Dear Imprudence: I Think You Missed One

Carolyn Hax recently got a letter from a pair of concerned grandparents asking about their granddaughter’s sartorial choices:

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I are concerned about our 15-year-old granddaughter. She is not the slightest bit interested in makeup or the stylish clothes most teens like. She prefers basketball shorts and a T-shirt over her bra, then one or two more logo T-shirts or a football jersey over that. We are also concerned that she acts more like a 10-year-old, watching “SpongeBob,” playing with Legos at the Lego store, wanting to eat from the Teletubbies plate I have for a 2-year-old!

The parents seem oblivious. Her mom has made comments that she can’t get her to pick out cute clothes, but still, they are the ones who buy her the boy clothes. They even bought her men’s moccasins recently. Our 6-year-old grandson commented that she had on shoes like his dad. What do you make of this?

—Concerned Grandparents

She responds:

A 15-year-old! Watching “SpongeBob”! I’d contact the authorities, but they’re all watching “Family Guy.”

The most benign interpretation of your facts says your granddaughter has boyish tastes — and you need a stern lesson in not judging people.

The most alarming (or maybe alarmist?) interpretation is that your granddaughter is resisting maturity, her sexual maturity in particular, possibly in response to trauma — and that you need a stern lesson in recognizing pain instead of tripping over the football jersey chosen to conceal it.

If it’s the latter, that’s a matter for professional guidance.

But both extremes (and everything in between) have the same implications for you: This girl needs grandparents who love, accept and embrace her for who she is vs. worry she’s some kind of freak.

She doesn’t wear pink. Get over it, please, and position yourself to be her advocate no matter what her T-shirts say. Whether she’s a healthy kid with upstream tastes or she’s an unhappy kid screaming for help is something she’ll eventually reveal to the people she trusts. Your responses to her choices will go a long way toward determining whether you’re part of that group or not.

Her response seems pretty solid to me. She stresses that the granddaughter’s preferred mode of dress isn’t really the business of her grandparents and that she could probably benefit from more support and less critical commentary. But Hax missed something. Clothing is very much a part of gender performance and exploration and it seems entirely possible to me that their granddaughter may simply be transgender, or exploring butch and other masculine relationships to gender. For me, playing with clothing was one of the first ways I started exploring my gender identity, because clothing is so gendered. Luckily, I had a supportive father who didn’t fuss about what I did, or didn’t, wear.

Lots of teen girls aren’t interested in makeup or ‘stylish clothes’ for any number of reasons, and a lack of interest in these things doesn’t suggest anything, at all, about a teen’s gender identity, relationship with gender, or sexual orientation, but it is something that crept into my mind while reading this letter. If, and that is a big if, since I don’t know this girl, if she is transgender, that last paragraph becomes especially critical. It’s possible that her immediate family is already supporting her, but no one wants to talk to the grandparents about it because they are so judgy, and as a result, no one really knows what to say to them when they decide to start policing what their granddaughter wears.

As awareness about transgender issues increases, more and more transgender people are being recognised at young ages, which means that there are families all over the place navigating situations like this one. And a lot of those families, I know from personal interactions with transgender teens, really don’t know what to do with judgy family members who don’t understand the situation. The family is more focused on helping the teen explore gender than on making other members of the family feel comfortable, which is entirely appropriate, and that means dodging awkward questions and deflecting conversations that some people aren’t ready to have.

Hax underscored the important thing: No matter what is or isn’t going on with the granddaughter, she needs accepting, loving, caring grandparents, and nothing less. And she needs parents who don’t try to pressure her into buying cute clothes, but who buy her the clothes she feels comfortable in, whatever those might be. She needs a family that supports her and allows her to develop into her own person, whoever that may be.

By the way, I still play with Legos. And I know lots of adults who enjoy Spongebob.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

18 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: I Think You Missed One

  1. I wonder if Carolyn Hax might have thought about that possibility, and decided not to mention it for fear it would make the grandparents MORE judgemental and invasive. I know some judgemental people, and even with other options they frequently fixate on the option that they know the least about and get super extra judgemental and nosy about it.

