The Boy in the Blue Tutu

By Lisen Stromberg

Little boy in blue tutuMy son is a cross-dresser. Most mornings he gets up, puts on a hand-me-down dress, wraps an old pillowcase around his head with a ribbon (to create his “long blond hair”), and prances around singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” My son is three and a half years old.

At the toy store, he does not want a Batman doll. “I want Batgirl,” he cries. When he begs to play with his friend Margo, it is because she has such an extensive collection of Barbie dolls and outfits in which he can dress them.

He loves preschool for the teachers, but also for the wonderful selection of tutus, party shoes, and costume jewelry. His grandmother received the shock of her life when she went to pick him up one day and he was wearing a blue tutu with beaded gold slippers. His teacher tells us that he is “highly in touch with his feminine side.”

Unfortunately, not everyone is so empathetic. “Boys should be playing baseball not Barbie,” my mother-in-law exclaims. “He keeps taking my daughter’s Cinderella slippers!” my neighbor tells my other neighbor, who tells me. Strangers ask, “So when do you think he will grow out of it?” or “How does your husband feel?”

I’ve tried to explain to these people that my son approaches life with a unique flair. While he loves soccer, he often plays it wearing a silk cape that flutters in the wind when he runs. My husband can’t wait for Little League to start because he sees a little slugger in our son, who can already hit the ball out of our backyard. Our son can’t wait for baseball either, but for a different reason: He says the cleats are “just like tap shoes.”

Interestingly, no one seems to be the least bit disturbed about our friend Gillian. At the age of five, she refuses to wear dresses, plays T-ball and soccer, and is proving quite skilled at climbing trees and collecting bruises. Gillian is a tomboy. “Isn’t she cute?” a friend exclaims to me when we are at Gillian’s house for a Sunday BBQ. But my son, I remind myself, is not cute when he dresses up and reenacts the glass slipper scene from Cinderella.

If Gillian is a tomboy because she likes to do boy-like things, what is my son – a janegirl? As far as I can tell there isn’t an equivalent in the English language. More importantly, there is no acceptable behavioral equivalent either. Watching my son, I have begun to ask myself: What is normal? My son loves trucks, cars, and trains. Last fall, during those terrible twos, he was accused of being a bully because he bit a girl at the playground. How can a child go from bully to sissy in a mere twelve months?

I am coming to realize that while our sex-role stereotypes have expanded for girls, they have contracted for boys. So much research is being done today to ensure that girls will excel in math, overcome the repression of adolescence, and get elected to the Board of Directors of major corporations. I am thrilled. Trust me. I have a one-year-old daughter. But what about my son? It is not just in my house that the days of “boys will be boys” seem to be over. Prescriptions for Ritalin are at an all-time high, and, increasingly, boys are expected to act in a less rambunctious and far more docile manner – that is, be more girl-like. My mind reels: So society is saying that a three-and-a-half-year-old boy should be more like a man, but a 12 year old should be more like a girl?

I have to admit, sometimes even I am embarrassed by my son’s behavior. His recent declaration to my father-in-law that he wants to be a ballet dancer when he grows up almost created a family feud. When the father of one of his preschool classmates unintentionally called him a girl – he was wearing that favorite blue tutu – I cringed just a little. And I am often confused about the messages I’m sending him. I don’t mind if he wants to wear pink lipstick to a birthday party – “Mom, you wear lipstick when you dress up!” he reminds me — but how do I protect him from the inevitable taunting that will occur as he ages?

I come back to my original question: What is normal? My husband and I are learning all too early that the boundaries of normalcy seem to be very narrow. On the other hand, my son, who at the moment is pretending to be Belle from Beauty and the Beast, complete with pearl-drop earrings, doesn’t know this yet. With luck and a little parental intervention, he won’t for a long time. Until then, Beauty, at least in our household, will reign.



Lisen Stromberg is the mother of a janegirl and a tomboy. She is currently writing a book entitled My Son the Janegirl: A Mother’s Journey to Unconditional Love. She can be reached at [email protected]

Originally appeared in Mothering magazine Issue 93. 

21 thoughts on “The Boy in the Blue Tutu”

  1. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Nothing wrong at ALL with being a male ballerina. 😀

    Growing up on a ranch, I’ve always been offended by the term “Tomboy”. Wearing jeans and riding horses never made me feel like a boy. I don’t see how playing in the dirt with my hotwheels was a “boy thing”. My son now plays with trains and cars, with his sisters, but he also plays with dolls and doll houses. He’s now 12, and still does these things. I am not concerned. People are who they are. They like what they like. Other people need to work out their own need to force others into little color coordinated boxes of what & who they think they should be. As for us, life is far too short to be so boring. :)

  2. “normal” is a setting on the dryer 😉
    i have boys & am very opposed to gender roles. i made sure they have princess dresses as well as pirate clothes in their dress-up bin. i buy them dolls & swords. when my 8 year old who is very pretty & likes to wear his hair long is called a girl by mistake, i tell him how i used to get called a boy a lot when i shaved my head & wore men’s clothes. i tell him that people see long hair & assume, “girl.” and i tell him that there is nothing wrong with being mistaken for a girl. girls are cool.

