My three-year-old Lydia and I recently enjoyed a picture book from our local library, Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah & Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case. Jacob is a preschool boy who enjoys wearing dresses from the costume box but is criticized by his classmate Christopher. His mom is kind about his hurt feelings, but when he says he wants to wear a dress as his regular clothing, she’s clearly unsettled. After an experiment with a towel toga and some more bullying from Christopher, Jacob steels his nerve to talk to his mom again–and she helps him sew a dress he really likes. When Christopher complains about it at circle time, their teacher says, “Everyone wears what’s comfortable for them.” She points out that people used to say girls couldn’t wear pants. At recess, Jacob stands up to the bully, feeling his dress surrounding him like “soft, cottony armor.”
Lydia and I loved this story of bravery and being yourself! It’s very gently yet vividly written, perfectly evoking Jacob’s desires and worries at a preschool level, not preachy and not over-explaining. I’m especially impressed with the moment when Jacob’s mother is trying to decide what to say and Jacob feels like he can’t breathe–that’s all it says, but you can feel the tension, the importance of his mother’s reaction to him. I also love what she says as they make the dress: “There are all sorts of ways to be a boy.”
Lydia likes pink and flowers and Hello Kitty, but she also loves trains and playing in the mud, and she likes to wear clothes handed down by her older brother Nicholas, like a blue T-shirt with a dragon on it. She was surprised by the idea that girls “couldn’t” wear pants. I pulled out a few of the pre-1960 children’s books we own and pointed out that all the girls in the pictures were wearing dresses. We agreed that sometimes pants are more comfortable, and other times a dress is just the right “soft, cottony armor” for your adventures!
One day Lydia brought up the topic as we were walking on the main street of our neighborhood: “Jacob wanted to wear a dress. But Christopher said boys don’t wear dresses. But the teacher said everyone wears what’s comfortable for them.” I was nodding in agreement when Lydia suddenly pointed at a passerby and shouted triumphantly, “She wears what’s comfortable for her!” The lady was pleased and amused–and she actually was a good example of different people’s comfort levels, as I said to Lydia: “She’s comfortable wearing a sweater today. You’re comfortable in your sundress. She’s comfortable walking in those high heels. I never wear high heels because I don’t like the way they feel under my feet.” Different people like different things. There are all sorts of ways to be a woman.
I wish Jacob’s New Dress had been around when Nicholas was in preschool! He’s 12 now and has become more gender-conforming, but he had long hair until he was 9 and has always been fond of purple, sparkles, rainbows, flowers, and cooking toys. He had some tough moments with classmates and strangers. His dad and I had some tough moments figuring out what to say to him about the “rules” for who wears which clothes and how we decide exactly how much we want to follow those rules. For the most part, we advised him, “A lot of people will think you’re a girl if you wear that,” and then let him make his own decision about whether he wanted that particular item (or to maintain the long hair) enough to endure awkward comments.
Some relatives were worried that Nicholas had gender dysphoria–that he actually felt he was a girl. We were pretty sure this wasn’t the case because his response to strangers referring to him as female was usually to say, “No, I’m a boy!” or ask me to do so. He never wanted to be called by a feminine name or pronouns except when he was pretending to be a specific character. It was just that his taste in clothing, decorations, and activities was farther toward the “feminine” end of the continuum than most boys’. In fact, when he wore pajamas printed with butterflies, he pretended to be a superhero called Butterfly Boy.
When Nicholas was 4, he chose shoes that were part black and part purple sparkly, with straps that zigzagged over his foot and fastened at the ankle. They had grippy soles and were totally practical shoes that he wore for all his adventures for many months. But his classmates said, “Why are you wearing girls’ shoes?” His teacher had the perfect response: “Mostly girls wear that kind of shoes. But these shoes belong to Nicholas, so these are boy’s shoes.” Exactly.
It’s important for parents of gender-bending children to understand that nonconformity with gender roles is not the same thing as gender dysphoria or being a transgendered person. That’s why Jacob’s New Dress is not “a tool of indoctrination to normalize transgender behavior.” If anything, allowing children to explore what they like to wear and do, regardless of gender, is a good way of raising people who are comfortable in the bodies they have, instead of feeling that they won’t be allowed to be themselves unless they have genital surgery and hormone treatments. (I’m not denying that some people really are transgendered! But I’m concerned that rigid gender roles may push some people toward transition who could have been happy with their biological sex if viewed more flexibly.)
I had thought I’d write just a brief review of Jacob’s New Dress in my next group of book reviews, but then I came across two things that made me think about it some more. After seeing a museum exhibit featuring the work of my first college roommate, I was curious about the rest of her life and found her Instagram, which includes several pictures of her short-haired daughter dressed in traditionally masculine clothes or interesting combinations. I like the way she admires her daughter’s choices, labels them “girlstyle,” and moves on, commenting on the unique person she is raising.
And then, the next day, I read Hobo Mama’s “Why do we gender children? How to approach kids neutrally”–a great set of tips for getting to know individual kids as individual people instead of cramming them into your assumptions about boys or girls. The photo of her three long-haired sons reminds me of Lydia’s excitement over meeting a boy with hair the same length, color, and curliness as her own–they had fun comparing hair and then determined that they both like to hike in the forest with walking sticks and set about finding the perfect sticks. We don’t have to have the same hair to be friends; we don’t have to be the same gender to be friends; it’s fun to find something in common! Lydia likes the way Jacob in the book finds that his friend Emily happens to be wearing an outfit in the same colors as his new dress.
Jacob’s New Dress also made me think about a conversation Lydia had at a playground recently with a different boy about her age. They’d played together for a little while before they introduced themselves:
LYDIA: I’m Lydia.
JAKE: I’m Jake.
LYDIA: No, you’re not!
JAKE: I am, too! It’s short for Jacob.
LYDIA: You’re not Jake who goes to my school.
JAKE: No, I’m Jake who goes to my school.
LYDIA: Oh… (puzzled) Does every school have a Jake?
JAKE: (confidently) Every school needs a Jake!
Every school needs a Jacob–not necessarily a boy who likes to wear dresses, specifically, but a kid who is determined to be him- or herself and be comfortable with it even when stereotypes make it difficult. Every school, and every gathering of Earthlings, needs some people who challenge our assumptions and help us to think more flexibly about what we each need in order to be comfortable as ourselves.