Mastering the Art of Letting Gender Go

Would you, as a father, wear a dress so that your 5-year-old son felt less embarrassed about doing so?

If you’ve been online at any point in the past few weeks, then you probably know that I’m referring to the German dad who did just that for his little boy. The kid preferred wearing dresses and skirts when they were living in the liberal big city, but started to feel uncomfortable after moving to a smaller, more religious, more conservative community. So when he started to consider opting out of his fashion choices, his father decided instead to encourage him to be himself – by donning the dresses, too.

Then there’s the more mixed (and, apparently, untrue) rumor that Jay-Z had decided to stop calling women “bitches” after his daughter was born. On the one hand, he would have been giving up an abominably sexist male behavior. On the other, it would ostensibly have been done to protect his little baby girl – a very gendered response.

What’s the point of all this? That our kids tend to really throw our gendered behaviors into stark relief. We either see how something is a creation of our gendered society and decide that we don’t have to conform to it or we strive to fit our children and ourselves into that fictitious box of what it means to be a man or a woman.

Underlining this is a recent report from the Families and Work Institute detailing how today’s men feel more pressure than ever not only to be that traditional “breadwinner,” but also to be more involved as fathers, husbands, and even sons. And this is regardless of whether or not their spouses bring in a significant percentage of that “bread.”

Much of this comes from the old-school portrayal of men in media and culture – it’s that ‘50s Ward Cleaver dad who went off to work every morning after reading the paper with a cup of strong black coffee while June stayed home daydreaming about what she would cook for dinner. Even though we’ve evolved beyond that to a vast degree, there are many of us – both men and women – who just haven’t been able to brush it off completely.

What’s the solution? How do we let this societally-created notion of gender go? There are two completely different paths, and it’s important that we travel both concurrently.

The first path is the one traveled by Nils Pickert of Germany, the father who wears dresses to show his son that there’s nothing wrong with it. We need more people like Mr. Pickert – in fact, we need a Nils Pickert or 10 in every community around the world. Not to be crusaders or stir up internet controversy, but because change only becomes normal and accepted if society at large has to interact with the people – the perfectly normal human beings – behind that change rather than thinking about it conceptually.

This is the same thing we have going on right now in America over gay marriage. With all the vitriol on both sides of the issue, it can be difficult at times to see what’s happening as a positive thing, but almost every survey and study done shows one important thing: as a whole, the younger generation doesn’t think being gay is a big deal. After all, they grew up with Will & Grace, Glee, and a whole lot of talk about people not having equal rights because they happen to be attracted to members of the same sex.

When you phrase it like that to kids and teens, most don’t ask why these people are complaining or worry about gay rights cutting into their own rights – they wonder why there’s such a big fight over everyone being equal. That right there is the power of being seen and heard. It may cause uproar, but over time even that uproar tends to normalize it for society and in our own minds.

Unfortunately, the other half of tearing down gendered walls isn’t nearly as visible or exciting. Our world has been set up in such a gendered way that the path forward requires that we trudge through the trenches of negotiation just as much as we march on the streets.

What are we talking about?

Well, let’s go back to kids and families for a bit. Earlier I mentioned men feeling stressed because they are being pulled in different directions by work and family. Traditionally, men head to the office and make money while women stay home and rear the kids.

Except that we haven’t been “traditional” in that sense for a while now. At least, women haven’t been traditional. But even though more and more women work and have fought hard for things like maternity leave, companies still tend to expect men to stay and get the job done.

This needs to change.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman – a parent is a parent. It shouldn’t be the exception to the rule for men to get time off for the birth of their children or to pick them up from school while it’s expected for women. Employers need to implement non-gendered policies regarding work and time off or they are just adding stress to members of both sexes.

One way to make this happen it to embrace a resurgence of feminism. Not in the sense of “female empowerment” that so many have come to see it as, but by going back to the roots of the movement and taking gender out of the equation. Only when we stop seeing things as male or female will we finally be able to let gender go and move forward as people.

About the Author

Joyce and Leah Del Rosario are part of the team behind Open Colleges, one of Australia’s leading providers of Nutrition Courses and Personal Training Courses. When not working, Joyce and Leah also blog about health and fitness.

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