From the moment a child is born, we want to reassure ourselves that our baby fits into our perceptions of what is considered normal. Normal numbers of fingers and toes, normal weight, normal health, and normal gender. The problem with that is that we have very narrow perceptions of what is normal.
Last weekend, though, I was both surprised and delighted to see some of those assumptions being playfully thrown aside. I was invited along with many others at a community Pride Week event to re-dress those classic symbols of gendered childhood — Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe dolls. We were provided doll clothes, fabric, and other accessories with which to re-imagine them.
I saw a tattooed Joe in a knitted dress, a Barbie clothed as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a Ken doll in a Barbie gown. Everyone who participated was able to play at dressing a doll in any way they chose and to take their creations home with them.
After the fun of dressing the dolls, many people wanted to show off their unique dolls to others at the event. It was lighthearted, and it was also validation for those adults who were themselves not conforming to gender stereotypes. For a few minutes they were able to reclaim a bit of childhood for themselves.
Prior to the births of my children, I received baby clothes in green, white, and yellow. It was accepted that once the gender was known I would revert to the traditional colour choices, and I did. I have photos to remind me of clothes I chose and made in pink and blue.
It never occurred to me that I was contributing to a socialization in gender norms that might turn out to be a problem later on. I didn’t think twice about it.
I did push back against the troubling anorexic body image of Barbie dolls and the equally troubling warrior image of G.I. Joe dolls. I resisted buying them for my children, but they were received as gifts from others and I ultimately relented. In fact, my eldest child wound up with a rather large collection of G.I. Joes.
At the time, gifts for children were often defined by gender, but not to the extent that they are today. When you venture into a toy store now you find that the toy aisles are clearly delineated by pink or purple for girls and blue for boys. Even toys like Lego and board games have been given a gendered gloss in the recent past, although there are efforts now to stop this trend.
It struck me as significant that at the same time that I was looking at re-dressed Barbies and Joes at the festival there was a workshop on body image in the community hall. The place was packed; not a single empty seat. How sad it is that we have raised a generation in which so many people don’t like what they see in the mirror.
By dressing up dolls, though, this weekend some folks were able to thumb their noses at the restrictions we place on our children when we oblige them to conform to social expectations of gender. I can’t undo the pink and blue choices I made for my children, but can stop buying them for other people’s babies. I can also make a point of not buying toys with color-coded packaging. That should make the choice a lot easier – it’s probably reduced to puzzles and science experiments, and that’s OK. Intelligence looks good on everyone.