Family / Kids / Parenting

What We Talk about When We Talk about Underwear

farcically Today my post is guest written by my wife, J, who also writes with me at our blog, twohotmamas. ~N

A while ago, we had a slight problem. Child was obsessed with her Cars pull-up training diapers, and started wearing them to the exclusion of underwear. She’s potty-trained; she doesn’t need a pull-up. But let me tell you, there was a Falklands-level Pull-Up Conflict at our house. We threatened to return to — gasp! — *baby diapers.* There were tears. There were shrieks. There were gratuitously wasted Cars pull-ups (THOSE ARE EXPENSIVE).

Finally, my wife got Child to admit that what she wanted was underwear with the beloved Cars characters on them, and we went out and bought her (boys’) underwear with Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater, and there was less shrieking. But that was, seemingly, the first time Child twigged that boys and girls not only often wore different things, but were offered a different selection of the same item of clothing. Boys and girls wear underwear! But Child’s underwear, to that point, had had Hello Kitty, Elmo-with-pink, and Princess Merida. If you want underwear with Cars, or Superman, or Elmo-with-blue, you have to walk to a different part of the store. You have to accept undies that don’t quite fit the parts you have.


This is some heavy analysis for even an astute preschooler, I think, because since then she has been all about gender, and we, consequently, have been all about the message that gender is nonbinary. It helps that in our house, Child is exposed to a broad and glittering spectrum of foundation garments. The underwear Child sees in the laundry is not gender-confined.  She knows that there are boys who might look like girls on the outside, girls who might look like boys, and both/neither can dress in clothing “belonging” to either. At her school, the children are referred to as “Friends,” and all friends get hugs, all friends can cry, and all friends can strangulate a neutral baby doll in a velcroed garment of neutral color.

But our language is imperfect for these things, especially when your vocabulary is largely sponsored by the Children’s Television Workshop, so Child uses a lot of Boy and Girl, He and She. Boy and Girl become modifiers. It is tough to master Friend.

All of which leads us to this weekend, and a crowded elevator, full of parents trying to get in and out as quickly as possible.

“Look, Mama! A boy baby!”

“Right now, that baby is a girl,” I answered.

“When you are really a real boy, the sign is this.” [Child makes cap-touching forelock-pulling ASL gesture for ‘boy;’ I remember the only Signing Time song for which I have actual hate.]

I agreed, and pushed the cart into the Forest of Lingerie. Close to the front of the displays was a rack of boyshorts and bikinis for women of slenderer build, brightly primary-colored and emblazoned with superhero logos.

“You should get those underwears! They have superheroes!”

“No, baby. Mama needs undies that will hold a pad.”

Hey, my kid is three and a half. My filter, it’s gone.

Her trusty doll companion, Baby Owen, once switched genders with the passing breeze. Now she lifted the doll out of the cart so he (she?) could survey the superhero bikinis.  “Then Owen can get those. He decided he will stay a boy.”

I was a little sad that Owen had come to that firm decision so early in his molded vinyl existence, and sad, too, that Child already associated Green Lantern, Superman’s S, and the Bat Signal logo with a boy’s experiences.

The next day, we were sitting on the moms’ bed having a post-nap snack when Child announced “You are boys!”

“I’m a girl,” I said, mildly. A minute later, my wife concurred.

“But… you look like boys!”

[I don’t. I look like an obese cisgender woman and I have the loveliest long hair, thank you.]

My wife and I tried, in gentle detail and at length, to explain why it isn’t good to tell somebody else what their gender is, because different people look differently and we need to be respectful and let people tell us, if they want to, whether they are a boy or a girl. (Once she’s mastered ordinal numbers, we’ll add in ‘or neither.’) Then, one of us asked Child if Child understood.

“You shouldn’t tell a boy he’s a boy or a girl she’s a girl, and I love these chips!”

Later, Child made a runway/crashpad of all our pillows, with a stepstool to launch from, and proceeded to do some truly dazzling leaps and long jumps. She was wearing a twirly, rainbow-trimmed sundress. “I am a superhero!” She announced. “Superheroes wear dresses like this!”

We’re trying, one chip at a time.


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