I Dressed a Girl and I Liked It

baby dress

When I found out that I was going to have my first child, and then, soon after, that it was going to be a girl, I had few preconceived ideas about parenting or babies. I hadn’t spent much time around babies, and didn’t have very many opinions about how best to raise one. I knew just two things: That, until she could decide for herself, she would not eat animals, and that she wouldn’t be dressed like a “girl” in the traditional sense. That meant pink would be avoided, as would most dresses, hair bows, and all manner of fancy gear which I had spent my entire adult life loathing.

I very quickly learned a truth about parenting: In the early days, when the fetus, and then baby, has no stated preferences and can’t disagree with you, it’s as much about you as it is about the child. And if dressing my baby was all about me, there was going to be plenty of baggage.

I was my mother’s only daughter, the second of four kids. My mother, who was kind and funny and intelligent, wasn’t shy about forcing her preferences onto me. What else can a mother do? The baby won’t dress itself. My mom put just as much effort into dressing me as she did herself. Which is to say, a lot. So, for the first seven or eight years of my life, I didn’t wear pants, as far as I can tell from the photographic evidence. I wore dresses, fancy ones, little white tights and patent leather shoes, my long hair curled and styled daily, seemingly without occasion. As a truly slovenly adult dresser, I’ve often looked at those pictures of my past self and laughed at the irony of it. These days, I’m inclined to be touched: She put so much effort into me, dressing me like a tiny doll.

When I did finally make my pre-teen stand against being a “good dresser,” it was a knockdown, drag out, daily argument over how short my hair could be cut, and how many days in a row I could wear the same t-shirt or jeans and Converse high-tops. My mother and I came to a theoretical impasse about what it means to not only not dress or make up yourself, but to simply not care. To want to wear a uniform day in, day out, and have that uniform be made up of black, gray and white, and to have your only direction to your hair stylist be, “make it so I don’t have to do anything, or fuck with it.” I argued, and still would, (only for myself, no general principles here) that I don’t care because I have better things to do, and spending an hour or whatever on dressing and doing hair and makeup, not to mention shopping (which I hate) is simply too much brain effort for me. I just don’t care. I shower daily, I put in about ten minutes of effort, I dress myself in clean and cared for clothing, and then I move on. Done with that!

Eventually, along with my personal preferences for dressing like a “teenage boy” (my mother’s words) I tacked a feminist veneer onto my hatred for high heels, makeup, dresses, panty hose, and uncomfortable undergarments. Of course women have all the worst, most painful and most time-consuming gear, because men are terrible and they were in charge for so long they got to largely call the shots in matters of dress. This is true; it’s complicated, but it’s still true. Again, I didn’t form broad opinions to be applied to other women who cared more than I did. I simply didn’t care for myself. I am capable of making an effort and even of wearing insane shoes for a wedding or whatever; I just think I look better the other way. I don’t think of it as dressing “like a boy,” though I have been called “sir” more than once. I think of it as…dressing.

So when I realized I would be mother to a daughter, I told myself, “I will not force anything on her when she is capable of making her own decisions. She can wear whatever she wants, so long as the patterns don’t clash.” (I’m not insane). Until then, I decided, she would be “neutral,” whatever that means.

Before she was even born, however, a few cracks began to show. I bought a little red and blue plaid dress. I looked at it for days before realizing it should have some little white tights to go with it. Then some patent leather crib shoes. She never wore it — she was lucky to even wear a patterned onesie before she was three months old because dressing her seemed so complicated — but I knew in my heart that it meant something, something I couldn’t place and didn’t have time to think about. My brain told me this should be a struggle: I should feel confusion or guilt that I, a person who keeps a blog of women who only wear pants, would want to dress my little girl child in the most adorable, girlish clothing I could find. But it wasn’t a struggle and I didn’t feel confused or guilty.

Around three or four months old, babies get incredibly fun to dress, and this age milestone happened to coincide with the end of a truly dreadful winter. The air and the earth started warming up, and it was wonderful. I suddenly discovered the true and absolute joy of dressing and shopping, something I’ve literally never experienced. Every shopping expedition for myself is a nightmare, a bore, a dreadful thing to be gotten through as quickly as possible to get to the margarita or lunch or ice cream cone on the other end. Not so when shopping for my baby. I have come to enjoy the experience of…planning outfits. I think about patterns and colors and accessories. I think about what basic pieces she needs to have to mix and match with different jackets, socks, and sweaters. It is time consuming in the best way. I feel like finally I understand why so many people enjoy this whole “clothing a body” thing.

I enjoy buying dresses, and she enjoys wearing them, her fat little legs freer to kick around than in pants. Rompers one would probably never think to put a boy into I snap onto her happily. I also shop in the boys section with abandon, because it turns out that my baby looks spectacular in absolutely everything. What a beautiful baby, whether naked, in a ball gown or a little pair of khakis and an Oxford shirt. Some pink has even slipped in here and there, and dammit if she doesn’t look great in it.

What does it mean to dress a baby “like a girl”? I found very quickly that if your daughter is dressed in anything other than pink or a dress, if she lacks any “sign” that she is in fact, a female, people will often — almost always — assume she is a boy. “He’s so cute!” reads a comment on Instagram of my (heavily documented) daughter in her black Misfits onesie. “Oh he’s a big boy!” a sweet old lady told us as we waited at the Delta terminal in JFK, pinching my daughter’s red pajamaed legs. (The pajamas had cars on them.) The default position, I have found, is that a baby is male, unless something is added to show that they’re not. What a weird thing, and how unconsciously and fully we have unknowingly embraced it, an assumption which, in adulthood might offend or sting or cause awkwardness. But in babies, it’s okay, it’s cute, “it’s fine!” They’re breathtaking androgynous beings, and only the cues we add to them will easily differentiate them into gendered categories.

A beautiful thing about babies is that they’re just babies. I don’t think any new parent can really take offense at these tiny cases of mistaken assumptions of gender, and I certainly don’t even bother correcting people most of the time. Babies are babies. They don’t carry any innate signals about what their gender is or will be, and they’re not even cognizant of the fact that they probably will one day. But it is an interesting fact of our culture that we depend on well worn cues to give us the answer to, “Is she a boy or a girl?”

My eight-month-old daughter, I see now, has the whole rainbow of options available to her: She can wear black, or red, or baby blue or pink. Sometimes, it means that people will think she is something she is not. I’ve made the same mistake myself with other peoples’ babies, though it’s funny how rare it is to see the mistake made in the opposite direction. I’ve never thought a boy was a girl (though in his Christening photo my father is definitely wearing a dress).

It would go something like this: I see a baby in a beautiful green dress with bow at the back. “Your daughter is just lovely!” I croon, because now, as a mother, I love all babies like they’re well-baked delicious cakes. “Actually, he’s a boy. This is Ethan.” “Oh, I’m sorry about that! Ha, babies. They all look the same.” And it would be fine.

The lesson I learned from my mother in matters of dress is not to fight. If she is like me, Zelda will continue to be occasionally mistaken for a boy well into her teens. If she is not, I will happily help her braid her hair and shop all weekend long for fancy things I would never purchase for myself. And it will be fine, and she will be stunning. Because, unlike my mother, I won’t think that how she dresses herself (when she finally does have a say) will speak volumes about her character, work ethic, or self-respect. I’ll know that it’s just one tiny piece of her, and one which doesn’t matter very much unless she wants it to. But, I’ve also learned that, like my mother, until she does have a say one way or the other, she looks fabulous in dresses. Even the occasional pink one.

THE PARENT RAP is an endearing new column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.

Laura June is a writer and a very cool mom. She is also the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

Photo by arch.190