• Beth Cox

What makes a boy a boy or a girl a girl?

You may or may not know that I'm a solo mum to a 5 year old boy. And I'm trying to raise him to be able to express himself and make choices about what he wants to wear, and how he wants to live, and what he wants to do.


And this means I question myself A LOT. Because there's no one else in the home for me to discuss it with.


My desire for my son has always been to ensure he's never restricted by his gender (yes, gender equality is important for boys as well as girls).


One approach I have taken is that if I'd happily go with something if he were a girl, then I won't say no because he's a boy.


But it's harder than I thought.


To be honest, with clothes this has been quite easy. We both like bright colours and comfy clothes (although trouser shopping when he rejects all the 'boring' colours can be a challenge). He asked for a dress once, so I bought him a cheap one – but I hung it up with his dressing up clothes rather than in his wardrobe (and questioned myself about the message that gave). He wore it a few times, but usually over other clothes, and including to the village fete! However, he generally selects bright and comfy trousers.



But with hair I meet more resistance – internally and externally. He has chosen to grow his hair long. No problem. Over the summer, I was challenged by him to see how many pony tails I could fit in his hair. No problem.


His current favourite way to have his hair is in plaits, which I'm okay with. But I question myself: 'Will he hate me for 'allowing' him when he's a teenager?'


The long hair and the bright clothes mean he is often mistaken for a girl and he doesn't like that. But people see the hair and the clothes and assume he's a girl. Because that is what they have been trained to expect girls to look like.


Even he's looked at picture books and told me a certain child must be a boy. And when I ask how he knows he says 'Because he's got short hair and boys have short hair.' I look at him quizzically and ask 'Do they?' which makes him laugh. And funny as that is, it's problematic.


He's still ruled by the stereotypes that he personally challenges.


So how do I find the right balance? How do I let him be himself and express himself but protect him from being misgendered, or worse, teased?


How do I challenge the status quo that says some things are only okay for girls and some things are only okay for boys?


Why it is that girls are 'allowed' elaborate and 'pretty' hairstyles, but boys are not?


Why do we tend to cut boys' hair short and let girls' hair grow long?


Why do I get asked if I'm trying to make him into a girl by putting his hair in plaits? (I'm not, I'm just allowing him choices in his hair styles and self-expression.)


This is how I approach a lot of my work, asking 'why?'

Why is that depicted that way?

What message does it give?

What stereotype could it promote?

Is there a more balanced way of saying or presenting that idea?


I don't just ask these questions about gender, but about all facets of diversity. Because it's only by questioning how we think, what we do, and what messages every single image and word in a book is giving that we can truly challenge stereotypes.


I can't do this alone, which is why I've developed a programme to support publishers in making their books fully inclusive.


Together we can transform the bookshelves of the next generation.


Real change starts here.

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