Pretty Binary (#267)

My son got a ton of hand-me-downs from his older girl cousins before he was even born. My Chinese-American husband’s frugality warred with his old-fashioned views on gender when those boxes first arrived.

“You’re not gonna dress him in pink, are you?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I said with a shrug. “We’ll see what fits in which season. Would you rather he wear pink or we save money?”

I let Andy wrestle with this dilemma for a while—because I am cruel like that—before telling him he wouldn’t have to choose.

“Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister was a baby clothes Momzilla with all of us before her kids were born—especially her mother-in-law,” I explained. “The MIL is from Georgia. The MIL had two sons and no daughters. Judgmental Genius Sister knew that she would be inundated with pink frilly everything if she didn’t set some rules. So she sent out the directive ‘No pink ANYTHING!’”

“And she never changed it?”

“Oh, she added a few modifiers, like ‘no dresses EVER,’ and ‘no fucking purple’ and ‘no goddamned hair bows.’


First Nephew modeling his Christmas present.

“Why do you think I always give First Nephew and Second Niece shiny blue track suits or books for Christmas?” I asked.

“Didn’t we give them drums last year?”

“Yeah, and a really loud talking school bus and their stay-at-home-dad told us we were going to hell. Good times.”

As I unpacked the boxes, Andy and I marveled at the infinite array of yellow and green clothes. There was no pink or purple anywhere. Even the car seats were in primary colored plaids. My sister’s Georgia MIL had been well and truly cowed. (As my relationship with my Chinese-American in-laws had recently devolved into a skirmish that ended in me brandishing a screwdriver, I was beyond envious.)

Our Baby D was born big and beautiful a few months later. Dressed in his neutral clothing, strangers rarely got pronouns right when commenting on his appearance.

“She’s adorable!”

“She—or is it a he?—is super cute!”

“Hapa girls are the prettiest!”

Unlike the moms who insisted on sticking pink bows in their infant daughters’ three hairs, I didn’t care whether Baby D was identified as a him or a her. I just smiled and thanked people. With one exception. When I saw my OB six weeks after delivery with Baby D in tow, she exclaimed, “Oh, wow, she’s so pretty!”

I replied, “She’s a boy!”

“Really? With those lips and eyelashes?!”


Andy, on the other hand, bristled every time his son was called a girl. Once Baby D was old enough to be identified as a boy by haircut and outfit, he relaxed. Only to bristle yet again when friends, relatives, and strangers would insist on saying, “But he’s so, so pretty!”

Through gritted teeth, Andy would say, “No, he’s handsome!”

Later, when the person was out of earshot, I would say, “Oh, honey. It doesn’t matter. ‘Pretty?’ ‘Handsome?’ The gendered connotations are all societal constructs. Stop giving our boy a complex.”


“No. Just stop. We have no idea who he’s going to be. Maybe he’ll like pretty, frilly things. He should be able to have a pink bike if he wants. Maybe he make friends who aren’t cisgendered or like pretty things. He should learn that that’s okay. Boys can be pretty. Girls can be handsome. Everything doesn’t have to fit into binary box from the fifties. It is NOT okay for you to insist he be stereotypically masculine.”

Andy sulked for a while and finally ground out, “Fine.”

“And besides, our boy IS pretty,” I told him. “There’s no getting around it.”

Andy glared, but stopped bristling—or at least arguing—with people who called his son pretty.


Living in Southern California, we never bothered with winter clothes. When Baby D was two, however, we went to Utah for Christmas with my father. Rather than buy expensive snow pants for one trip, I borrowed some from a Mom friend with daughters.

“They’re pink, though,” she told me dubiously. “You sure that’s okay?”

“Absolutely fine,” I assured her.

Andy didn’t say a word as we outfitted Baby D in his borrowed snow gear. After he was dressed, Baby D ran his hands down the pink bib and delightedly announced, “I look pretty!”

Without missing a beat, Andy said, “Yes. Yes, you do.”

