Label me part of the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. Neither a tomboy nor a prissy girl, I was a Danskin-pants-and-shirt kid with messy long hair. I had my Barbies, sure. My cousins and I drowned our Barbies in our grandparents’ swimming pool. But pretty didn’t have a huge impact upon my life back then.
Before having kids, the kind of daughter I’d imagined raising was no more into dolls than Legos and wouldn’t have worn dresses. As it turned out, my firstborn was a story-loving, vehicle-averse boy, who loved The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Broadway musicals. Because I’m not a fan of tutu pink for girls or navy blue for boys, my sons (I had two at the time this story took place, preschooler and toddler) wore black and green and purple clothing. When people often mistook them for girls — pretty girls — I found myself apologizing. But the truth is, I liked people’s confusion: not because my guys were so pretty (of course, they were), but because I wanted any label to be able to go with anyone: “pretty boy,” “strong girl,” “nurturing dad.”
The afternoon of Ezekiel’s great-uncle John’s wedding, “Pretty” hit with a vengeance. I shouldn’t have been surprised. As I sat on a folding chair on the stone patio, I watched my son’s face crumble. Raindrop-sized tears of envy fell from his huge green eyes when he saw the flower girls. Looking just like a miserable Maurice Sendak character, Ezekiel, then nearly five years old, pointed frantically to the girls and sobbed, “I want to wear one of those dresses. They have pretty dresses with pretty flowers. My clothes,” he pointed to his perfectly nice pants and shirt, “aren’t pretty.”
The bride and groom hastily offered him a bouquet. This was small consolation. Ezekiel fumed at us. “I don’t want these little flowers; I want one of those dresses.”
Driving home, I started to worry about the next wedding we’d be attending: that of my cousin, in Seattle a month later. Heart sinking, I imagined Ezekiel’s disappointment when he witnessed another cousin and the bride’s niece — just about his age — decked out in flower-girl finery. On the other hand, another wedding extended fashion opportunity. My husband and I discussed it for quite some time. What was the harm? He’s only four, we told ourselves. We could see little downside to allowing him his free expression, although we knew the possibility for disapproval, even offense, existed.
I emailed my cousin: “This is an odd request and we’re very open to your saying no, but if it’s not disruptive, Ezekiel would really like to wear a dress to your wedding.”
“That’s cool,” she emailed back.
I presented the exchange to my parents as an anecdote, the plan a done deal. We didn’t think our little boy’s wardrobe choice would cause much of a stir. It’s fair to say we underestimated a dress-wearing boy’s potential impact. My mother — long divorced from my father and not invited to this wedding — pulled fashion information from the web, which she sent along with little email suggestions designed to help us ensure that our son would feel pretty. “Capes flow,” she wrote.
My father sent a lengthy fax. The gist of it: “I’m fine about the dress. But my brother won’t be.”
I called my psychiatrist uncle, the father of the bride. “Here’s the story,” I said. “Ezekiel wants to wear a dress to John and Lynne’s wedding. But we don’t want to make any waves.” I wondered what his professional opinion might be. “We figure, we’ve got a fifty-fifty shot at Ezekiel’s landing in therapy no matter what: either because we didn’t let him wear a dress while in preschool or because we did let him wear one.”
He chuckled. “Fine by me,” he said. It was impossible to tell which choice he thought was bound to land Ezekiel on the couch.
At H&M I bought two cheap dresses (I’m talking, under ten bucks). Both had flowers: one, white with purple, pink and yellow; the other blue with similar flowers, but of a softer, more casual cotton. I got a little headband and a beaded bracelet, in case Ezekiel wanted to accessorize. I added white socks to my pile. Purchasing girls’ clothes was much more involved, I thought to myself. I felt self-conscious, as if the clerk at the checkout counter might interrogate me about my subversive purchase. Didn’t the boys’ clothing on the pile — in the very same size — seem a bit suspicious? But the clerk said nothing. I packed the dresses in the suitcase and when we got to Seattle I pulled them out. Ezekiel oohed and aahed as he fingered the not-so-fine cotton. He traced the flowers for a moment. “These are pretty,” he declared. “This one.” He picked up the white dress. As I’d anticipated, Ezekiel had chosen the distinctly dressier option.
I slipped it over his head. He squirmed as I brushed his hair. “This is so pretty,” he sang out. Staring at himself in the mirror, he smiled his most impish, slyly and shyly proud grin, the one that makes his mouth smaller than usual, lips puckered up. Captivated with his dressed-up, dress-wearing self, he blurted, “I love this dress!”
I pulled his hair back — a shaggy bowl cut — with a headband. Even without the white socks or beaded bracelet, he looked, well, very pretty. If you lined him up (and I know I’m completely biased) with his female preschool peers, he’d have been one of the truly memorably beautiful girls. Having always thought him a pretty boy, I was knocked out by what a gorgeous girl he made. I felt strangely proud, then ashamed for being proud (because looks don’t matter), then relieved that female objectification — even the little girl variety — was ours for only one evening. Mostly, I just couldn’t get over how pretty he was.
His little brother, Lucien, barely two, didn’t particularly notice his brother’s gender-bending finery. Lucien was too busy racing around the hotel suite avoiding getting dressed. All he did was repeat, “No!” with some glee as he wriggled beyond our (tired, jet-lagged, hurried) reach.
Even dolled up, we saw Ezekiel as a boy, our boy. We hadn’t counted upon the fact that no one in the crowd of strangers would even remotely suspect that he wasn’t a girl. Ezekiel chattered and walked about before (and during) the ceremony. He didn’t notice that his cousin Rae’s lacy dress (purchased for a good deal more than ten bucks) was far more extravagant. He waved hello, and she waved back. Lucien, in button down Hawaiian-style shirt and cotton pants, followed Ezekiel around the grass near the ceremony. And I followed them.
During the reception, Ezekiel talked to anyone who would listen about Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, books, books and more books. His voice, as was always true when he got excited, grew chirrupy. I overheard someone ask, “Ezekiel? Isn’t that a boy’s name?”
“I’m a boy,” my son replied matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” There was little else for the person to say.
On the dance floor, while Ezekiel discovered the thrill of twirling in a dress (and let’s face it, twirling is a key reason to wear a dress), we shared our story with my cousin’s friends. Every single person in whom we confided his actual gender affirmed our choice to let the kid be himself. Granted, this was a casual, Seattle wedding; one of my cousin’s male friends wore a kilt. My aunt and uncle (parents of the bride) cheerfully greeted us and then attended to other guests. My other aunt (exquisitely dressed in Armani) thought Ezekiel’s wardrobe choice showed panache. My father, who had clearly worried not so much about his brothers but about himself, enjoyed the attentions and positive reinforcement Ezekiel received.
No one could get over how pretty he was. I’d never received so many positive strokes about how he looked. The attention, the affirmation for something that had never been — not so prominently at least — an important feature in our parenting lives, was strange, mostly because it felt good. I understood why girls enjoy dressing up, and why parents enjoy dressing them up. A cute boy in suit and tie doesn’t make a similar splash, not even close.
Ezekiel and Lucien danced. They raced with other kids around the crowded dance floor. Despite the three-hour time difference between our coast and Seattle’s, Ezekiel was determined to stick it out until the cake was served. Lucien, completely wiped out, resorted to compulsively nursing on my lap. We had cake, and finally returned — exhausted, relieved, and oddly triumphant — to the hotel. But for much of the night, I stared at my boy, twirling in his dress. Not marveling at what a good girl he’d make, not relieved that he was a boy. Just extremely grateful at how comfortable he was being himself.