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5 December 2013

Squeezed Middle: Staying totally cool with the whole situation

If my son wants to wear lipstick and dresses, that is just fine. We are not the kind of parents who are going to have a problem with that.

By Alice O'Keeffe



“Why do I always have to have boy things?”

During his waking hours, Larry, who is three, asks me a question roughly every one and a half minutes, by my estimate. As he’s usually awake for a 12-hour stretch, that tots up to 480 questions each day. I defy anyone to provide decent answers if subjected to such relentless interrogation. Sometimes I can barely bring myself to grunt in response.

Once in a while, though, he asks me a question that I can’t help but stop and consider seriously. This is one of them. He is right. Larry’s room is full of cars, train sets, Lego, diggers, builders’ hats … I haven’t done it on purpose, really I haven’t. But there’s no getting round the fact that, in our choice of toys, we have unthinkingly conformed to every gender stereotype in the book.

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“I want some girl things!”

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“Well . . . sure, of course, darling. Which girl things do you want?”

Larry gets a faraway look in his eye. “I want a princess magazine … one with a free lipstick.”

Great. I want Larry to feel at ease with his feminine side. He needs to know that if he wants to wear lipstick and dresses, that is just fine. Curly and I are not the kind of parents who are going to have a problem with that.

“In that case, darling,” I say, with resolve, “we will get you one.”

On our way back from the park that afternoon we stop at the newsagent. Larry spends several minutes poring over the section of shelf filled with bright pink, sparkly magazines. I am totally cool with the whole situation.

“How about this one?” I hold up a copy of Barbie. “It comes with free plastic kittens and a carry basket.”

“No,” says Larry firmly. “I want lipstick.”

“Or what about our usual, CBeebies? It’s got stickers!”

“That’s not for girls!”

After much deliberation he plumps for My Little Pony, which comes not only with a pale pink “lipshine” but also a dewy-eyed plastic pony and hairbrush. I am taken aback to find that I am gritting my teeth, but it’s too late to backtrack. I take the magazine to the counter and pay, flashing the newsagent a slightly apologetic smile (why?). We’re about to leave when the door swings open and a rather good-looking man comes in with his son, who is cutely kitted out in mini-chinos and a little flat cap. He glances down at Larry, who has unwrapped the pony and is brushing its mane lovingly with the little pink brush.

“Ha haha!” I say. “Ha. Ha.” Then I put my head down and charge out of the shop, dragging Larry behind me.

I ponder my reaction as we amble back down the road. It was not cool at all. Perhaps, deep down, I’m way more of a square than I thought. When we get home I flick to the first page of the magazine. It’s a spot-the-difference picture of two pink ponies with hearts in their hair. On the next page is a colouring-in picture of a pony, also surrounded by hearts.

As I flick through I realise, with some relief, that even if I had a daughter I would not want to buy her this magazine. The problem is not that it’s girly; the problem is it’s trash.