Sarah Hoffman

parenting my gender-nonconforming son

Sarah Hoffman

Sarah Hoffman
December 31
Sarah Hoffman is the mother of a pink boy and a girl whose favorite color is yellow. She writes for national magazines, newspapers, and radio, and speaks publicly about raising her gender-nonconforming son. Read more about Sarah at


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DECEMBER 18, 2011 1:44PM

Two Sides of the Dress

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I have been engaged in a multi-year, multi-faceted, multi-media conversation about parenting, kids, culture, and gender with my fellow momblogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser. Much to my delight, Sarah, mama of four kids ranging in age from three to 16, has agreed to be a guest poster on my blog today.

Sarah and I have long marveled that for some parents (parents like us, anyway) it was somehow easier to accept a pink, frilly boy than a pink, frilly girl. While the first put us in contention with popular culture, the second put us in contention with our own feminist selves. What we’ve both found over time is that in both cases, our kids—their essential selves—are the winners in this particular battle.

I’m pleased to be in this ongoing conversation with Sarah, and pleased to be sharing her writing with you.

Two Sides of the Dress by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

The pretty—by which I mean things that sparkle and twirl—has captivated the imagination of my nearly four-year-old daughter, who just this morning was in dancing, singsong mode: “I am a princess but I wish I were a ballerina.”

The holidays are upon us. Our fourth child is getting a pink, shiny fairy wand and a dark blue dress with silver flowers and ample skirt for satisfactory twirling. Things she might like to play with—puzzles and train tracks and games and dolls and trucks and art supplies—are already on the shelves.

Like anyone who has read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I fear the behemoth of princess culture. I abhor the billions of dollars poured into cosmetics for tweens or diets for females of all ages. I believe deep down to the soles of my small, square feet with not enough pinky toenail for polish that commenting upon little girls’ appearances feeds the notion that how you look as a girl is more important than what you feel or think or know. I want my confident monkey of a scrappy, loud girl to value every bit of her feisty, creative, smart self—not only her long hair or big dark eyes or ability to rock a miniskirt and faux biker boots. I’d even be content for her to rock the clothes if she knew style mattered only a tiny, little bit—and the other stuff, way more so.


Funny thing is, when I went through the same thing with her eldest brother I was unconcerned about his preoccupation with pretty. If anything, I was charmed by it. 

First, he pined for a fairy wand. Then, at his great uncle’s wedding, he sobbed because the flower girls’ dresses were beautiful and made for twirling—and his pants were not. A doting mama, I searched high and low to find him a perfect wand. When it so happened we had a cousin’s wedding to attend a month after the great uncle’s wedding, and he desperately wanted a dress in order to twirl at the reception, his papa and I thought long and hard and aloud about whether to let him wear one. Eventually, we did. It never occurred to us that no one would realize a boy was wearing the dress; in a room filled with mostly strangers, the cute whirling little person with shaggy hair and big green eyes would be greeted as a girl.

Although fairies and swirling skirts seemed reasonable to like, I didn’t realize before raising him that being a sparkle-loving boy was radical. Everyone we knew had an opinion. Some admired our supporting him to be his most authentic self. Others firmly believed we were ruining him. Either way, many were certain the preschooler was gay.

No wonder buying him that dress felt subversive and a little bit brave.

Browsing the dress rack all those summers ago, I remember a tiny rush of pleasure at finding something he would love. Especially after the endless assortment of dinosaurs and stripes and balls emblazoned upon the boys’ shirts I routinely sifted through with disdain since my boy didn’t favor dinosaurs or bold stripes or any sort of ball, that spin around the dress rack was like a little visit to the other side.

Here on the other side, the one that allows me to buy dresses without sneaking, I’m intensely aware that buying a little girl a dress isn’t at all subversive. It is, in fact, the opposite. Thus, my enjoying her beautiful dresses feels like a guilty pleasure. When the boy loved glitz, I remember thinking there shouldn’t be anything wrong with sparkly or twirl-y. Soft and dreamy, even a little bit flirty, the pretty stuff can be fun.

My boy outgrew his penchant for pretty. With the girl, pretty feels tough to navigate at three—and could well only get more challenging. Determined not to put too much attention into what she looks like, lest I feed the Disney mouse-eared princess-y beast or veer in some Toddlers and Tiaras- leaning direction, I try to refrain from commenting much about her clothing or hair or ballerina slippers. I also paint her toenails whenever she requests a coat of pink. There will be no bans on dresses or tights, no hard and fast rules on hair length. I’m trying to play it cool. When she puts the dress with silver flowers on and begins to twirl, she’ll be gorgeous. And I’ll tell her so.

Check out Sarah’s blog, Standing in the Shadows, where she writes about parenting, politics, planet, and pop culture.


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