Why can’t boys wear dresses?

The other night, as I was tucking her in bed (our usual night time ritual), I had a conversation with my daughter. Somehow, we got on the subject of clothes.

“I love wearing dresses,” she said proudly. Full disclosure–Lily is very girly. She adores dresses the same way that I adored wearing shorts when I was little. At her age, my parents dressed me up in the frilliest dresses that they could possibly find and would parade me around our village. There’s a suspicion that my dad must’ve put me on his shoulder too many times to show me off, and that’s why I developed a fear of heights.

But of course, my daughter isn’t like that. She’s about as girly as they come. And she loves the attention she gets from wearing dresses.

“You know why I love dresses?” she continued. Whenever she begins her sentence with, “You know why...” it usually means that she already has a reason. I follow along anyway.

“Why?” I said.

“Because it’s pretty, and it’s sparkly, and I can twirl around in it!” she exclaimed.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes, I love wearing dresses to school,” she added.

“Does anybody else in your class like to wear dresses?” I asked her.

“Hmm…” she pondered for a moment, then said, “Victoria,” (one of her friends) and then she rattled off some other names that I can’t remember.

“What about the boys? Do they like to wear dresses?”

“No!” she cried, as if baffled that I would even ask such a question. “Boys don’t wear dresses.”

“Why not?!? Girls wear pants and shorts, like boys do,” I replied. “So why can’t boys wear dresses?”

She paused for a moment to consider. Finally, she said, “Boys can’t wear dresses to school because the other boys and girls would laugh at him!”

Cha ching. She’s right on the money. At least she understands the dynamics of the playground, I thought. But I wanted to make her think even deeper, so I asked, “Would YOU laugh at him?”

She sat up on her bed, pursed her lips, moved her eyes back and forth for a moment, and I can tell she’s pondering her answer. But instead she said nothing. Her face had that look that says, “No comment.”

Smart girl.

I love having these short little conversations with Lily because I can ask her these kind of questions and she always gives me a very intelligent, thoughtful answer. I want her to think deeply about bigger issues that tends to pervade adults’ lives, things that begin its roots at the playground. Societal expectations of gender behavior is one of them.

I also want to teach her to challenge the status quo. Just because something has always been that way it is doesn’t mean that it has to be.

It’s clearly obvious that in our society, if a little boy shows up to school with a dress on, all the little kids would laugh at him. That’s the reason why, if a little boy wants to wear dresses, he does it at home, when no one’s looking. I’m sure there are plenty of boys who raid their mom’s closets and try on their pretty things. But we just don’t talk about it.

Let’s not forget that in ancient times, men wore togas and skirts, things that literally wrap around them. In some cultures today, robes and skirts are still acceptable (Scottish kilts, anyone?). In Vietnam, for example, men wear a type of robe that extends all the way down to their ankles, making it appear like a dress, when really, it’s just another version of the ao dai.

For now, I hope that our conversation helped her see the other side of the coin.

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