Raising Trouble: “When Can I Wear Lipstick?”

Liza Featherstone
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"Mommy, why do you look so nice today? Can I wear lipstick too?" Yes, at home, I tell my four-year-old son, Ivan, but not to school till he's older. Makeup is for older people.

"How old?" he asks urgently. I frankly have no idea, but say -- with pretend confidence -- that I doubt that our friend Selena, who is ten, is allowed to wear makeup to school.
Ivan is skeptical that Selena lives under such a harsh regime: "She's a really, really big girl!"

The funny – and refreshing – thing about this conversation is that Ivan isn't the slightest bit interested in whether he's the appropriate gender to wear lipstick. After considerable stress over gender roles – now familiar to Raising Trouble readers – he seems to have recovered a sense of freedom. And I think going to school with a boy who wears a dress – and with teachers who find this perfectly reasonable – has made all the difference.

My friend Rachel says there's a boy in her kid's preschool class named Eli who wears dresses, too, like Iggy, whose fashion-forward sensibilities have been discussed here before. To explain Eli's unusual behavior, Eli's mom tells the other parents to tell their children, "He's a girl inside." Rachel doesn't want to tell her children anything so absurd. I wouldn't, either! I'm sure Eli's mom means well, but four seems much too young for that. Adopting a trans identity is a grownup decision. Also, telling other kids that a boy wearing a dress is "really" a girl sends them the conventional and wrongheaded message that boys can't wear dresses. By contrast, simply telling children – if they ask - that there's no reason why a boy can't play princess (wear dresses, carry a Dora lunchbox, etc.) if he wants, seems way more helpful.

Iggy is most popular among the girls in his preschool class. When the girls have girly theme parties – including a "Diva" party in which everyone dressed up and did their nails – Iggy is always the only biological male invited.

But the boys respect Iggy too. On a recent field trip to the New York Aquarium, they tried to impress him: "Look Iggy, there's a pretty fish! A pink one!" I think Iggy's example – along with that of Ivan's close friend Lee, a girl who will wear only boys' clothes, is obsessed with Spiderman and plays almost exclusively with boys – helps the other kids in the class to chill out and not worry so much about being "normal."

In fact, the kids police each other's gender less than they did even a few months ago. After considerable conflict with his pals over whether boys can play with dolls – which led to extensive and brutal baby doll abuse at home – Ivan has started caring for his baby doll again, even asking if he can take her to school. A couple weeks ago, he nervously hid the baby in his backpack when we entered the school building, but the other day, he took her right into the classroom and showed her off. This weekend, he took her to the store, and on a long neighborhood walk.

All in all, he seems to have recovered a healthy disregard for categories.

"I'm not a kid, I'm a grownup," he said with a swagger the other morning, as he went to brush his teeth. "I'm a lady truck driver."

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24 Comments Have Been Posted

Me Too! i Didn't Get To Then, But i Do Now

i too had a desire to wear makeup and dress as a girl when i was a kid (i'm a guy) but never got to do it until i was older. i think all the pent up frustration at not being able to be open about who i was may be related at least in part to the exhibitionistic nature of the way i male-model women's briefs (back view) in videos <a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/misterpantybuns" rel="nofollow">on my YouTube channel</a> now. i don't know if there's any way to change a persons gender identification or inclinations parentally once they are already manifesting themselves in the individual's desires growing up.

I'm a lady truck driver

I think you've found something more precious than lolcats. <i>Treasure this child</i>.

Trans* children

<i>"Adopting a trans identity is a grownup decision."</i>

I'm not sure that I agree with that. I'd be willing to bet that there are plenty trans* folks who knew from a very early age that their bodies weren't quite right, even if they didn't have the capacity to express it then.

Also, puberty can be extremely distressing for trans* people, as their bodies can become even less like how their brains expect them to be - there's an argument that hormone therapy can and should be started before puberty. Before the person in question is deemed, by society, to have grown up.

I think as cis people, you (I mean Liza, not the collective you) and I both, should let trans* kids tell us what is the right decisions for them, rather than the other way around.

well, yes and no

I agree that trans kids should tell grownups the right decisions for them, and that some people do know at an early age. If a kid says, don't call me she, call me he, I may look like a girl but I'm really a boy: obviously that kid is the best judge of that. But it's rarely so clear-cut, and kids have so many more ambiguous ways of expressing gender variance.

