A friend of mine recently had a story he wrote about buying his daughter boy’s underwear go viral. Tom comes across as a good dad in the story (he is), and the comments the story received when it appeared on the Huffington Post generally reflect this. It’s a great story and well worth the read, but I couldn’t help asking–what would happen if a mom wrote about buying her son princess panties? Would the comments be as favorable to the parent and as upbeat about what a cool kid she had?

Tom’s description of his daughter’s discovery of the boys’ underwear section took me right back to when I was in the same situation with my boys as they each discovered the girls’ section.

“Dad! Come over here!”

I followed her voice and found my daughter standing, slack-jawed and indignant, looking at the much, much larger and more varied selection of character underwear in the boys’ aisle.

“They have LEGO ‘Star Wars’ underwear! And superheroes! OH! And ‘Phineas and Ferb!’ Dad, can I get these? Do they have girl ones?”

And I had to stand and tell her that no, no, they didn’t make girl versions of these brands of character underwear and I didn’t really have a good explanation why.

As for me, when I found my oldest son G overjoyed with a package of Dora underwear in his tight little fists, I told him he couldn’t have panties because there wouldn’t be enough room for his penis. (Lie, damn lie, and he knew it.) He was disappointed–wildly so. I’d already pushed my husband, and won, on battles around toys and dress-up clothes though, and I didn’t want to find his breaking point. My husband’s argument always ended with the fact that I didn’t know what it was like to be a boy. I couldn’t win that one, so I carried a screaming preschooler out of the store that day and later bought ridiculously priced underwear online that was cute, flapless and somewhat gender neutral. It didn’t really satisfy G but it wasn’t Star Wars either, and when the box (and the bill) came, at least I could explain to my husband, “Well, he wanted Dora.”

By the time years later when I found G’s little brother O gleefully pointing to a package of fancy Rapunzel panties at Target, we’d grown more liberal, more accepting, and were more prepared to defend our boys’ love of pink. Still, I calmly stated, “Can’t have everything you see, Dude” and continued pushing the cart down the aisle. Despite the fact that he had piles of princesses at home, princess blankets on his bed, princess castles and princess songs and movies on his ipad, and even despite having regret for things G was denied, buying princess underwear for my son was a social line I wasn’t willing to cross. While I hadn’t entirely come around to my husband’s way of thinking, we had both shifted to a more moderate approach. My husband learned that the gender police didn’t knock on the door the second his son pulled on a skirt, and I had learned that the accepting social bubble we lived in didn’t extend as far as the local elementary school.

By this point we’d witnessed G constantly being called gay at school. He would come home crying, “Mom, why do the kids keep saying it like it’s a bad thing?” Books were thrown at him–chairs followed. The school was completely unwilling or unable to protect him, and despite being bright, he fell behind nearly two full grades. We watched him try to conceal his favorite colors and his tics, and we watched as he failed at both. Eventually we switched schools, but G’s learned from experience and is much more protective of himself with his new friends.

For O, the whole pink thing is far less complicated. He is much more resilient and maintains an in-your-face attitude about his girl toys. When the kids in O’s kindergarten class teased him about his princess stuff, his little girl friend said, “Oh, he only has that stuff for when I come over.” O couldn’t understand that there wouldn’t be such an easy explanation if he were spotted in the boys’ room with Rapunzel underwear, and unlike G, he’s not afraid to show off a bit. For O, pink toys and princesses only reveal something about what he likes. For his brother, pink reveals something about who he is. Hearing no in the underwear aisle wasn’t any different to O than hearing no to junk food in the snack aisle, and it was an easy decision. For G, on the other had, it was a rejection of who he was, and it was painfully difficult.

Tom ends his story with his daughter living happily with a variety of underwear options but not before including a rant against the “sinister masters of the character underwear industrial complex.” He speculates, “Do kids’ underwear manufacturers think that, if they put an image of a male character on girls’ underwear, that it will somehow turn the girls into boy-crazy sex maniacs?” I love this because it underscores exactly the reason I said no to O. If the same logic we use for girls were applied to boys, boys with princess underwear would be the most macho, the most assuredly heterosexual boys on the planet! Instead, it’s a social death sentence that at least O doesn’t otherwise need to endure.

I’m grateful for Tom and everyone who challenges gender norms. Ultimately it will benefit everyone. I’m glad his daughter is confident and happy and that he lived to tell the tale. And while I’m not so certain my boys and I would have enjoyed the same fate, I am optimistic that as a culture we are moving in the right direction. I recently found several packs of purple and teal underwear for boys on the clearance rack at TJMaxx–although obviously they didn’t make the cut at Macy’s, at least some underwear master somewhere is trying. The boys liberation movement is clearly just around the corner.

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