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

32 thoughts on “Pretty Binary (#267)”

  1. Fortunately it’s not as bad as it was in the 50s. Anything out of the gender ordinary was categorized with terms like sissy. Tomboy didn’t seem as bad but there was a connotation that you weren’t “pretty.” Hope he had a great time with his pink snow gear!

    1. I would rather have sensitive “sissies” than men mired in toxic masculinity. Men (and those of us with terrible tempers) are less destructive crying than erupting with rage.

      He loved being pretty and he loved sledding and building a snowman. So did I!

  2. Baby D was squinting and pouting because he can’t wait to move around? I secretly wished that Chinese men would be more open to the idea of polyandry as there were simply too many of them. Gender imbalance is causing a lot of aggression due to sexual frustration. French men aren’t easily emasculated. They drink girly cocktails and have a great fashion intuition.

  3. Oh this is a great story. I had a friend who spent much of her time snatching pink hair bows off her baby daughter’s head because her SIL insisted on putting them on the infant. It made for tense relations between the two women and that was nothing in comparison to your situation. I like the photo of your happy child wearing the warm clothes– which is all that matters. He is, of course, pretty.

    1. The bow-snatching would make for a pretty funny scene, but those aren’t always fun to live through. I suspect my sister’s MIL may have snuck a few pink outfits on her granddaughters while taking care of them while the parents were away. Which is only fair, I suppose. But as yet, no incriminating photos have surfaced.

      I’m a big fan of comfort over anything else when it comes to clothing. So far, my son is as well.

  4. He does look pretty in those pants!

    My nephew got his first toddler bike recently. His favorite color is orange, but since there were no orange bikes he asked for a pink one. My sister lied and told him the bike doesn’t come in pink, not because it’s isn’t masculine but because she despises the color pink so much. So now he has a blue one, haha.

  5. If I’d had a girl I would have avoided pink at all costs, like your sister. But as most of my baby clothes were second hand/ hand me downs, I would have probably ended up with a lot of pink anyway. Ugh. It’s like there’s no other color for girls. BTW, someone gave me pink shirts for Baby A. and he will wear them when they fit. Actually, many men wear pink/purple shirts in Spain.

  6. I am definitely the odd duck. I dressed my son either in blues and neutral colors, but not pink, although if he wanted something pink, I don’t think I would have minded, although skirts and dresses will make me feel very weird. My son identifies himself as a boy ( right now he says he is either a cow or a train, and wants us to call him that.) People usually can tell he is a boy, and he has boyish interests.

    I tend to be old fashioned in some areas, although in some I tend to be new. I strongly believe that boys should experience full emotional spectrum, but at the same time I hold on to unpopular and what might be termed as transphobic beliefs, and am very uncomfortable with gender fluctuations.

    I am also not looking for fights or arguments or anything like that. I am simply expressing my opinions.

    1. Do you think you are uncomfortable with the non-binary and trans folk because you haven’t had much experience with them? I think anyone may feel a little shock when experiencing a culture they didn’t grow up with (take my in-laws and their blunt fixation on money and grandsons). The question is, what then? Do we feel entitled to tell people they are “living in sin?” Or that they are “wrong” about the gender with which they identify? Or do we say, “hey, that’s not how I roll, but you do you?”

      When I discovered Twitter, I followed several trans women and men and found their feed illuminating.

      1. Years and years ago, I was interested in reading a book about transgender character, which involved a Chinese boy wanting to be a girl. I mentioned on goodreads that i am not comfortable with the transgender topic and asked whether or not I should read it. Instead of showing me warmth and compassion, I got attacked and called a transphobe, a bigot and so forth. I have dealt with a lot of people who knew next to nothing about Judaism and who were immigrants yet I showed them compassion. I have had people ask me if I go to a Jewish church and whatnot when the right word for it is synagogue or shul.

        After experiencing lack of understanding from people on the site, I quickly abandoned the idea of becoming more knowledgeable about transgender. Considering my own “sins”, I am the last person to tell someone about living in sin. I don’t judge and am respectful of people, but it’s very very hard for me to believe in the idea of transgender. I often don’t see the difference between someone suffering from eating disorder versus transgender.

