Elizabeth sent in a link to a long and judicious New York Times article about biologically-male, gender-variant children, written by Ruth Padawer.  It’s well done, laying out the struggles even liberal-minded parents go through, including the mixed messages they get from “experts.”  It also briefly addresses the hormonal and genetic research, but acknowledges that the measures of femininity and masculinity used in these studies — and in daily life — are socially constructed.  That is, what is considered masculine or feminine is different across cultures and changes over time.

The picture of three boys at a camp for gender-variant children, waiting for their turn in a fashion show, was particularly interesting (photo by Lindsay Morris). I was struck by not just the emphasis on the dress/skirt, but the nail polish, jewelry, and high heels (on at least two of the children).  Their poses are also striking, for their portrayal of not just femininity, but sexualized femininity. It’s hard to say, but these boys look pretty young to me, and yet their (or their camp counselors?) idea of what it means to be a girl seems very specific to an adult hyperfemininity.  (After all, even most biological girls don’t dress/act this way most of the time and lots of girls explicitly reject femininity; Padawer comments that 77% of women in Generation X say they were tomboys as kids.)

In contrast, girls, when they enact a tomboy role — and now I’m off into speculation-land — don’t seem to go so far into the weeds.  We don’t see girls dressing up like lumberjacks or business men in suits and ties.  They don’t do tomman, they do tomboy.  There’s something more woman about how some of these boys perform femininity.

Some research on tomboys shows that girls who adopt it are sometimes, in part, trying to put off the sexual attention that comes with growing up.  So perhaps tomboyism is a way of rejecting one’s maturing body.  In contrast, perhaps femininity appeals to some boys because we adultify and sexualize young girls; it’s a form of grown up play as well as gender deviance?

Who knows.  The truth is — and the article does a good job of communicating this — we have no idea what’s going on here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.