Gender essentialism is the idea that the traits we typically associate with femininity or masculinity are in fact innate (or essential, hence the name) to being female or male, respectively, rather than socially conditioned behavior. Shocker – I find this concept irritating. Unfortunately, babies and babies-to-be seem to elicit an astonishing degree of gender essentialist commentary – mainly from strangers, and particularly from medical professionals. My partner and I aren’t planning to find out the sex of our baby before it’s born. While our midwives have largely steered clear of the baby gender guessing games, most of the nurses and ultrasound techs we’ve encountered on this journey can’t seem to help themselves.
We recently had an ultrasound during which we learned our baby has hair. We were rather tickled to discover this, and surprised that hair can be seen via ultrasound (it’s so weird!). The ultrasound tech told us the hair was mostly around the back of the baby’s head – kind of like male-pattern baldness – the typical newborn monk look.
“So,” the tech said, “If it’s a girl, she probably won’t be very happy about that.”
I’m sorry, what?
Later on, she tried to get a picture of the baby’s face. The baby was turned towards my partner’s back, so this was a difficult task. At many of our ultrasound appointments, “Itty-bitty” (baby’s current nickname) has been either facing away from the ultrasound wand or covering its face with its hands. We joke that Itty-bitty is camera shy. After a few minutes of trying to find the face, I started chuckling and said to the tech,
“Itty bitty says ‘no pictures please!’”
The tech chuckled back and responded, “Well, it must be a girl, then.”
I know it’s light-hearted. I know people mean well. I know it’s supposed to be silly. I know. And I’m sure that plenty of folks smile at comments like that. I know lots of people do imagine little baby girl princesses and little baby boy super heroes. People are emotionally invested in baby gender. People are emotionally invested in the binary. I know. But can’t people also take a look at my partner and I and the fact that we are plainly queer and both gender non-conforming in our own ways and think, this might not be the right audience for this kind of joke?
People say these things so casually like it’s not remotely offensive or problematic to suggest that if a child is female, her biggest concern will be her appearance. The stakes are so high that I have a hard time stomaching it. We know that adolescent girls struggle with self-esteem, self-image, depression, healthy eating… We know that adolescent boys struggle with profound pressure to be “manly,” to not show emotion, to command their physical space in ways that may ultimately lead them to violence. Do we really have to wonder how and why this happens if we say these things about our children before they’re even born? What seems silly and light-hearted when they’re babies has a tremendous effect later on when boys become men who have learned their primary value lies in strength and stoicism and when girls become women who have learned their value is in their looks and not their minds.
I’m so bad at coming up with smart, direct responses to stuff like this on the spot, but I hope that next time I can remember to say something like, “if our kid is a girl, I hope she’ll be too wrapped up in chasing bugs and reading books to worry about her hair.”