        I apologize if I sound rude, because I am not trying to be rude, but am trying to explain my views. As far as I know, eating disorders are a body dysmorphia. People see themselves fatter than they are and have a picture of how they should look. Yet for obvious reason eating disorder is seen as a mental illness And isn’t supported, while transgender sounds similar that people feel they should be another gender and it’s supported by professionals. There is even another mental illness where people on purpose maim their bodies because they dont feel their bodies are right. Yet it’s not supported. I am even tempted to bring up Rachel Dolezal, and yes I know why what she did is bad and disgusting as well as problematic, but her problem sounds similar to transgender, except it’s more of a race issue.

        Again, my apologies if I sound rude. This is how I see the world and I am not trying to argue or change anyone’s mind with my views.

        1. I don’t necessarily think you sound rude. I think it is frustrating when you constantly have to explain your culture to others. I know that the Black and Native women that I follow are exhausted from trying to explain daily micro aggressions as well as constant institutional or even outright racism.

          But here’s the thing. Wouldn’t you rather people educate themselves about Judaism as opposed to simply stating an ill-informed opinion about everything from George Soros to the Holocaust? Wouldn’t you rather they don’t assume they know exactly what kind of person you are just because you are Jewish? No minority or culture is monolithic.

          Having known trans children and teens who are absolutely certain of who they are from childhood, I would never presume to equate trans with dysmorphia or tell them they suffer from a mental illness. Just as you don’t necessarily fit into the box uneducated folks chose for you, no non-binary or trans or asexual or aromantic individual fits neatly into a blue box or a pink one. My post was about making space for all non-box fitters and making sure my child grew up accepting them as well.

          Yes, some people on the internet and Goodreads are not as nice as they could be. But if I asked on Goodreads, “Hey, I’m not comfortable with the concept of police brutality against Black Americans, should I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas?” I’d be shocked if readers did not assume I was racist troll trying to stir up trouble and give me hell. Maybe one or two more forgiving white people who got woke later in life would say, “Yes, you of all people should absolutely read it. You might gain empathy and learn about the Black experience in America,” but the internet is more about piling on, especially when it comes to intolerance. And white female fragility about those sort of pile-ons is very common. The tricky part is learning in spite of feeling bruised. And then learning how to say, “oops, sorry, I’ve learned and I’ll try and do better,” versus doubling down on one’s own ignorance or claiming one has been victimized.

          1. People will never bother trying to educate themselves about Judaism. People I knew never ever expressed any interest In my background or who I am. My former Korean evangelical friend couldn’t wrap his around the fact that I was raised with Judaism as ethnicity rather than religion.( and he would discount my observations or what i learned when it didnt fit into his views.) I have had Asian men tell me that they want a nice christian girl no matter how supportive and sweet I was.

            I am starting to believe that who we are is hereditary/genetic rather than environmental, but i will believe what I believe when it comes to transgender. I don’t have problems with deviations, believe it or not. I used to know someone who is asexual, and I had no problems with it. I also used to know a Pinoy man who loved dressing up in women’s lingerie and again, no problems with that either. Hell, a lot of people i knew never wanted children and a lot had different mental issues. But asking me to accept transgenderism as real can’t be done.

            Reason I told my story is for people not to be mean to each other if they find an objectionable view and to treat others with respect. Because people’s reactions to my innocent question turned me off completely from learning about transgender issues and caused me to see them as people with mental disorder, which is what I will continue to see them as.

            Again, I hoped I didn’t sound mean or rude, and my apologies if I did.

            1. So, you’re basically saying, “those transgender people were mean to me and so now I refuse to learn anything more about them and will punish them by continuing to insist they have a mental illness.”

              That’s not rude, exactly. It’s childish.

              1. Unfortunately, yes. It wasn’t transgender people being mean to me, but transgender allies, I believe. I explained my reasons, my thoughts and so forth. I did think long and hard about my stances towards complex issues, and these are conclusions I have come up with.