  2. Katherine, that was actually one of the thoughts that crossed my mind too! Given how…hostile the grandparents appear to be, if I was answering their letter, I’m not sure I would have brought it up as a possibility.

  3. Another possibility (that occurred to me before the “ze might be trans” one) is: she’s autistic (or otherwise neurodiverse) and has sensory issues with clothing (which “age-inappropriate” activity choices and things like insistence on using a particular plate may also suggest).

    Of course the appropriate response is exactly the same for this as for any of the other possibilities – but it’s very, very common for autistic children/adolescents to have their autistic traits (such as sensory issues, social “oddness”, “perseverations”, etc) regarded as the result of some sort of trauma, and for them to be deeply harmed (and often given *actual* post-traumatic symptoms) by the treatment given them by the adults around them as a result of that assumption. (I would very strongly suspect that many trans kids and kids with many other undiagnosed impairments get the same, or at least very close parallels…)

  4. I am 42 -never wore makeup or girly dresses-My grown up daughters like girly stuff-No need to react when kids are different.

  5. This letter is like a rorschach test! When I was reading it, my first thought was that the young woman might be autistic. I have talked to so many autistic women who say that as teenagers, they always wore baggy, comfortable, cross-gender clothing and were not interested in the “normal” things that girls their age were interested in. That certainly describes me. We have our own developmental trajectories, often have very little attachment to social convention, and tend to retain more “childlike” aspects of ourselves even as we mature emotionally, intellectually, and physically. For instance, I have a graduate degree in English but still love children’s picture books and have a whole collection of them. I also haven’t worn nylons since I was required to in grammar school, and I have one all-cotton bra that I put on only when I really, really have to.

    But who knows? It could be a number of things. Whatever is going on, it’s clearly the grandparents with the problem and it’s probably for the best that no one has clued them into what’s happening, as it would only make them even more insufferable.

  6. Let’s see…what things on this list do I do?

    1. Where mannish clothes and man shoes-Check, btw, I’m a size nine in men’s so those shoes actually come in a much nicer variety than the comparable 11 and a half/ twelve narrow in womens.
    2. Watch Spongebob?-Check-or at least I used to before I cut the cable because it was expensive. I still watch animated kids TV though. Does watching it in Japanese with no subtitles make me less childish or just more nerdy?
    3. Childish possession/eating habits/hobbies-Check. I had cookies and milk for my snack and have a shelf of comic books.

    Oops, guess I have failed at maturity. Forget the whole ‘started law school last week’ business. I really never saw why people shouldn’t be able to have it both ways with things like this. Is there anything on this list that prevents this person from being a responsible citizen and caring individual? Absolutely not. In that case, I feel no need to ‘put away childish things’.

    “Clothing is very much a part of gender performance and exploration and it seems entirely possible to me that their granddaughter may simply be transgender,” I guess I did turn out to be a bisexual genderqueer. But if this kid is trans, genderqueer, butch, etc. then clothes policing is going to be even more hurtful to him/her/hir.

  7. that girl sounds like someone I would have had a crush on. 🙂
    I don’t really like the whole “resisting sexuality ~trauma~” thing. Some people just are different from other people and they seriously aren’t being different from the norm because of some sort of bad experience, that’s just how they are. I assume that boys who wear t-shirts and basketball shorts aren’t assumed to have been traumatized. Why is doing what’s standard always associated with health? (I super super agree with other Autistic people who had the reaction that this could be a neutral style of dress for someone with ASD, nothing to do with trauma or even really conscious attempts to present in a masculine way.)

  8. aw I forgot I totally wasn’t done with what I was saying. I really don’t like the implication that a woman who dresses in a way that isn’t feminine, stylish, or sexual is resisting sex or isn’t interested. It’s cool if someone does dress that way and it’s part of their expression of themselves as a sexual person. But I for example am interested in sex without being very interested in wearing shoes other than sneakers, or wearing dresses, or having pierced ears. There’s no contradiction in that except in other people’s minds.

