People seem to have this thing about assigning gender to babies and children.

Firstly, they absolutely have to know what sex your child is. I guess this is understandable, what with the way our culture (and pretty much every culture on the planet*) assigns assumptions about characteristics, attitudes, preferences and beliefs to people simply on the basis of what they look like with no pants on. How do you know whether to say that a child is “pretty” or “a proper little man” (or, insert-dumb-gendered-stereotype-here) if they don’t know what particular type of genitalia the child has? And, of course, with our irredeemably gendered language, you can’t even speak about a person without identifying their sex – unless you are willing to call a child It.

[* Terry Pratchett’s Discworld dwarves have it right. They don’t make any distinction. Makes dating a delicate business, apparently, but otherwise their lives seem to run all the smoother for it.]

Secondly, they are completely unable to just ASK – it is as though there is something embarassing about being unable to work out for yourself, at a glance, what sex a small, very much pre-pubescent child is. Perhaps it is a sense that if you said that you could not tell, this would be embarassing for the parent (on behalf of her or his child) because there is something wrong with a child whose sex is not stand-out obvious from a mile off.


Small boys and small girls are, nappy contents aside, pretty much indistinguishable. The boys don’t have deeper voices or hairier faces. The girls don’t have squashy bumps on the front. Until children get older, they are not mini-men and mini-women. They are CHILDREN. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not being able to tell what sex a child is! Only our stupid gender-absolutist attitudes are to blame if we feel otherwise.

And then, guess what, it seems to me that it is GIRLS who bear the brunt of the responsibility for ensuring that nobody makes any embarassing mistakes in the what-sex-is-that-child game.

Boys get to wear sensible, practical clothes in a range of colours. They can have sensible, practical haircuts. They get fun stuff on their T-shirts like dinosaurs, monsters, farm animals, spiders, and trucks.

Girls, on the other hand, must wear pink clothes at all times (with an occasional licence to opt for lilac, as long as this is only now and again). For best effect, the pink in question must be pale and girly, so that stains will show up easily. That doesn’t matter of course, because girls aren’t supposed to do anything that might result in stains.

The pink clothes should ideally have a design incorporating hearts, flowers, fluffy cute stuffed toys, fairy princesses, butterflies or a little logo that says “I’m really cute,” “What a sweetie,” “Daddy’s little princess,” or something equally puke-making.

For preference, girls should avoid any possible risk of gender confusion by wearing skirts or dresses as much as possible – again not a problem from the point of view of practicality because girls don’t climb trees or go down slides or anything fun like that. In winter, girls are permitted to wear tights underneath their dresses, for warmth, but the tights must conform to the usual standard of prettiness, usually involving pink and a pattern with hearts on.

And finally – the hair! A short, practical, easy-to-look-after haircut is Right Out. Girls must have hair as long as they can grow it. When it is long enough, they must have little bunches, and hairslides, and other pretty and cute means of keeping it under control. Even if your child has a tendency toward fluffy, curly, frizzy, tangles as her hair grows longer, this is not an excuse. You should never under any circumstances cut the stuff off just because that makes it easier to look after. Good Goddess, that would be the height of cruelty.

Now, of course, none of the above is actually mandatory.

You could just dress your child however you please. Sometimes she could go to a Christmas party dressed in a hot-pink fairy dress with floaty, voile skirt-petals and gold stars, pink-netted fairy wings on the back, and a pair of sparkly gold slippers. At more normal times, she could just throw on a pair of jeans and a green monster T-shirt, or a navy jumper with some non-matching fleece trousers from the boy section at Asda. Or something like that.

However, BEWARE. This is likely to cause embarassment. Not to you of course, but certainly to other people.

Even if your child is wearing some pink, even if she has a discreet bit of embroidered flowerment on her jeans, even if she is wearing a yellow dress – if she isn’t girly ENOUGH, then somebody will come up to you and start chatting and will assume that your child is a boy. You may not correct them as such, but if you later in the conversation use any female pronouns or tell the truth when asked for the child’s name or otherwise reveal the true femaleness of your offspring the other person will BLUSH. They will be EMBARASSED. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise he, er, I mean she, was a, um, girl.”

Now this doesn’t especially bother me, as I am used to it and frankly if Ariel gets taken for a boy I don’t care at all – if won’t do her or anyone else any harm. She might even get treated, as a result of the mistake, like a proper lively toddler instead of a pretty little doll.

However, I do draw some conclusions.

Firstly, if your child is not absolutely, double-whammy, incontestably FEMININE, she will be called “boy”. People will assume she is a boy. Even if she is a little bit girly, this is not good enough.

I’ve had people referring to Ariel as “he” even when she’s been wearing quite feminine clothes, and once even when she was wearing a pink dress! A friend’s non-girly daughter once had all her hair chopped off as a result of a persistent nit invasion. Thereafter, until her hair grew back, people constantly took her for a boy, even thogh she was not especially boyish-looking. In the end, she took to wearing slightly girlier clothes – but was still not girly enough, because some people still made the same mistake anyway.

Secondly, I believe the reason for this is that, even though people do get embarassed at mistaking a girl for a boy, it is much more embarassing for them if they mistake a boy for a girl.

A girl that looks like a boy is a tomboy or something, somebody who is aspiring (albeit misguidedly) for something clearly desirable (i.e. boydom).

A boy that looks like a girl, however, is something very strange indeed – a potential gayboy, a weirdo, a misfit – after all, there’s nothing good about being a girl so why would you want to look or act like one?

So, to all the people who talk to random children and parents they meet while out and about: please try not to assume that just because a child is dressed a certain way it is of a certain gender. If you can’t tell, just ask!

To all the people who design children’s clothes: NOT ALL GIRLS WANT TO WEAR PINK! Nor do we all necessarily like lacy, fluffy, cutesy, pastel crap covered in stupid butterflies.

To all the parents of girl-children: rebel – dress your girls in clothes from the Boy section – give up caring whether somebody gets her gender wrong. It doesn’t matter!

To all the parents of boy-children: There’s nothing wrong with pink! There is no evidence that wearing pink will turn a child into a homosexual – even if there was something wrong with that! – and nor is there any evidence that wearing pretty sparkly fun stuff will do your child the remotest bit of harm. (You probably aren’t used to people getting your child’s gender wrong, so it may not be something that bothers you. If it does – see above!)

Live a little. Love a lot. Cross-dress your kids.