Not into yoga?

Check out the other Hump Day Hmms on walking out of stride.

            “We’ll find out the sex on Tuesday,” I replied, as we stood around outside Buca de Beppo’s with a collection of J’s relatives.  It was a graduation, an event made all the sweeter because the graduate in question has a child of her own in college. 

            “Can you say ‘gender’ instead?  ‘We’ll find out the gender of the baby.’”  Jane is, after all, twelve, and made somewhat uncomfortable by the word “sex,” just as the turquoise David reproduction in the restaurant had made her squirm.

            “But we won’t find out the gender of the baby,” I told her.  “We’ll find out the sex.  Sex is biological, gender is socially constructed.  You cannot know the gender of a baby before it is even born.”

            As the child looked confused, her father half-joked, “Where did you learn that crap?” 

            “Actually, I have a Ph.D. in that crap,” I told him, smiling.

            To be totally honest, my degree is in literature, but you haven’t been able to get near an English department in the last 20 years without tripping over gender theory, queer theory, and a few other types of identity theory.  I believed much of what I believe before ever setting foot into the hallowed Greenlaw Hall in the fall of 1999, but my studies have given order to my beliefs and names to the abstract concepts I somehow felt were true.

            I do believe that there are differences between the sexes.  Our bodies are constructed differently, even down to the eyeballs.  Apparently, girls see more color and texture, while boys on the whole see more motion.  That, right there, sets us up for some divergence.  I do not claim the sexes are the same, and I honor those differences, understanding for example that puberty comes at different times and treats the two sexes very differently.

            Gender is the social construct we build up around sex.  So, while a need to pee in a different position is sex-based, clothing is man-made and therefore a gendered construct.  Toys, makeup, cars, earrings, trains, footballs, and tea sets are all man-made, constructed out of our imaginations.  And, along with the price tag, they seem to come stamped with a gender.  But, make no mistake, if we make the item, we make the gender association that comes with it.

            Judith Butler proves that gender is an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.  Most of the things we ascribe to sex differences are actually gender differences.  In other words, “girls are just like that” is usually correct because the girl is imitating another female who learned her gender in a similar kind of imitation.  Gender is nothing more than an echo in an empty room.

             That is not to say I do not myself follow gender norms.  Hey, I grew up in society, too, you know.  But, I do not feel comfortable forcing arbitrary gender stereotypes on children.  They will hear that echo soon enough. 

             Gender has its place and can make life interesting.  I get that.  What I don’t get is why we need such strict gender lines.  Why can’t we accept gender as fluid?  (“We” in this case refers to the straight community, because the gay community has been much better about allowing for a wide variety of gender expressions.) Why can’t a person identify as male, even macho, but still wear skirts because he finds them pretty?  Why can’t a person identify as female but be a football fan?  Why do these behaviors get marked as odd or deviant?

             We gender our children from the moment we know their sex, and some of that is unavoidable.  Language, as a social construct, has much more to do with gender than sex, so as soon as we refer to a fetus as “he” or “she,” we are gendering.  The names we choose gender, as well.  No one ever went to a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert and got confused about which one was Mary.  Names are the first rafter over which people build their identities, and the names we choose signal a lot about what we want for our children, including their gender identities.  If the sex is male, we choose a male name in hopes the child will also gender identify that way.

             But we do not have to build the child’s entire gender identity before it is even born.  We do not have to assume colors, clothes, toys, hobbies, and traits just because that’s the picture we have in our heads.

              So, yesterday, at the ultrasound, I learned many things.  I learned that this baby has all the right numbers of lobes and ventricles.  I learned that it plans on being as much of a pain in the ass as its brothers when it steadfastly refused to turn its head so the technician could check for cleft lip.  I learned that it is about as modest about its genitalia as are its brothers, because usually the technician cannot say for sure if it is a girl, but this time she was pretty damned sure. 

              What I did not learn was what the technician-in-training said, which is that I will be spending a lot of time shopping.  I have no idea if my daughter will like shopping.  If she takes after me, she’ll hate it.  If she takes after her father, there will be no getting her out of the mall.  I did not learn what she will want to play with; I did not learn how she will want to dress; I did not learn whether she will be prom queen or a quarterback; I did not learn who she will marry.  And I have no idea how she will feel about pina coladas and walks in the rain.

              I learned her sex.  Her gender will take a few more years to figure itself out.

45 responses to “Not into yoga?

  1. This is such a great post. My husband and I are constantly singing the “gender is a social construct” song, but get strange looks. My husband also wanted us to buy my son purple and pink sleepers to avoid assuming on his behalf (we didn’t). This is a great post – balancing well the miriad of important ways the sexes are different, while pointing out how unfathomable is our socially constructed gender assignments.