  7. You’re careful not to impose gender identity on your son through choice of clothing but you had him circumcised? It just seems contradictory if your goal is to ensure self-determination for your son.

    Regarding transgenderism, I don’t have a strong opinion about it though my instinct is to let people be who/what they choose to be. However, the emerging concern amongst people seems to be that liberal attitudes in general have progressed too far and they’re causing the disintegration of society, and this is why we’re seeing a backlash and a hard turn to right-wing, nationalist ideals in Western countries on issues such as race, immigration, gender roles/relations, and gender identity.

    1. Welcome, Jesterleigh! You ask a provocative question.

      As I do not have a penis, I left the final decision on circumcision up to my husband. However, I did consult with various doctors about the potential pain level in a newborn. I also spoke with one uncircumcised man and a man who opted for circumcision in his 30s. And, of course, did some research about the potential side effects vs. health benefits of circumcision.

      It was not necessarily an easy decision. Perhaps I should do a post on it.

      There is always a backlash when the formerly oppressed gain some freedom, and certain segments of society always scream that the world is ending. Free the enslaved? The south will disintegrate! Give women the vote?! That ain’t natural! Allow divorce instead of insisting women remain under their husband’s control? You’re declaring war on the nuclear family! Politicians throughout the ages capitalize on the fears of the uneducated and willfully ignorant. Now is no different. Using the idea that “the liberals” deserve a full fascist backlash for daring to push for more freedom is a nice way of absolving oneself from supporting their cause and freeing oneself from feeling any guilt when they are killed or imprisoned fighting for their rights.

      1. Thanks for the welcome.

        Health-wise, there are both pros and cons to circumcision and it should be noted that the surgery itself carries risks. Further, even if one were to opt for the surgery, it has been suggested that it’s better to wait till the penis has fully formed — when the foreskin has detached from the glans — before having the surgery.

        However, discussing the health benefits and risks of circumcision misses the point. The issue here is personal sovereignty and the violation thereof. Unless there is a medical condition that necessitates the removal of the child’s foreskin, it should be a decision reserved for the child to make when he’s old enough to do so… That is if one believes in self-determination.

        1. My monkey is not circumcised, because his father didn’t want him to be, and to add another complication, I am of Jewish descent. I dread having the conversation with him about why he is not circumcized… Although at the time I felt that the father agreed on following the Ashkenazi name tradition thus it was more important to me than circumcision.

          1. Well, as Jesterleigh over here would say, your child can always self-determine to circumcise later, although I understand that it’s not the same as the bris. How did your parents feel about not having it?

            1. Personally I think my dad was disappointed, but he doesn’t treat him any differently. My mom was a bit shocked, but then it’s mine son. When I told some people in synagogue that he is not circumcised, they obviously were upset. BY the time I got medical permission, it was too late to circumcise him. So far, knock on wood, I didn’t have any issues. If he does complain or is upset, I want to tell him that Abraham got circumcised at 100 years of age, and Moses children also got circumcised when they were children and not babies. Ultimately, it’s what inside that counts, not whether or not you are circumcised.

        2. It’s not a simple question, is it, the issue of self-determination in a minor. Where is the line? How much should parents chose for their child regarding medical procedures? Should a child not be vaccinated until they can choose to be vaccinated? What about tonsils? Appendectomies? Ear piercings?

          With the issue of intersex or transgender children, I would absolutely agree that it’s up to the child to self-determine later in life. (I feel that way about ear piercing, too.)

          I did no small amount of research and believe that circumcision is preventative care, much like vaccines…and yet it may indeed impinge upon my child’s bodily autonomy. Parenting is neither simple, nor is it black and white. Parenting is constantly weighing consequences and making the best decision possible for the small human in your care with the information you currently have.

          It is, of course, much easier to backseat parent someone else’s decisions.

          1. Vaccines are designed to protect the child from widespread infections and, significantly, they do not result in irreversible alterations to the child’s body or the permanent loss of function of a bodily organ. The uncircumcised child is in no immediate danger of contracting herpes or HIV and note that even the CDC guidelines from your linked article “do not outright call for circumcision of all male newborns”. You mentioned the appendix and the tonsil — these are more fitting analogies; we do not conduct routine surgical removal of the appendix and the tonsil in healthy children as a preventive measure.

