In response {aka More Thoughts on “The Swimming Suit”}

I got a comment yesterday morning on my swimming suit post. It was not like the previous comments. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to publish it (because the name and email weren’t recognized, my blog held the comment for moderation), but then I decided that not only would I publish it, I’d respond to it in a post (thanks for the push T). Here is the comment, and below I respond:

In Judiasim,wearing the clothing of the opposite gender is explicitly forbidden by the Torah (Debarim 22:5).
It is also comsidered an abomination to God in Deuteronomy.
Why does everyone want to constantly teach their kids that “anything goes?” Do you also let kids eat candy whenever they want? Skip school because it feels right or better or more comfortable? Come on. Let’s be parents. Discipline, structure, and consistency are not bad words unless you are afraid to be a parent and more comfortable being your child’s friend.

So, where to begin?

First of all, I did not realize there is specific text in both the Torah and Bible that explicitly forbids wearing the clothing of the opposite gender, but I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not at all familiar with the Torah, but my limited recollection of the Old Testament involves all kinds of judgement, condemnation and hatred (and I believe much of the Old Testament is also part of the Torah?) So, not that surprising.

Second, I wonder how one even goes about determining what are, officially, “women’s clothes” and “men’s clothes.” As little as 100 years ago it was pretty rare for a woman to wear slacks, let alone casual pants. The very first humans were lucky to tie some vegetation or roughly woven cloth around their waists, which I’m sure looked more like a skirt than anything. Many indigenous cultures on pretty much every continent still wear clothing that is simply tied around the waste. In many other cultures long robes, that are very similar to dresses, are worm by men of great respect. What is considered “women’s” and “men’s” clothing varies incredibly from culture to culture, and even within those cultures, from era to era. Does that fluidity in the understanding of which clothes belong to which gender not suggest that the distinction in any culture at any time is somewhat arbitrary?

Having said that, I don’t argue that if given a pile of clothing and asked to sort it, most people (of a shared culture) would consider some clothes to belong exclusively in the “women’s” pile, and others in the “men’s,” probably with a rather large portion falling into a third “either/or” category.

Interestingly, most gender specific clothing are actually women specific. I can’t think of any piece of clothing that only men can wear, though most women’s versions of those clothes are cut differently when sold to women. (Except maybe bottoms as a swim suit (as in, topless), but that is more about our sexually-repressed Protestant founding and is not necessarily shared by other European cultures.) Yes women can wear pants, or t-shirts, or button downs or blazers, or boots, or anything a man can wear, ours are just more form fitting versions of their male counterparts. I always assume we, as a culture, are okay letting women where “men’s” clothing because men are considered the stronger, more dominant sex (and gender), and it’s okay for women to aspire to that strength. And for the same reason, I assume the opposite makes it LESS okay for boys or men to wear “girl’s or women’s” clothing (specifically dresses and skirts, or anything with pink, frills or with sparkles–of course make-up is also included) because we consider women the weaker sex and don’t support men or boys identifying with or wearing clothing that is attributed to, or a symbol of, that feminine weakness. (I could be totally wrong about this though, if you have another hypothesis please offer it).

Yes, the gendering of clothes seems, in many ways, to be just one more way of keeping women from being seen as equal to men, and for that reason alone I’m not interested in respecting those gender norms myself, or requiring my children–okay, let’s be perfectly honest, my son–to follow those guidelines.

Even if it weren’t the case that gender specific clothes are most distinctive for girls, I still wouldn’t require my daughter to wear clothes from the “girl’s” section or my son to wear clothes from the “boy’s.” I teach my children that they can be whatever they want to be, and express themselves in whatever way feels most genuine and authentic for them, as long as that expression does not hurt, disregard, or disrespect anyone else.

The thing is, I DO teach my kids the values that I cherish: I teach them to respect others, including all the many people who are different than they are; to love other human beings and tread lightly on the planet; to be grateful for what they have, and generous to others; to be open-minded, honest and helpful; to present and mindful; to have a strong work ethic, and to handle disappointment gracefully. I teach them to be curious and questioning; to be forgiving; to be assertive. I teach them to stand up for what is right. I teach them all of this in the hopes that they will some day be well-rounded, respectful, productive members of society, who will uphold the values of acceptance, empathy and understanding.

