Have you ever seen mothers shopping with their daughters at Laura Ashley?
Some wear a look of disgruntled resignation that testifies to a battle fought and lost. The battle was with daughters who are refusing to wear trousers and insist on wearing frilly dresses or skirts. My daughter went through a similar phase when she was five or six.
These refuseniks may think they are striking a blow for independence, but for their poor parents it is extremely irritating. Once I realised it was also costing me money, I resolved to get to the bottom of it. What was the reason for feminine adornment at such a young age?
Some people would say they are born that way. Even Ernest Jones, a great champion of Freud and someone who should have known better, preferred to resort to biblical rather than psychoanalytic authority by ending his paper on female sexuality with the quotation “Male and female created He them”. It’s so obvious – she wears girly clothes because she’s a girl.
Other people would look to social conditioning for an answer. Identified as a biological female, she is pushed into the social convention of what a little girl should be and is trapped by the images and expectations which assail her. Through a subtle system of rewards and punishments, approval and disapproval, peer pressure and all, she is inducted into the masquerade of being a ‘girl’, and the more she becomes what the conventions demand the more she behaves like the little girl of her becoming. It’s so obvious – she wears girly clothes because we turn her into a girl.
Freud would take a different view. Without throwing out either the baby of genetics or the bathwater of social conditioning, Freud would look to the particular ‘mental situation’ that motivates the behaviour. And in doing so he would keep one eye open for the influence of anxiety.
It turned out that my daughter’s fluffy pink period was not because she was such a ‘little girl’, but because she was extremely ambiguous about her sexual identity. She was consumed with the common childhood fear that she might turn into the opposite sex – a fear which is frequently reanimated during adolescence. Her behaviour was designed to reassure herself, and acted as a protection against this possible catastrophe.
With some trepidation, I talked to her for a little while about what fears and anxieties some little boys and girls might have, and where they might come from; that is to say about castration and other childhood theories. Some boys think this and some girls think that. ‘Don’t listen to all that rubbish’ said her mother, ‘it’s stupid’. ‘No it’s not, it’s interesting’ retorted the five year old. Two days later she was back wearing her tracksuit bottoms.
Recently a student assured me that until he was eight years old he thought that the difference between boys and girls was that girls had pony tails. Everyone laughed of course, but the rest of the class concurred with the general premiss that children have no interest in sexual matters and know little of the true difference between male and female.
In similar vein, over ten years ago, psychologists at Milwaukee University showed that children of this age could only tell the difference between pictures of naked men and women when they were wearing football helmets or Easter bonnets.
I have no wish to argue the toss, as it were, but think about this. Imagine what it must be like for a child who believes that sexual identity rests on the precarious thread of an item of clothing that can be removed, or a part of the body that can so easily be cut off.
No, I mean REALLY try to imagine it.
The fact that the assumption of identity as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ requires the negotiation of a threat to bodily integrity which, according to Freud, the child considers to be ‘real’, is reason enough for children to seek refuge in the cultural norms that surround them.