    Plus, as I tell my mom, regardless of my child’s sex, all the genes it gets from me will be the same either way. So if it likes to discuss philosophy and hates shopping, that’s because its my child, not because its a girl or boy.

  2. Oh! I forgot the most important part – congratulations on a healthy baby girl. 🙂

  3. Congrats! Oh and my girl is all tom-boy. It’s a serious effort to get her to brush her hair in the morning. Skirts, dresses that’s a whole other fight.

  4. Glad everything looks good! Interesting post. With my background in sociology, I often waver between the “everything is a social and environmental construct” and the science of sex differences. I do think that there are physical inborn differences between males and females. But, how these difference present themselves can have as much to do with cultural norms as well as where on the personality continuum these differences fall.

  5. Oh Congrats!

    Wow . . .

    As a Mom of two boys . . . .

    I really didn’t believe a girl was possible! 🙂

    How exciting—

    Zachary gets his sister!

  6. I think that more of our personalities is inborn in us than we think, but I do think that there is something pushed on us by society. My little boy likes to play with dolls, and I encourage this because he is going to be a dad someday. I’d rather have a gentle, loving dad than one who doesn’t know how to treat a child. Interesting post.

  7. A healthy daughter. How wonderful. Congratulations! 🙂

    Also, what you’re saying about gender identity is so, so wise. Bean has a toy kitchen and vacuum, which he loves. At Target, he wanted the pink and red ladybug clogs instead of the blue jungle boots. I had no second thoughts about buying him the pink ones, slipping them on his feet and continuing our day as he admired his “My shoes. My. My shoes.” to everyone who would listen.

  8. Congrats on the baby girl!! Gender is such a touchy subject with certain parents, but I’m glad to know that this little girl will have parents who will give her room to be who she needs to be! I was the little girl cursing the skirts cause they made climbing trees difficult (but not impossible!) and one of the things I miss most about American culture is football season. I also love dangly earrings. Go figure. 🙂 Congrats again on a healthy little one!

  9. Congratulations!

    It’s amazing how passionately attached people can be to gender-as-biology. I’ve knocked my head on that same wall many times and am always surprised at how solid it is.

  10. I’m so happy to hear that your baby is healthy.

    I hate shopping, also. I don’t like football much. All sorts of gender confusion going on here.

    Your children have smart, insightful parents, and they’re lucky for that.

  11. ukrainemom


  12. Congrats on a healthy girl. It will be an exciting new adventure.

    I too will get a girl for the first time and I find it very daunting. Mostly for some of the reasons you mentioned. I pretty much eschew many gender norms, but others I fit. I guess we will figure these girls out as they grow!

  13. Congratulations on everything being healthy so far. Yea!

    Love this post. Love Judith Butler. Love shopping and football, as does my husband.

    In grad school I remember reading a great metaphor for the social construction of gender: Biologically speaking, human beings have no disposition towards flying. In fact, we’re probably hard-wired not to try. Yet we invented airplanes and get on them and, yup, we fly… against our nature.

    Nature is undeniably there, but how can we possibly know what to attribute to it when we can see how obviously powerful society and “nurture” are.

  14. I must admit I skipped to the bottom & read the end first–had to know–before going back & reading it all. I’m glad the sonogram went well & she is healthy.

    Now one remark about gender— What’s the origin of the term ‘tomboy’? Growing up I hated that term & I still do (no offense to earlier commenter). I knew so many other girls, like me, who climbed trees, jumped from them wildly, loved getting dirty, etc. Soooo– doesn’t this seem to be describing “girls’ activities” or at least gender-neutral ones? So why is it described as “tomBOYish”? I never got it.

  15. she’s a girl!


    and yes to all the rest of it, this being my field as well.

  16. Healthy is all that matters…but, that said, 2 boys and a girl works AWESOME in our house and is lots of fun…and you will also enoy it – no matter her gender orientation!!!!

  17. Well yes, but still – I’m grinning from ear to ear here for you. Congratulations!

  18. Well, congratulations – she sounds like a healthy baby.

    And, I loved this post – the sex vs. gender issues are fascinating. Thanks.

    And good luck!

  19. So well said, so thoughtful. Your daughter will be a lucky little girl, with a mom who will allow her the understanding to construct her identity as she sees fit.

  20. What a fabulous post, one which I wish I could have written so well. Congratulations on the little girl – climber of trees, wearer of frilly pink dresses, collector of earthworms. It’s lovely to think of the possibilities at this early stage!