Have they learned all these lesson yet? No. They are works in progress, as am I. But I am absolutely doing the hard work of trying to teach them these values. I am certainly providing “discipline (I use the word here to connote its original meaning, which is “to teach”), structure and consistency, and I don’t as a general rule, try to be my children’s friend instead of their parent.

My parenting is intended to help my children be open minded, accepting citizens, who feel free to express themselves even if society is uncomfortable with that expression (again, as long as it is respectful), and does not force them to remain beholden to ancient texts that are, in many circumstances, misunderstood and misrepresented (or are just unapologetically 2000+ years old and prescribe stoning women to death for any number of reasons).

I believe it is hurtful to tell a child he or she can’t express him or herself in a certain way just because our society has decided that “that way” is only appropriate for the opposite gender. I am not interested in forcing gender norms on my children, especially when I am painfully aware that they will be force fed those gender norms from our society at large for the rest of their life. I want them to know that I LOVE THEM no matter what they want to wear, or how they want to style their hair, or what activities they want to participate in. If my daughter wants to pursue computer science, yes she can pursue computer science (of course, we don’t question that, at least not anymore). If my son wants to take ballet, he can take ballet. And he can wear a tutu when he goes, just like all the other ballerinas (and yes, I suspect the wearing of the tutu, if not simply attending ballet, would be questioned, even today). Of course, neither one of them will be allowed to play football, because we don’t think it’s safe, but that isn’t at all about what is expected of them based on their gender.

I think it’s sad that there are people in this world who would regard religious text (or simple societal pressures) over the self-expression and well being of their children. Sure, most little boys are interested in fairies and princesses, or want to paint their nails, because it is fun and not because of some emerging, not yet fully understood, understanding of self-identity. But for some kids, those early requests to venture outside their prescribed gender are tentative steps in the direction of who they really are, and when they are told those requests are inappropriate, they feel that they themselves are inappropriate too. My heart breaks for any kid, but especially the LGBTQ kids, who grow up in families where exploration of gender is shut down and self-worth is only granted when gender norms are explicitly followed. How devastating to not be accepted by the very people who are supposed to love you and protect you, no matter what.

My children are only six and three. They still don’t know who they are, and that is magical. I’m going to work really hard to make them feel accepted no matter how they want to express themselves, as long as that expression is accepting of, and respectful toward, others. I care more about protecting them and their feelings of self-worth, than following the sometimes antiquated, close-minded cultural norms of our society.

Thank you for being respectful in the comment section.

34 Comments

  1. Everything in your last paragraph rings true for me too. Until my kids know who they are and who they want to be, I’m not pushing anything on them. Bryson just started watching a “girl show” on Netflix and I was so happy about it because he’s been so resistant to all things “girl.”

    Good job, Mama!

    1. It is so important to remember that we don’t know who they are yet. It’s so easy to make assumptions, but we really don’t know who they are and what they are thinking and feeling. Accepting them where they are at is a huge gift to them. I know you get it.

    1. It was hard for my atheist brain too, but I also know that the sentiment is a part of our culture even without a religious text to inspire it, and so I wrote the post coming from that place as much as in response to a religious text.

  2. Obviously I”m 100% in agreement with you. This is an extremely thoughtful, thorough, and respectful response on your part and I applaud you for it!
    I think its a real stretch to say that allowing your kids to express themselves with fashion choices = complete lack of discipline in all fronts. And I have nothing really to say about the “because the Torah/Bible said so” line of argument.

    1. Yeah. I guess if I really believed it were wrong for my kids to dress a certain way, but let them do it anyway because I was avoiding disciplining them, I would get it more. But it’s not like that at all.

      I will admit that my husband and I have had disagreements about what it’s okay to let my daughter wear. She went out in her pajamas with a princess nightgown over it FOR YEARS, until she was at least five years old. My husband wasn’t always a fan of that, and sometimes thought we should make her wear “real clothes.” But that was never a hill I wanted to die on. Maybe that is a lack of discipline? For me it just wasn’t a big deal for her to wear a princess nightgown out in the world. She was warm enough. She had the freedom of movement to play. And she was happy. I just don’t care that much what my kids wear. They have so little real choice at that age, I am always happy to allow them that form of self expression. (Also, they have to wear uniforms to school, even in preschool, so they don’t get that freedom much of the week.)