  3. I don’t think we need to invent a “janegirl” title, we need to get rid of the term “tomboy”. How about we just accept these are child behaviors and some kids like to dress up and some like to play in the mud and lots like to do both at the same time?

  4. “As far as I can tell there isn’t an equivalent [to Tomboy] in the English language.”

    I wonder at what age the table turns; when one can’t find the male equivalent to whore, bitch, slut, dike, the “c” word or any other horrible derogatory label for women?

    Please don’t begrudge the Tomboy label for girls. It’s one of the few harmless ones out there.

    1. “Please don’t begrudge the Tomboy label for girls. It’s one of the few harmless ones out there.”

      But that’s the thing, it ISN’T harmless. While it might not harm you, there are countless people (of all genders) that it can and does harm. Just because it isn’t up there in the ranks of “slut”, “whore”, etc., doesn’t mean it can’t do damage.

  5. My 6.5 y/o step son likes to have his toenails painted and until recently, he kept his hair shoulder length (it got in the way during Tae Kwon Do, so he cut it!) having 2 sisters and 2 moms that all have polished nails, it made no sense to explain why he couldn’t!? Both his fathers have no objections, either! He loves to run around in fairy costume wings and shoot his nerf guns! We tell people, he is the person he is meant to be! I wouldn’t be a good parent if I stole away the simple joys of childhood play and imagination! People ask, “Well, aren’t you afraid he will grow up to be gay”…I’m afraid he will grow up in a world where people are afraid IF he’s gay!

  6. It’s more acceptable for girls to exhibit behaviors and play with toys traditionally associated with boys because it’s regarded as a step up! Girls are less than, inferior. “You throw like a girl!” The opposite is feared because it’s regarded as a step back. :( As Mom to a 5 1/2 year old girl with a pixie cut who loves jeans, t-shirts, blue, and greed who is constantly mistaken as a boy by strangers, I totally sympathize.

  7. It is too bad society is concerned about labels in general. He is a person. He is a beautiful, wonderful human being. You are being a wonderful Mom by allowing him to be comfortable in his own skin. That’s more than most adults can say for themselves. It isn’t the label that matters. Hopefully you can teach him to rise above any label others may try to pin on him. It sounds like you are on your way. Best wishes for you and your family.

  8. God doesn’t make mistakes, If your born into this world as a Boy then thats what you are. This Transgender term has been created and pushed on our culture. Him being 3 1/2 hes just having fun. Id be more concerned when he starts school and still in this behavior. The moral of this is Family Values instilled into our children. Having a good faith-based family structure based on the word of God is key. We as a nation are tring to remove God from the picture and that’s why so many people are in lack of knowledge. I pray that we change our ways before its to late.

    1. @Pastor Robert

      God makes no mistakes… hahahahahahahaa. Let’s see the wisdom of God in this small passage : “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)”
      It is soooooooo perfect everything the abrahamic God does that he had to flood humanity except for a small family (where a guy had more than one wife) because everybody was bad but because it happened again he decided that instead this time killing all humans he would just kill his own son. Ofc……… delusional much?.
      It’s because of that imperfect man made up god that women had to fight for so long for their intellectual and physical freedom, why black people had to fight hard to get out of slavery, that same slavery the “perfect god” allowed people to do and the reason why the LGBT community is fighting hard now at days to be accepted as such.
      So get away with that immoral imperfect god please. He doesn’t belong in a world where people just want to accept and love everybody.

      1. First I’m not here to judge anybody. That’s not my Job. Here on you made the comment that It’s because of that imperfect man made up god that women had to fight for so long for their intellectual and physical freedom, why black people had to fight hard to get out of slavery, that same slavery the “perfect god” allowed people to do and the reason why the LGBT community is fighting hard now at days to be accepted as such. That imperfect man didn’t make up God. The hardest words for people who can’t grip that there is a God is the first verus in the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Adam and Eve lived in a perfect world. They made the wrong choice and that set in motion our down fall. Jesus going to the Cross is our way of Salvation. Sin is Sin no matter what degree it is, and we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Some of us just choose to repent of thos sins and some just havn’t come to terms with sin. I don’t agree with the LGBT because it is an Abomination in the Bible. But We still have to love just like God love us. If you trace and study the geneology of the Bible, we are in the end times and all these Sinful nature is the build up to endtimes. Revelations lays it all out and we are now living on the edge of time. End note, my commission in this world is to spread the gospel. To lead people to Jesus for there salvation. I hope that you can see that God loves each and everyone of us and wants us to be saved. Amen

