We crinkled our noses in some combination of discomfort and skepticism. No matter how her body changed, we both knew she would continue to wear the same oversize hoodies, cargo pants and short hair dyed pink that she’d been sporting for years. However well intentioned and helpful to gender-typical girls the book’s messages were, they didn’t seem to apply to a kid like mine, who had flouted gender norms her entire life. These books and others like it operate on the assumption that, once puberty hit, girls like mine would feminize and conform.
For a book about tomboys, I interviewed dozens of women who’d had happy tomboy childhoods, or what some have called a “boyhood for girls.” (For boys, that kind of gender atypicality was never sanctioned, even in childhood; they were called sissies, or worse.) These girls played baseball or football, hung out with boys and got their hands dirty. Many ran, shirtless, across the fields, until their mothers — they told me it was always their mothers — told them they were getting close to puberty and had to wear their shirts.
Acceptance of their gender nonconforming behavior had an expiration date on it, whether the kids wanted it to or not.
Changing bodies, changing expectations
Puberty changes the rules of gender, and the force of gender norms and stereotypes bear down, even on kids who might have been immune to them before. In addition to the discomfort of a changing body, kids suddenly encounter changing expectations and social norms, based on their body parts.
The damage that conformity can cause
The problem with those unequal rules and expectations is that they can force kids into boxes that just don’t fit. Boys who feel pressure to conform to male stereotypes may grow into men with anxiety, who drink too much, tamp down their feelings or are prone to violence, according to ethnographer Maria do Mar Pereira, associate professor of sociology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and author of “Doing Gender in the Playground: The Negotiation of Gender in Schools.”
Identifying the messages, so we can change them
What can we do to protect our kids from these messages and forces? The first thing is for adults and children to realize they’re perpetuating them.
Even in an era when some kids learn there are dozens of options for gender identity, gender norms persist. “There’s a notion that today there’s a lot more flexibility,” Blum said. “There isn’t. Gender norms are very prescriptive. Gender norms are very restrictive. And everyone reinforces those gender norms.”
Parents, Blum said, are often much more focused on restricting their pubertal daughters than their sons. “But boys are at much greater risk for death from violence,” he said. Adults can and should examine how they treat their boys and girls differently, and how much gender norms influence their decisions.
Widening the range of normal in puberty programming
Puberty education can also focus much more on attacking gender norms, much the way education programs for tweens and teens have tackled child abuse or bullying. That means, Blum said, “teaching kids what’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior.”
If a child is uncomfortable with the idea or experience of puberty, Corinna said, ask why. Most education around puberty doesn’t adequately address kids’ experiences, they said.
“There’s dismissive messaging to everybody,” Corinna said. “Kids presumed to be cisgender — who may or may not be trans or otherwise gender nonconforming — are often told that any discomfort with puberty must be about them being trans.” The idea that such kids could be uncomfortable with puberty otherwise, Corinna said, is often not even considered. Cisgender refers to children whose gender identity conforms with the sex they were assigned at birth.”
Fighting stereotypes within families and communities
In other words, it’s incredibly important to widen the range of what’s acceptable in early adolescence, a time when society is often narrowing that range. “The goal should be to broaden what it means to be conforming,” Blum said.
My parents taught me to question why there were different rules of decorum for boys and girls, and I try to pass on those same critical thinking skills to my kids. I tell my child that all the options are open to her, including the option that, as the song says, she doesn’t have to change at all.
“Our job is to create a protective environment for kids to be who they will become,” Blum said. “And to run interference around those who will try to knock them down because of it.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story contained a paraphrase of a quote by Heather Corinna that has been replaced with a longer version of the quote.