  3. Very well said. I don’t get the “do you also let your kids eat candy as much as they want” etc. “argument”. I think the real question here should be to the commenter: do you typically tell your kids that their feelings are wrong, or that they can’t want what they want? Do you think this is good parenting?

  4. Great response! I was in full support of your first post but you brought up some things in this one that I hadn’t really considered before. In particular, the paragraphs about the “gendering” of clothes were enlightening. I hope the original commenter reads the whole thing and considers your well explained points.

    1. Thank you. I hope she does too. I had actually been thinking about some of these points before that comment, so I was primed to write this post. I think it’s important to talk about, because even people who are not quoting religious text have issues with boys wearing “girl’s” clothes, and I think as a culture we really have to look at why that is.

  5. You are such a better person than I am. Your response was superb.
    I have now erased and restarted 7 times on my second paragraph.
    I am so sorry you were subjected to that attack. Really though; does that attacker follow 100% of the time, 100% of the Old Testament and Torah? Or are they picking and choosing. Why oh why do I think pick and choose is happening? And, what happened to the New Testament and loving one’s neighbors and giving support and comfort and help and…… .
    Right.
    Keep on. You are doing the right things for your family.

    1. My guess is the commenter doesn’t follow the scripture 100% of the time, because there is a part later in that same section where it says you can’t even wear garments of “diverse sorts like linen and wool together.” That would be pretty difficult these days. Oh and later it says it’s okay for a father to stone his daughter to death if her husband thinks she’s not a virgin…

      One of the reasons I responded to this comment was because I think a lot of people feel that it’s NOT okay for a boy to wear girl’s clothing without being able to recite scripture to fall back on when explaining why. As I said in the response to another comment, I think it’s really important that we look at why it is that we take such issue with males wearing “female” clothing, because as a culture we are really not okay with it.

      1. Actually a lot of Orthodox Jews don’t wear linen and wool together. There are certain clothing companies that will certify that they fabrics aren’t mixed.

  6. Disclaimer: I do believe in discipline, and structure, and especially consistency.

    Yes, I do remember from reading “The Black Arrow” by Stevenson as a kid that it was sinful for a woman to dress as a man (that was 15th century… things were a little different back then). Jeanne d’Arc dressed as a man – didn’t she? (And was burned at the stake – again, things were a little different back then).

    There are plenty of old paintings where infant and toddler boys are dressed in skirts and dresses. Maybe a different time period? My knowledge of history is terrible.

    Torah is fascinating – but remember, most of those stories are dating to -what- more than 2,000 years ago? My guess, most were written by men 🙂

    Somehow this comment really got me worked up – I think because it quoted something from the Torah (I am Jewish and take these things to heart… I did not check the quotation), and so out of context, and so out of proportion. I mean, really? 3-year old in a swimsuit? Gah, lets focus on the important stuff here – the SWIMMING!!!! Hope your son is having a blast at the pool!!!

    1. He is having a blast at the pool! He can already go underwater and jump in by himself! It took his sister a lot longer to get to this point–he seems to really be loving it. And you’re right, that is the important part. I feel very lucky that no one has said anything about it there. They are private lessons though. I worry he may have to contend with insensitive remarks from other kids if he joins a group lesson. But that is for another post at another time… 🙂

  7. I’m so often blown away by just how powerful cultural forces can be. And nowhere do the stakes appear to be as high as in gender relations. Despite all of the messages contained in the texts of the major religions, people seem to cling to the regulation of sexual behavior more tightly than anything else.

    It’s kind of funny that your post about the swimsuit was entirely about the difficulty of bumping up against the rigidity of culture despite your own feelings and not at all about feeling in conflict with your son. Clearly, this was misunderstood.

    We can consider ourselves lucky to live in a place where people push back against all of this. Just this morning my younger son asked me the gender of his teacher’s new baby and I responded that she is a girl. To which my older son responded that we are only most of the way sure of that. After all, “when she is old enough she might just decide that she is actually a boy”.