  21. Oh you wait until you read what I wrote for Thursday or Friday at my blog. It’s not this eloquent or well-constructed, but my rants rarely are.

    Amen on sex v gender and gender constructs. That is one area I sometimes feel out of stride on, too. 🙂

    And as a mother of two little girls I can assure you they come in all shapes and sizes, even when they draw from the exact same DNA. You are in for a treat (but I say that regardless of sex, LOL).

  22. Excellent article – I couldn’t agree more.

  23. angelastockman

    Oh, congratulations! That is wonderful news (well, it would have been either way, of course, but now you get the best of both worlds as a mom). Also–speaking of gender and sex differences, been doing a lot of work with Leonard Sax’s research on P and M cells and the eyes. Turns out our eyes have a lot more to do with sex/gender than we ever imagined. It is fascinating stuff and lends insight into those boys who chase after toy guns even though they haven’t been socialized to do so. Good brain research. I recommend ; )

  24. Congratulations! And spot on with the gender/sex issues. Also, I totally agree on the shopping. Buying I will do, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Shopping however? No thanks.

  25. WAHOO!! Congratulations, Emily and J!!! (and the boys too!) What wonderful news! I’m sitting here in DC tickled pink (blue, green, purple….) for the whole family!! Big hugs to you all!

  26. Oh you sneaky, cheeky monkey. What a wonderful reveal. And how wonderful for you! A girl. Yay!

  27. I am totally buying your daughter a dress ……



  28. I remember when I was pregnant and people were shocked as to our unwillingness to find out the sex of the baby.

    “But how will we know what to buy?” was a common refrain. Apparently waiting until after the baby was born or even, heaven forbid, buy a gender-neutral gift, was shocking.

    “What are you having?” they would ask.
    “A baby” was our response.
    “What do you hope for?”
    “A healthy one.”

    Nice post, and good food for thought.

  29. Where I come from, manly men wear skirts (kilts actually), and real women like football.

  30. Congrats!

    And a great, thought provoking post as well.

  31. A healthy baby girl. That is fabulous! Congratulations!

  32. Thanks for sharing such a thought-provoking post – and such exciting news!

  33. What’s that sound? Oh.. it’s Judith Butler applauding! Congratulations on the successful outcome of the ultrasound – a beautiful, healthy girl baby on her way. How wonderful.

  34. Such an interesting and thought-provoking post. I’d love to hear your take on why it seems even very young children rush for the toys designed for their “appropriate” gender…but in the meantime…

    CONGRATULATIONS on your girl!

  35. This happens to be one of my favorite posts, Miss Em. And congratulations on the baby being healthy. That’s the best news EVER.

  36. **Grin**

    I am particularly excited that you are having a girl, because she will be able to break all “the rules” that we as a society put on little girls. (And boys, too, but as I am a mom to 3 girls, and a girl myself, I am keenly aware of the gender constructs of girls.)

    *sigh* I am struggling, today, with ways that I may be failing my daughters. I’m afraid that I might have to add the points in this post to the list. Crap.

    Better to look those pesky failures in the eye, though, I hope, than to pretend like they aren’t there.

    Seriously, Congratulations on a healthy baby, Emily. Super excited for you guys!

  37. Congrats! Girls are the best. You’ll see! 😉

  38. congratulations.

    great post.

  39. I suspect all the reasons this was a nice post have already been covered by the others, but know I echo their sentiment.

    Children should be allowed the privilege to “be” without the burden of judgement. That will come soon enough…

    Congratulations on a healthy girl. I feel confident, with your guidance, she will become the woman she was meant to become, no matter what characteristics she should choose to adopt.

  40. A girl. I have one and I think the sex is a fine one.

    My girl is gendered ballerina and hockey goalie. She’s cheering for the Penguins tonight because she likes the way they hug after scoring goals.

  41. oh Emily, a girl! awesome 🙂

  42. Awesome!! I totally loved this piece.

  43. 1) Hooray for a baby girl! This is great news.

    2) “I have a PhD in this crap.” Oh, I could hug you for that line.

    3) I loved this post.

    4) I found myself saying to my parents this weekend, about a marshmallow shooting GUN, which I wouldn’t even had allowed in my own house, “No it is NOT JUST A TOY FOR BOYS. Girls can play with it, too.” God save us from the black and white gender police.

  44. i had missed this until i got your comment about bebe being a girl, and went back to check.

    fabulous post, Emily…so much better said than i ever seem to manage my own “gender is a construct” posts. and i think our little girls are due around the same time…health to both, and here’s to further conversations on how sex and gender interrelate.