            I’m not being judgemental about your parenting choices and I’m certainly not indulging in backseat parenting. I’m merely discussing, and my interest is in the exchange of ideas. You are of course right in that parenting is neither simple nor easy and ultimately parents are just trying to do the best for their children under the circumstances. The same applies to Chinese parents who may appear irrational and overbearing.

            1. But is it in fact meant to be a discussion? Or is it more of a pontification? After all, you never asked if I’d done any research on circumcision or asked why we’d chosen it. Why not ask, if you want to start an honest discussion rather than grind a particular axe?

              But back to our discussion. 🙂 I know multiple uncircumcised male children who have had infections, many of them very painful. Here’s a link showing data from multiple studies in multiple countries (some of which are problematic due to bias, the U.S. included). Is it better to decrease the risk of infection by using a doctor armed with lidocaine after birth, or risk painful infections/ circumcision later while increasing the risk of contracting STDs later in life?

              This is where tonsils are a less perfect analogy. Some kids really do need their tonsils removed, either due to sleep apnea or repeated tonsillitis. If you knew your child was likely to suffer from either of those conditions, would you improve them in advance to spare your child chronic misery?

              Another element American parents have to consider is locker room bullying. While many boys are accepting of penile differences, referring to the circumcised penis as a “helmet head” and the uncircumcised as an “anteater,” the U.S. has, I think, amply demonstrated that white toxic masculinity is still alive and well and bullying the shit out of those who are in any way “other.” I have a brother-in-law who insisted that his son be circumcised so the kid would never be subjected to the bullying of the uncircumcised that he saw at boarding school. This is probably true in the reverse in other countries and cultures.

              At this point, Jesterleigh, I feel like I should thank you for having helped me write a new post.

              1. I could use your argument to make a case for routine surgical removal of the appendix because, after all, this would reduce the risk of appendicitis by 100%! But I don’t think I could convince even you that this is what we should be doing to newborn babies. Remember, the anti-circumcision position is not that the procedure confers no health benefits; it’s whether the procedure is justified by a risk-benefit analysis and on this the advice of the medical profession is at best inconclusive. Which is why guidelines such as those from the CDC in your article does not call for routine circumcision of all newborn males. In the absence of a compelling medical argument for circumcision as a preventive measure we’re basically left with a social-cultural-moral argument to justify the deprivation of the child’s right to bodily autonomy.

                Tonsillectomy is performed for recurrent infections and obstructive sleep apnea, yes. But in such cases it is simply a treatment for a medical condition, not a preventive procedure. I don’t think healthy children should have their tonsils removed.

                I don’t think being a potential target for bullying is a valid reason for circumcision. This is a social/cultural problem that should be addressed with social/cultural solutions. We just can’t be chopping off body parts of babies in deference to social pressures.

                There is no grinding of axe here. I saw an apparent contradiction in an apparent desire to ensure self-determination for your son and I raised a question. You then proceeded to provide your reasons for your decisions. I don’t know why it was important to ask if you had done any research; what should matter is whether your reasons are valid. Anyway, I’m not sure how I was able to help you but I’m glad you’ve found inspiration for a new post. I look forward to reading it. (-:

    2. History is tug and pull between conservative and liberal ideas. But as my mom often says, there has to be moderation too. No one is comfortable with change, for better or worse, but still there has to be laws and codes and mores. I would guess I grew up with strict gender roles in my house, and always resented them. I do think both liberal and conservative mindsets have progressed way too far, and both sides feel attacked by each other. Conservatives value law and order and stability above freedoms for others. Liberals value rights of others above laws and order. If we go too far to conservative side, we will have monarchy and medieval ages to contend with. If we go too far to liberal side, we will have anarchy and communism which might become totalitarianism.

      And as history has proven us, humanity learns the hard way to give people their voices.

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