    Cultures can change.

    1. “Despite all of the messages contained in the texts of the major religions, people seem to cling to the regulation of sexual behavior more tightly than anything else.” <-- Yes! This! People are absolutely terrified of their own sexuality, and every one else's. I do consider myself lucky to live in a place where people push back against all of this, but there is still a long way to go. My friend was just telling me that she had to pull her son from ballet because he liked to wear a tutu and THE MOMS laughed at him and he came home crying. WTF?! It's one thing when kids are mean to other kids, but parents?! I admit I was surprised to hear that happened in SF. But there are people here from a lot of other places. They aren't all as liberal and open minded as we think.

  8. Hey, I just wanted to add some clarification to your post. When you say “the Torah and the Bible”, I think you mean the Torah and the Christian Bible. Because the Torah is the Jewish Bible – it’s just a Hebrew word for it. You say you are not familiar with the Torah, but in fact the Torah is part of what you call the Old Testament. The Torah refers to the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. In addition to the fivebooks of Moses (the Torah), the Old Testament includes the prophets, Psalms, Proverbs and other texts which are all also part of Jewish tradition. The text your commented quoted above is from Deuteronomy. Devarim is what it’s called in Hebrew, but it’s part of the canon of both religions.

    And when you say “my limited recollection of the Old Testament involves all kinds of judgement, condemnation and hatred ” – I’m sorry, my friend, but this was really offensive to me. I know you added the disclaimer that you’re not that familiar with it, but think about what you are saying about Judaism and Jewish people. That is not what our religion is about.

    I’m not saying I agree with the commenter’s statements, either that boys should not wear girls’ clothing or that this means you are a permissive parent. Not at all. If someone chooses to interpret their religious teachings that way, that’s their problem. And I have no idea why she thinks it’s okay to impose those views on you instead of keeping them to herself. I think you make some really good points here about the definition of gendered clothing not being absolute and about the logic of women wearing men’s clothes (because we can aspire to being like men) but not vice versa. I love the values you are trying to teach your children. But I think this commenter is expressing her *personal views*, which she’s using religion to justify. It sounds a little like you think Judaism is making her this way, although I think/hope that wasn’t your intention.

    1. It was not my intention at all to insinuate that Judaism (or Christianity) was making her believe what she believes, though I don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that when her argument that a boy wearing a girl’s clothes is wrong is based entirely upon religious texts. She doesn’t actually articulate her own beliefs, instead she quotes the Torah and Christian Bible (sorry I did not add that qualifier in my post) and then suggests I am not parenting my kids well because I’m not enforcing those teachings.

      I also want to make clear that I did not intend to suggest that the Torah, or Christian Bible are hateful texts. I can see how off-handedly saying I remember them having “all kinds of condemnation, judgement and hatred” suggests that I do. “Hatred” is a strong word, and I should have chosen more thoughtfully. I think I used it because my limited exposure to the Old Testament (since I abandoned the Catholic Church in high school after sporadic participation required by my parents) is when people use it to condone or explain hateful acts of intolerance against the LGBTQ community, women or people of other religions. I know those passages are short and in no way capture the overall message or belief systems of the religious texts or religions they inform, but they are used to incite intolerance and even hatred.

      I really have no knowledge of the Torah, and felt I could fall back on my limited recollection of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible (though you are telling me they are one in the same) because it was referenced in the comment. I did not mean to offend you or anyone else. I’m truly sorry that I did.

    2. I also want to add that Judaism has always struck me as one of the more tolerant religions. I’m realizing now that isn’t due to a familiarity with what it teaches, but because I’ve never come across anyone using its teachings to incite violence , hate or intolerance. I was genuinely surprised to see someone in my comment section quoting the Torah to justify what is, in my mind, intolerance. If my post suggests I think otherwise, then I did not express myself clearly enough..

      1. I could probably talk about this topic all day (why Jews and Christians get different messages from the same texts, and why there’s a popular view of the Old Testament God as angry & vengeful) but I don’t want to bore you! So I’ll just say we all have assumptions we don’t realize we’re making. I hope I helped a little.

