It started when my son was only a few months old. I had taken him downtown with me, for my weekly therapy session with the social worker I was seeing for postpartum depression counseling. There was a chill in the air, and I worried that his little cotton pants would ride up and expose his legs while I wore him, so I decided to put on his sister’s old baby leg warmers. They were mostly white, but had small pink and purple hearts scattered across them, Who would care, though? He was a baby, after all. I stopped by a friend’s house before my appointment, and she immediately commented on it, laughingly telling me she would buy him boys’ leg warmers herself, if I wasn’t going to ante up. I couldn’t believe it.
Gender bias is something we are used to talking about. I have fought every gift my two girls have received that has been pink, when it could’ve been purchased in neutral colors. I have watched proudly as my daughter answered the question “Are you a princess?” with “No, I’m a superhero.” It hadn’t occurred to me that there were boys out there facing a similar stigma, until I heard about Canadian photographer Kirsten McGoey’s project, #aboycantoo.
“This project began almost like a love story to my middle son, to show my love for him,” McGoey says. She and her husband could see the second of their three sons gravitated toward colors, clothing and activities that most boys shunned, even when he was only two years old. He preferred rainbows, sparkles, dancing and reading voraciously, while other boys were playing sports and watching television. “Never once did we question the validity of those choices, but I realized very quickly that others wouldn’t feel the same way,” McGoey says.
Facing a slow winter season, McGoey wanted a project she could focus on, so she could continue to hone her craft and get used to the new lighting in her studio. Feeling inspired by American photographer Kate T. Parker’s project, “Strong is the New Pretty,” which celebrates girls as active and rambunctious and anything but what is stereotypically considered feminine, McGoey recognized quickly that what she had started with her son could involve other boys as well. She decided to feature boys who were making choices that didn’t fall into the gender stereotypes they typically face.
McGoey’s 9-year-old son has been fairly lucky so far, in that he hasn’t experienced much in the way of bullying for the clothes he wears or the activities in which he takes part. That’s not to say that friends and family didn’t express their concerns to his parents, especially when he was younger and more prone to choosing ponies over trains, or pink over blue. It seems, though, that their insistence upon standing by his choices, and defending them, have yielded a boy who is sure of himself and who doesn’t mind telling people that pink isn’t a girl’s color.
Not all the boys involved in #aboycantoo are as fortunate, though. Some have to deal with family members who aren’t sure what to make of their interests, or who express fear that their interests mean they are gay. “They’re the ones that I’m trying to influence,” McGoey says, “I’m talking to moms and dads who are saying ‘Finally, someone understands what we’re going through’ and the boys who sit and watch their brothers and sisters get medals for everything they do. They might be a good cook, or a good reader, or a good dancer. So it’s a way to celebrate them.”
What McGoey has seen in some of the boys she has photographed is a growing sense of self, and of their relevance in the world, through the art they are pursuing. Brendan, a 15-year-old dancer involved in the project, has become aware of the positive impact he could have on younger male dancers. For these boys to be role models for others who may be struggling is crucial, and that is evident from the volume of messages McGoey has received from all over the world, thanking her for starting this project.
Now that my own son is 2 years old and exercising a bit of autonomy, I have watched him choose pink over blue many times. I watch as he tries on his older sister’s sparkly necklaces, fights with her over who gets to wear the pink purse, and yes, I put ponytails in his hair, just like Mama and his sisters, every time he asks for them. I also see him carry his Thomas the Tank Engine to bed, so he can cuddle it when he sleeps. I see how much he loves to sing and dance, and I also see him squeal in delight when we drive by a construction site and he spots a crane.
My job, as his parent, is to let him explore it all. We spend so much time fighting against the message of girls needing to be pretty and preferring dolls and clothes over trucks and mud, that we’ve forgotten about the boys, and what they’re being directed toward. Dinosaurs and monsters never seem to come in pink, do they? And why can’t little boys wear flowers, anyway? The wonderful thing about McGoey’s #aboycantoo project is that it celebrates boys for making brave choices. It celebrates all the facets that are part of a well-rounded male, no matter how he identifies. So, when she begins photographing new subjects again, you can bet my son will be part of the lineup.
Glynis Ratcliffe is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @operagirl.
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