  9. Another option, although possibly an unlikely one: this young woman has looked hard at what’s expected of women in our society and through popular culture, and decided she wants no part of it. She has realised that no matter what she does in the game of beauty, she will never win, and has decided to opt out of the game altogether. She is therefore dressing to reject the beauty myth and its trappings, and making a political statement through her clothing choices – and again, granma and granda need to just accept it and love her anyway.

    I say this is unlikely because the reasoning behind it is something which is more likely to be a product of someone in their mid-twenties at least (old enough to realise that if she doesn’t do the same things as everyone else, the world isn’t going to implode) but the germs of the ideas may well be a part of her reasons for choosing her preferred clothing style – even if they aren’t expressed in quite the same terms.

    (And yes, this is my Rorschach reason for dressing comfortably rather than stylishly)

    A final option: she’s doing it to piss her family off (and quietly enjoying the attention she gets by yanking everyone’s chain), in which case having her family accept it and move on will make her change tactics and find another way of irritating them.

  10. Or she’s just a kid. I’ve seen this style on a lot of girls lately, including my 11 year old twilight-obsessed niece.

    Yeesh. This could have been written by my grandma back when I was wearing baggy boys’ jeans and combat boots when skintight jeans and Sam&Libbys were the style for girls.

    Back off, grandma!

  11. Another option, although possibly an unlikely one: this young woman has looked hard at what’s expected of women in our society and through popular culture, and decided she wants no part of it.

    I was doing that at 15, definitely. I was doing that at 8. Unfortunately, part of this for me was rejecting anything classified “feminine” as lesser, and worthless. Pink was yucky. Girl toys were gross. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I started to think about my rejection of the feminine and understand how that was actually part of patriarchal culture.

  12. When I was that age, wearing ‘feminine’ clothes regularly would have got in the way of doing the things I enjoyed. Also there were more than a few skeevy males around the activities where I did wear more ‘feminine’ clothes, so they weren’t short skirts or cleavage tops unless it was netting me an advantage (once I figured out they were skeevy). And yes, I did cold-bloodedly choose my outfits for their effect on (for example) my bridge scores. I won’t say that was classy of me, because it wasn’t. But if it hadn’t had an effect, I’d have worn something comfortable and warm to the bridge table for EVERY game.

    The thing that stands out for me, though, is that the grandparents haven’t mentioned any of the activities their grandchild likes except for Lego. ‘Feminine’ clothes just aren’t practical if the adolescent likes gardening, playing with a dog, sports, hiking, running, anything really active. About the only active thing I do where ‘feminine’ clothes are OK is dancing – and really, I don’t wear truly ‘feminine’ clothes for class every week because it gets in the way (my normal classwear is jeans or black pants with a singlet top or tank top or something else equally light and non-tangly; for non-class practices I wear trackydacks with the singlet); I only wear ‘feminine’, dressy things for special occasions. And even then, I’m still usually wearing pants, not skirts, because leads WILL lift me upside down.

  13. I think it is a Rorschach test – we all see it through our own experiences.

    I’m 22, I love Spongebob, and dress however I want to. (My mom made my buy men’s basketball shorts because my girl shorts didn’t fit anymore and most shorts for girls are way too short.) I’m also interested in some “girly” clothes.

    I see myself in the letter, even though I don’t do everything she does – wearing layers? I will wear one see-through tank over another (they were that way the first time I tried them on) but layers!

    It reminded me of “The Agony of Alice” by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Before Alice gets bras, she wears layers because she doesn’t know what else to do. (She’s raised by her widowed dad and only has an older brother – at least that early in the series.) She was uncomfortable with her breasts because dad was.

    My friend said on FB she was wearing earrings for the first time in a long time. She sent me a pic, I showed it to mom, and then it turned into “try on some earrings!” I’m a sucker for benign peer pressure, but they didn’t work. Too closed up.

    I don’t wear make-up. I probably never will.

    My parents find my obsession with Bollywood and such odd, to the point where my mom asked me if I would convert to Islam.

    I can’t imagine what my racist grandparents would say. Though my dad’s step-mother would be like, cool.

