For many years, gender roles were something strictly adhered to -– pink for girls, blue for boys. These days, things are starting to relax a bit — with parents coming to accept that they don’t have to force their little girls into tiaras and tutus while signing up their sons for t-ball as soon as they’re old enough to hold a bat. In fact, many t-ball teams have quite a few girls on the roster, but it can still be uncomfortable for parents when they find out their little boy wants to do something more traditionally “feminine” — such as take dance or gymnastics or play with My Little Pony toys rather than Transformers.
One thing many parents struggle with coming to grips with is when their son expresses an interest in wearing makeup. While there’s a long history of dudes in makeup — from Vikings, to clowns, to hair metal bands – it’s still seen as being one of the “girliest” things a boy (or a girl, for that matter) can do. If you’re facing such a situation, what’s the best way to get past your fears and misgivings and do the right thing as a parent? The List reached out to clinical psychiatrist Dr. Lea Lis, and she had quite a bit to say about this sensitive subject.
Why the idea of boys wearing makeup is hard for some parents to accept
As Dr. Lea Lis tells us, feeling shame is something everyone experiences at times, and “we feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in.” Most of us who are old enough to be parents grew up during a time when men wearing makeup was seen as something outside those norms, although Lis points out that this norm may be/has been different for other cultures, time periods, and occasions. In fact, men’s makeup has been known to various cultures throughout history (via Mic), and major cosmetics brands including CoverGirl, Chanel, and Givenchy have recently introduced products meant specifically for male customers (via Luxe Packaging Insight).
That being the case, society as a whole hasn’t yet climbed on board the men in nail polish and mascara train, so parents may well fear their sons being bullied for violating gender norms. Lis notes, though, that “it isn’t even always necessary for a disapproving person to be present; we need only imagine another’s judgment.” Once we start internalizing that shame, she says “it becomes an internalized, personal narrative,” and it’s one that parents may be passing along to their kids.
How parents can overcome their discomfort
One thing that may help, as Dr. Lea Lis says, is to realize that “children can bounce back and forth during childhood and adolescence.” We’re all familiar with the movie trope of the tomboy who grows up to become traditionally feminine, and it’s likely that many boys who enjoy dressing up as princesses when they’re small will grow up to be cisgendered. In fact, Lis speculates that if you permit your child to “try on” gender identities outside the one matching their biology, that this freedom may actually prevent them from developing gender dysphoria later in life. “Children who are not allowed to explore beyond narrow, stereotypical gendered choices,” she says, “may eventually develop discomfort with their gender identity,” with all of the accompanying mental stress this brings.
Lis does have one caveat regarding this advice, however. While her advice is to “allow your child to wear their hair and use makeup the way they feel most comfortable with” while they’re at home, she cautions against allowing such self expression at school. In her opinion, “School is not a place for a boy (or girl for that matter) to wear excessive make up or flashy clothing.” She explains that, in such a place, “the focus is on education, not a fashion show.” It must also be acknowledged that, regrettable though it may be, any behavior deemed unusual in a school setting might draw unwanted attention from teachers and administrators, even if the other kids aren’t particularly bothered by it.
The most important thing is making sure your kids feel loved
Lea Lis says it is important to teach your kids about both gender expression and sexual identity, as well as the difference between the two, but in an accepting way. Whether your kids grow up trans or cis, they will be living in a world full of all kinds of people, and, as Lis has found, “being open with children about the diversity of people they encounter will help them be more accepting and loving.” She also says that establishing an open, accepting attitude toward people who don’t fit into our preconceptions about how their genders “should” look or act will help your kids from suffering any type of identity crisis. This is especially important should they come to realize that, as Lis puts it, “they fall outside the box.”
Lis points out that having such discussions with your kids as early as they are able to understand them will not “push kids toward alternative lifestyles.” If, however, they do identify as LGBTQ+, the fact that they know they have loving, accepting parents will “free them from anguish and isolation.” After all, the best thing you can do as a parent is to take your child on their own terms and value them as the unique individual they are.
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