I don't think, for the most part, that parents should go around telling the world how to interpret the kid, who usually is going to be exploring quite a lot before deciding what to call him/herself. Gender is pretty fluid for many, if not most, children. I know a four-year-old, for instance, who was featured on the cover of Time Out New York in a rather sensationally-packaged article on "trans kids" last year, and this morning he told me he is a *boy* (This in re: career plans: he thinks he would like to be an artist when he grows up, not a princess).

I think most preschool kids -- trans or not -- don't need the baggage of adults telling them -- and their friends -- whether they are "really" boys or girls "inside." Which can be another way for adults to put the kid in a box, or even, in some sense, make the kid make sense in more conventional terms (feeling that all this eclectic behavior would be fine if he was "really" a girl). Most kids just need to be told that as people, whatever they're interested in, and whatever they want to wear, is OK, and not limited by their biology.

Your post makes it sound

Your post makes it sound like that being trans is something adults do, rather than something people do at all ages. Talking about it as "adopting a trans identity" and an "adult decision" feels distinctly different from "I don't think parents should go around telling the world how to interpret the kid."

The truth is that more and more children are starting their transition at younger ages, and transness isn't something you "adopt" any more than sexual orientation or gender is something you adopt.

Also, I don't see why it's not okay for children to learn that some people are trans? And can be trans at any age? I know it didn't help <em>my</em> upbringing that the very idea of people like me existed and could transition were practically invisible until I stumbled across an entry in the Book of Lists.

I don't think transness is an adult thing. I do agree that parents should be very careful about telling the world how to interpret their children.

There are plenty of adult

There are plenty of adult trans-folk with the capacity to express it and choose not to do so with physical alteration. It's all shades of gray. By framing it as a matter of personal choice you're giving the children a greater capacity to understand and accept a wide variety of gender expressions.

I also believe that

I also believe that "Adopting a trans identity is a grownup decision" is a concept coming from the cis-supremist society in which we live. I think that even the concept of having a baby saying "it's a boy" or "it's a girl", and then being open to trans identities later in life is still focussing far too much on perceived anatomy and assignment of gender. I'm very much of the opinion that children should be brought up as individuals, not mentioning their anatomy to anyone else, and let them discover for themselves their gender and where they fit in society.

I agree with this comment.

I agree with this comment. Especially letting kids choose as they grow up. Most would probably choose a gender congruent with what their sex would be assigned as, and those who would choose otherwise would be accommodated, rather than shamed.

Does Ivan have a Dad?

Cause their is no wonder he wants to be mommy.

Not really relevant


I think Ivan might want to be a mommy because he thinks being a mommy seems really cool, not for any lack of a father figure. The very point Liza is making here is that sometimes we impose gender restrictions (e.g., he's a boy so he should be a daddy) on kids when it's really not necessary.

Moms are cool, dads are cool, grandparents are cool, and so are animals (which is I wanted to be when I grew up). Gender shouldn't determine that, individuals–kids and adults–should be allowed to decide for themselves.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

Funny, psychological studies

Funny, psychological studies aiming to show why children need two differently gendered parents have always ended up with the result that gender is irrelevant to the child's identity and well-being.

Misogyny FAIL.

your comment speaks volumes

I think it's interesting that you would consider a boy playing with a baby doll "wanting to be a mommy", when Ivan never expressed that wish in terms of this article. That speaks volumes about your own prejudices, that to care for a child is "being a mommy" instead of being a parent.

Brilliant. Excellent. I

Brilliant. Excellent. I agree completely.

You need to play your son

You need to play your son some videos on YouTube of David Bowie in his glam rock phase.

Vaguely related anecdote

Vaguely related anecdote ahoy!

There was a Norwegian blog I read a while ago, a father blogged about his son who was four or so years old (I think the man stopped because the kid was getting older and he felt uncomfortable with it, or something), and one bit that stuck with me was a story about how the kid had a red backpack or something, and some old woman on the bus had said something about the kid being a cute girl. And the kid had responded "Yes, I'm a pretty princess." And that was that.

I mean, the old lady would probably freak out if she knew he was supposed to be a handsome young man - or whatever old ladies like to compliment kids as these days - but everyone else was just rolling with it. It still makes my heart grow half a size to think of it:)

I'm raising the flag

That's right I'm finally calling BS on this series. There's no way that in our society, short of you keeping all media out of your home, and your son having no friends, that he does all of the things you say he does. No four year old can interact with our society in any way and not begin to be affected by the messages of "masculinity". You're not that perfect a feminist mother, which sadly I believe this series is attempting to portray. The second he said or did any of these things around his peers he would be mercilessly ridiculed, and would quickly pull inside himself


My 3 year old nephew has asked me several times when he can grow his hair so I can braid it. He's asked me to get him a Barbie doll. When he asked me why I had tools to fix things because I'm "a girl and boys are supposed to have tools to fix things", I told him that I can fix things too. He has since started telling his friends that I have tools. Kids spit back out whatever you give them and if there is a little cluster of progressive families, then of course it will last longer!! Grade school will be difficult, I'm sure.

wild misinterpretation

Anyone who works with kids, has kids, or has ever met a kid can attest that they do (and say) all these things and more, more than any adult can possibly write about. And if you think that my kid is not "affected by the messages of 'masculinity'", or that this is what I'm trying to convey, you obviously haven't read much of this series. I started Raising Trouble, in fact, because my kid is bombarded by these messages and is very much affected by them. As we all are. It's sad to me that you think that a portrayal of normal imperfect parents and kids having conversations about this stuff is unrealistic. It's all true, and hardly revolutionary.

you be rockin'

Liza - I can't thank you enough for the articles you write. I'm terrified of being of mother because I'm pretty sure I would fail miserably at raising a healthy child like you, and many of your readers, are doing. Bravo.

It's a pleasure to watch

It's a pleasure to watch this saga unfold. And today was especially affirming -- cute funny and progressive.

Also, telling other kids

<i>Also, telling other kids that a boy wearing a dress is “really” a girl sends them the conventional and wrongheaded message that boys can’t wear dresses. By contrast, simply telling children – if they ask - that there’s no reason why a boy can’t play princess (wear dresses, carry a Dora lunchbox, etc.) if he wants, seems way more helpful.</i>

Thank you. A person is a person is a person. If he grows to prefer identifying wholly with the set of traits and behaviours identified as 'female' by society, then that's his right, but I'm still hoping for an eventual future where gender is an optional categorisation -- and hurrying to label isn't very helpful.

Reading the comments, I

Reading the comments, I realize I must clarify: Ivan DOES have a dad. A truly awesome dad, who is very involved in his day-to-day life. We do all live together. I don't write about him that much here, partly because, as other writers may have discovered, significant others don't always love being written about! But also, people with a lot of different family structures read this blog and I have tried to keep it broadly relatable and not centered too much on the nuclear family and its particular gender issues.

"When can I wear lipstick?"

Same time you can start wearing mascara out of the house - when you start middle school, like everybody else!

I did almost the same thing

I did almost the same thing when I was little. My dad was always gone on business trips, so I always thought that he was really cool because he got to fly on airplanes and stay in fancy hotels. I wanted to be just like him. Being a girl, I did the best that I could to dress like him and act like him. He would take me to work and my mom would try to dress me in a cute skirt or dress, but I would throw a fit until I would wear a pair of chinos and a polo shirt like him.
My mom explained to me the whole "different private parts" thing when I was about to start elementary school. I got excited and said, "When do I get the one that daddy has?" My mom said, in the gentlest way that she could, that I wouldn't ever get one. I ran to my room and cried for the longest time.
Now that I'm 16, I realize that I have to accept being a girl, but I don't have to be the ultra girly, I'm-gonna-wear-micro-shorts-and-gobs-of-make-up girl that I see at school. I don't wear any make up, my hair is almost past my shoulders (and growing), I only own two skirts, and I only wear one inch heels for any jazz band concerts. I'm in marching band and I play trombone where the section is entirely guys except for me. I've been accepted as one of the guys since middle school in band, and nobody seems to question me.

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