    And legos are awesome. I’d build towers for no reason other than to do. And in high school, I asked for more at Christmas and got it!

    She may be completely normal – no sexual trauma, no autism, just a straight healthy teenager with a good sense of self since she seems to be ignoring peer pressure.

    But the fact that she does weird stuff makes her weird, which puts in her a similar situation – probably because people may assume she’s a lesbian or trans*. It’s yet another way to say “why don’t you act like everybody else?” which must mean something is wrong.

    I hope that made sense.

  14. Women can’t wear T-shirts? Really? That must explain why I always get compliments for all the awesome ones I find on the internet. Heck, my latest acquisition was this Scooby Doo related shirt from Threadless (Link to shirt: and my psychical therapist kept asking where I got it. Obviously, I have no fashion sense!

  15. Jeez. I’m 28 now and I never stopped watching children’s cartoons (also toddler shows, thanks), playing with toys, etc. I have a Spongebob bathtowel and wallet. I’ve considered buying a Spongebob plate-and-bowl set too, but I can’t spare the money. I’d skip wearing a bra if I could, and I wear mens shoes.

    If not for these wonderful grandparents I may never have known that something is horribly wrong with me and that I need to be wearing make-up and ‘cute clothes’ and watching Grey’s Anatomy (or something)!

  16. What a fascinating discussion – the grandparents’ letter describes my teen years to a tee. I did worry a lot about being thought abnormal, though my mother never fought me on any of it – I can’t imagine that either of us had been very happy if my teen years had been spent arguing about whether I should throw my toys out or dress more ‘femininely’.

    Finally, puberty kicked in in my early 20s and I gradually got interested in clothes, makeup, sex, etc…. though I’ve never lost my adoration of Lego, and dressing boyishly is still more attractive to me (not to mention more practical) than dressing girlishly.

    I’ve spent a lot of time deconstructing why I had this seemingly delayed adolesence, and to some extent I attribute it to my health during that period. I developed at auto-immune condition at 10 and was on heavy doses of steroids on and off from then until 18 – which can delay puberty. I didn’t get a period until I was 19.

    Due to my upringing I didn’t really approve of teen culture at the time, which was certainly a factor – though I also suspect that, not having gone through the biological/social changes that come with puberty, I was unable to intuit the import of those changes in others – hence my finding girls in my class shallow for being preoccupied with clothes and boys, when they were in fact trying to form their own identities. I went through all that stuff much later.

    So the girl might not be actively resisting maturity so much as Not At That Stage – or any one of the many other explanations provided here. The simplest is that the grandparents are not au fait with teen culture, and the girl’s tastes are actually mainstream for her crowd – but whether it’s that or that ze is trans, having health issues or coping with trauma, the grandparents really do need to get off their high horse.

  17. I actually thought Carolyn’s letter was great. I, too, wondered if the granddaughter might be trans and thought maybe Carolyn decided not to mention that possibility because the grandmom was already so over-the-top, she didn’t want to add fuel to the judgment fire.

    I also was glad to see her make the “MAYBE this suggests abuse” comment, because sometimes girls who are sexually abused DO try to cover their bodies as much as possible and other stuff she mentioned about avoiding adulthood/maturity, and most of the time, signals of abuse are overlooked. But I liked that she said it as a maybe, because, like all the commenters have said, we really don’t know this girl at all, so who knows what’s behind it — the key is to be supportive and accepting, full-stop.

    The Rorshach idea is intriguing. I fit in with a lot of this girl’s traits, but when I read the comments about autism, I thought that was interesting, because — I am not autistic — but I always HATED anything scratchy or uncomfortable (or around my neck) and found it unbearably distracting, too. Huge fights w/Mom over wearing my brothers’ hand-me-down sweatshirts and jeans every day. Well, as an adult, I developed multiple chemical sensitivity (which I had, in mild form, since early childhood), and NOW my inability to wear anything that’s not soft, organic, etc., is just a symptom of my illness, and Mom often comments about how “even as a child, you always had such sensitive skin,” in a matter-of-fact, supportive way! Wish she’d seen it that way, when I was 10!

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