  9. I have one of each as well. My son is 8 and still paints his nails on occasion. He’ll play dolls and house and dress up with his sister and 5 female cousins. He also adores Star Wars, Legos, his bike and getting muddy up to his knees catching frogs. My daughter is the same. I have the best picture of her in a sequined pink knit dress and pink floral wading boots calf deep in the swamp by our house. Their tastes change over time and you never know how they’ll end up. I believe it is our job to encourage them to do what they love. They’ll figure it out. :) oh and I was petrified that my son was going to be teased going to school with nail polish on… He chooses a different color for each finger and we have everything under the sun… But was pleasantly surprised because the kids all just thought he was cool. You never know how they’ll react, but you may have it easier than you think.

  10. Perhaps your son wants to be the main character in his own drama. In recent years the hugely popular Disney movies all have main characters that are female. Perhaps he wants to identify with the star of the show, the character that goes on an adventure, that has a big life change or gets magical powers. Who wouldn’t!? The princess does all the cool stuff, the prince is just a minor character in most Disney movies. (and in the Sound of Music). All the cool costumes are “for girls” too. It seems pretty normal to me to want the fun of dressing up and to identify with the most important character in a story. It’s interesting how it’s changed over the years. Of course, it’s much more profitable for Disney to sell all the costumes, finery, and dolls for girls than boys, perhaps that has influenced their story lines…

  11. My boy seems to know intuitively who will be most offended and by what. When he was two he bought high heeled Barbie pumps at a yardsale with his papaw who was mortified. I am convinced that’s why he bought them. He demanded the pink .22 rifle that wal – mart carries. He is eight and all boy now but everyone has always assumed he is a girl, esp now he wears his hair long. Well balanced humans are in touch with their masculine or feminine sides.

  12. All I have to say is: this is beautiful! Normal is what makes you happy. My son loves his sisters tutus. He wore one once to a doctor’s appointment along with a plaid short and fireman galoshes, we got some stares, and I saw some whispers and pointing, but most people were accepting and I thought it was great. Was it embarrassing? A little, until I met another couple (they had three boys) who said their boys all did the same thing. :)

  13. As a dance teacher, I see this sort of fear-based and limited line of thinking a lot when it comes to boys and dance. Parents need to remember, children have extraordinary imaginations, which enables them to visualize who they want to be in whatever environment they want to create. You’ve already labeled your son a “cross-dresser” and he’s not even 4 years old. He’s not a cross dresser- he’s a kid with a functioning and vibrant imagination. I love that he wants to dance. I think boys are hard-wired for dance movement but all too often are unsupported in the pursuit of this interest for fear of what others might think. Imagine if Baryshnikov’s mother had your attitude. The world would be missing an internationally recognized treasure. I challenge you and all parents to love your children so radically, that you have no other choice but to celebrate, accept, and fiercely defend (not fear) that which you might see as different, and trust in the inherent wisdom of imaginative play. This is their work for now. There is nothing to fear here.

    1. <3 Wise words, thank you!
      My son wants to tap dance and I've been terrified to let him because of what other people might say – he's very very fragile and sensitive and I don't want to see him hurt by others who don't have the same open-mindedness.

  14. Thanks so much for writing your book and sharing your stories with us. I agree that the inequality is horrible; It’s super for girls to take on the traits that are typically assigned for boys but it’s 100% wrong for a boy to take on any “sissy” “girly” traits. The underlying issue here is the notion that girls are inferior to boys, so don’t you dare let your superior boy act like an inferior. You touched on that a little bit with the “you throw like a girl” part. If we weren’t trained to believe that females are inferior, our boys (I have my own gentle boy who loves painting his nails and wearing dresses) wouldn’t be harassed so much nor would we be entrenched in this rape culture that permeates our society. Hopefully you’ll touch on that a bit in your book, millions of people will read it, and we’ll start to see a significant change in the way our culture looks at gender and sex (the noun, not the verb). Thanks again for being willing to share your story!

  15. I don’t really think there is a “normal”. We try to teach our children to act as the other kids do when they are little but when they grow older we tell them to discover who they are and to be unique. They should be discovering who they are and being unique the whole time. I think it’s wonderful you allow your son to dress as he wishes, despite what strangers may say or think. If this is what he likes then this is who he is. Who are we to question it? As he gets older he will be at an advantage having parents who support him exactly as he is, instead of having to hide who he is for fear of acceptance from his family and friends. I know there are books out there by parents who where in the same position whose kids are now grown. I’m sure those books hold great tips for how to make it through the tough years, which are tough no matter how unique your child is. You are a wonderfully supportive mother. Your story is touching.

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