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