My friend Rachel and her kids are over for a play date. Rachel’s daughter has just walked into the room with a naked Barbie Doll in her hand. Rachel is not amused.
I don’t need Rachel to explain that I’ve committed a serious feminist faux pas. But she still feels the need to explain.
“Dolls like that have can have a huge negative impact my daughter’s body image! They’re completely idealized, anorexic, anatomically impossible…”
I know all this already. And I don’t disagree.
My first response is to make excuses: “Oh, my cousin brought some Barbies over in a big box of hand-me-down toys. I never would have bought them.”
She is not pacified. “Couldn’t you have just thrown them away?”
I try another tack: Get real, I say. Images like this are everywhere. You can take away Barbies, you can take away television, but your kids will still see Barbie-style bodies on the sides of city buses, and on the magazine racks at the grocery store. “We have to teach them to view these images critically, because they’re going to see them.”
Again, she’s not buying it. “But that doesn’t mean you encourage it! Do you know how many young girls have eating disorders?”
We debate for a while. Even though I mostly agree with her, I can’t bring myself to back down, because as the mother of a trans daughter, when it comes to gender, nothing is ever as simple as Rachel wants it to be.
I look across the room at her two kids: Little 5-year-old Maya is wearing a pink shirt. Little 3-year-old Sam is in blue, and playing with one of the few toys in our house that my daughter, M., has no interest in: A race car. Thus far, both of Rachel’s children appear to be conventionally gendered kiddos. Unlike my “girl with a penis,” her kids have gender identities that align neatly with their “parts.”
As Rachel continues to lecture me, I start to get mad.
“You have no idea what it’s like to have a transgender child,” I say. “You can’t possibly know how hard this is, or what I’m trying to juggle.”
She softens slightly, but she doesn’t get it.
I can’t really blame her. I’ve been wrestling with this issue for two years, and am still trying to wrap my head around it.
Here’s the part that really makes my brain ache: How do I raise a strong, feminist daughter without invalidating her desperate desire to identify with the conventional trappings of girlhood? I feel battered by the competing demands of two progressive impulses: One is pro-feminist; one is pro-trans. Every day, these two liberal bullies are doing battle over my precious child.
Wait, you say: These forces shouldn’t be in competition! Just encourage her to be strong AND a woman! Won’t that work? In theory, yes. But in practice? Not so simple.
Example: What do you say to your young trans daughter, who regularly tells you about her anxiety and despair at not being seen as a “real girl,” when she wants the Barbie dolls and princess toys that all her little girlfriends have?
What response will best support her in becoming a strong, self-confident, self-loving woman?
Do I wear my trans-ally hat and agree to the Barbie doll in order to validate her heartbreakingly fragile sense of entitlement to membership in the girl club? (Every single time we enter a women’s bathroom, she looks up at me and says, “Is this the girls’ room, Mama? We’re both girls, right? Right?” I look down and see more anxiety and longing than should be possible on such a small face. “Of course we both are,” I say, “Of course.”)
Or, do I don my feminist hat and say no to Barbie, thereby limiting the possible negative effects on her self-esteem and body image?
If you know the solution this conundrum, folks, I’m all ears.
The truth is, I’ve been so immersed in supporting her in accessing the world of girl-dom that I kind of forgot about feminism for a while. And I’m sure there are things I would have done and said differently if she’d been born with a vagina like Rachel’s daughter Maya. I’m sure I would have taken a harder line on the Barbies, done more grrl-power talk, downplayed the obsession with princesses, pushed harder for sports and math games.
I know I need to pay more attention to this. Trans women are subject to all the misogyny, negative body-image messages, and low self-esteem that plague the rest of womankind. Hanna – the teen trans girl M. fell in love with at the Gender Odyssey conference – is rail-thin and told me that she runs seven miles a day to keep her figure. Sigh.
I also know I’m not alone in this struggle. Trans women have long taken heat from feminists for reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes about women. Like me, they simply can’t win: If they are too feminine, they’re seen as socially regressive. If they’re not feminine enough, they’re accused of not being real women. (I wrote in a previous post about how this issue affects my kiddo.)
I know I’m going to need to figure out how to crank up the feminist volume while still keeping the pro-trans station blaring loud and clear. It’s probably going to continue to be a tricky line to walk.
Among the treasures that came from my cousin’s box of hand-me-downs was a book about Disney Princess Weddings. Each page features a different glittering, gowned princess marrying the prince of her dreams. Even I have my limits.
“I don’t like this book,” I told M. “I’d like to get rid of it.”
“Why?” she says, “The dresses are pretty.”
“Because it’s just about girls getting married, and getting married is OK, but girls can do a lot more than that.”
“Right,” M. agreed, “Like being important presidents and rescuing fairies who are in terrible danger.”
OK, maybe I’m not doing such a bad job after all.