        I’ll also say, it was really odd that the commenter quoted Deuteronomy, because Jews don’t believe that people who are not Jewish need to follow all of our laws. Jews do not believe that you have to be Jewish to be “saved”. So she may not like your parenting style, but the Bible shouldn’t really be relevant.

  9. In my opinion, as a cradle Catholic, no longer a practicing one, to quote you, these “people in this world who would regard religious text (or simple societal pressures) over the self-expression and well being of their children.” – are practicing what’s ingrained in them from the beginning of their teaching. I’m not condoning what the commenter said, but I can understand how they would automatically write something like this. My sister is like this, very to the “T” of religious teaching as is her husband. They wouldn’t undergo fertility treatments for the pure point of, “masturbation is wrong, I can’t do that in a cup to test my sperm” to “fertility drugs are wrong”…don’t get me started. But we (our family) was taught these specific teachings.

    In a situation like this, you ARE being their parent, not their friend. You’re nurturing them, letting them express themselves and you’re right…they’ll have their entire life where people/society will tell them otherwise. For now, let them be children, who are learning what it means to be, well, themselves.

    And must I say, your comeback is so much more eloquent than mine would have been. Including the non usage of profanity. Go you.

    Rock on!

    1. But to play devil’s advocate, if you and your sister were raised in the same household, with the same participation in religion, why do you have disparate views? It’s not just what is taught to someone… because there are plenty of people who reject what they are taught. I know that can be hard, and I was lucky not to have to grow up with beliefs that later I rejected. I guess I just wonder what leads people in similar scenarios to think different ways…

      1. I have college to thank for my opposing views. I had friends, from all parts of the World, open my eyes, explain subjects, world issues, social views, with me. In short, people who thought the opposite of me, showed me, it’s OK to have different opinions. I suppose it’s one willingness to change, to listen, to be tolerant?

  10. A trans* teen asked to use the bathroom appropriate to the transition at a school near here and the school not only said no, the teen and then family were bullied and shunned and harassed until they moved far away. In the last couple of years. It scares me because I have no idea who my girls will be when they get older. Yes, we gave them gendered pronouns and identities because it is simplest, but like you, we wouldn’t try to enforce any gender rule on them if they wanted a change from what they do now. It irks me that we as a society strongly enforce how boys/men look in public.

    The gender theory academic argument tends to go that since men are the default gender, men are defined as “not women.” Women can therefore borrow trappings of men but visibly can’t ever stop being women (spoiler: boobs) so it can be allowed. Any time men do anything only women do, there’s a disclaimer (man purse) or a huge penalty. It’s why tans* women get murdered so much more than average. Acceptable appearance for women has expanded but stayed the same or shrunken for men in the last 30 years.

    1. That story about the trans teen is so sad. I know we are moving in the right direction but it is slow and we have so far to go.

      That gender theory is really interesting. I wonder why men are the default gender… Is there some kind of biological explanation for that? I may want to read more about gender identity in history and today. It’s probably really fascinating.

      1. The theory is built on men as in charge and therefore when we gender-pronoun something that’s ambiguous (say a toy dinosaur) we are trained to gender it male. It’s all about the patriarchy and how that has profoundly shaped our society. It was super fun to read a pronoun-free novel where the narrator is named Chris and then hear it read by a female or a male narrator (Lock In by John Scalzi), then to read the reviews of it and see the number that gendered the narrator.

  11. I’m no Biblical scholar but there are a lot of rules surrounding menstruation in the Bible and I can’t help but wonder if this might have something to do with that. In any event, this Bible verse is adjacent to the one that instructs people to stone a woman whose family can’t prove that she was a virgin if he husband claims she was not. Times change, thankfully 🙂

    Your response was well-considered and I think you’re raising empathetic children which I value most of all!

    1. I majored in religion as an undergrad – not sure that makes me a scholar. But the basic theme as I recall is that rules were written based on needs or customs of the society at the time. Then they just used Gd’s will as justification. So yes, there might’ve been some historical reason why it was inconvenient or unclean or something to wear the clothes of the opposite gender, and over time that reasoning was lost and only the rule remained.

  12. G is horrified men are allowed to show their nipples and women are not. According to her you’re doing us all a favor. 😂😂😂 Keep his modesty in tact.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *