. But Hitler feminized the color pink by forcing LGBTQ folks, especially gay men, to wear pink triangles. More on the homophobia tied to toxic masculinity in another post.) A gender reveal conflates the two.

“Projecting gender perceptions onto a fetus becomes especially thorny when you take into consideration that, globally, one in every 1000 to 1500 children is born with a visible form of Difference of Sex Development (DSD), which means being neither entirely male nor female, since the chromosomal/genital makeup falls somewhere in between—an enlarged clitoris capable of erections, for instance. (Broader definitions of DSD put this number closer to 1 in 100 children.) Then there are the millions of kids assigned a sex at birth with which they don’t align: 150,000 American teenagers identify as transgender. In a ritual that celebrates only a binary way of thinking about identity, we’re leaving a cross-section of the population out, adding to a culture of trans and intersex shame. And for what? Confetti poppers?”

We must ask ourselves what exactly it is for which we are planning as new parents. Nurseries are painstakingly planned by specific colors, books, toys, clothing, interests, and themes. This is further exemplified by a simple Google search on gender reveal cakes. Quickly the screen is flooded by binaries such as baseballs or bows, rifles or ruffles, and tractors or tiaras. The implication is heavy—we expect either pretty, calm and quiet little girls or bouncing, hyperactive boys who engage in allegedly loveable and harmless aggression like wrestling with peers. Children and even babies are forced into fixed and definitive boxes. Parents are often gravely disappointed if their child pushes the confines of these proverbial pink or blue straight jackets and are at a loss of how to interact with and guide their supposedly-atypical child.

Surely some people are rolling their eyes right now, thinking that gender reveals are no big deal and political correctitude is the opioid of the masses. Consider this, at the very least: These parties are a little, well, narcissistic. They stand, as one journalist put it, “at the intersection of All About Me Avenue and Oversharing Boulevard.”

“I’m glad people are having children and celebrating that, because the birth rate is dropping in America,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, nationally recognized expert on narcissism and head of the department of psychology at University of Georgia. “And there is something to be said for the communal aspect of sharing something meaningful with friends, which I don’t want to downplay. But there’s self-celebration taking place here as well. We can link this to narcissism and individualism.” This is not saying that everyone who’s ever hosted a gender-reveal party is a raging egomaniac. The trend may have started out that way, however, Campbell says. And thanks to social media, future moms and dads increasingly feel social pressure to participate and outdo their peers (see: skydiving gender-reveals) or risk coming across as subpar parents before their child is even born. The problem is compounded for low-income families who cannot afford the price tag attached to these events (the specialty cakes, for one, can run as much as $1,000).

All of that being said, making guesses about anatomy with levity and contrived games where you have to pretend you’re fine with someone putting a diaper full of melted chocolate in front of you is doing little to assuage a new mom’s fears about motherhood, nor is it sending a great message to any of the kids who happen to be in attendance. We’d be better off showing the little girls in attendance that changing the world is every bit as much a female prerogative as Tinkle in the Pot and balloon shuffling games and tutu’d onesies. The only way we are truly able to do so is by celebrating the who, not the what, of the coming child.