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Illustration by Chelsea Charles

I have a six-year-old son who loves pink. He also loves mermaids, flowers, nail polish and babies. He enjoys trying on my jewellery and heels. For his seventh birthday he’s requesting skin-care products, and he likes nothing more than to organize my cosmetics. He’s dying to take ballet lessons, adores opera and recently asked his dad, “Can men breastfeed?”

He is clever, fun, theatrical, entertaining and unwaveringly self-assured. Each night at dinner he sings grace while conducting himself.

My son has preferred the colour pink since before he was old enough to say so. He gravitated toward it as a baby, and one predawn morning at age 2 got his paws on my makeup and coloured all exposed skin – he was wearing just a diaper – with lipstick. I awoke to him scraping remnants from the tube with his finger. He of course chose not nude or even pale pink, but fuchsia. He looked like an alarmingly sunburned Oompa Loompa. He never went near any other colour.

It’s then unsurprising that he’s been “despert” (desperate) to own pink shoes. His father and I held off buying any, knowing the sort of unwelcome commentary they would elicit. Similarly, when my son announced plans to wear a tutu to kindergarten, I said, “Well, if you do, you may get teased. Are you prepared for that?” He decided he wasn’t. Now, more than a year later, he’s prepared. He has decided pink shoes are worth the fallout.

There have been multiple incidents with peers in the less than two years he’s been in school. He has been bullied for bringing a doll for show and tell, for wearing a purple shirt (on Purple Shirt Day, inexplicably), for having longish hair and fine facial features, among other things. His school principal knows me well. My husband and I figured pink shoes would create additional bumps on a road that has already been less than smooth.

My son is also obstinate. He rejects much of what he is told, taught, asked to do. Maybe blending in with other boys is simply another of his refusals. Or perhaps he just really loves pink.

“How about another colour?” I said. The shoes he wanted come in 19 other hues. We clicked through the options online. The only shade he would consider other than pink was sparkly pink.

I told him some people are judgmental. “They might tease you for wearing pink shoes. Even grown-ups, maybe.” He remained unfazed: “I wouldn’t care. When people tease they’re just trying to have fun.”

I couldn’t meet his eyes. “What about yellow? Yellow’s nice,” I said. “Yellow is horrible,” he pronounced. We shelved the decision for the day.

People can have rigid gender norms. I’ve seen this among adults as well as reflected in children. Derision is flung at anyone who appears differently than we expect. Somebody somewhere would absolutely have something to say about a boy wearing hot pink shoes. Of this I was certain.

I like to think of myself as progressive, but I’m as guilty as any of those with pink-is-for-girls perspectives. I shave various parts of my body and wear makeup – why? Because dragging a blade against my skin and drawing on darker lips sparks joy? Hardly. I do it because I was taught – and I chose to accept – that that’s what females do in our culture. It never occurred to me to challenge it.

My children haven’t been on a school bus or playground or in a brick-and-mortar school since March, 2020. In attending school virtually, they have been protected from bullies. Our collective skins have grown thin. Did I have the energy to be on the offensive whenever we left home, ready to field and rebut any passive-aggressive (or aggressive-aggressive) remarks?

I wasn’t sure. Refusing my son pink shoes wasn’t cowardly, it was an exercise in conflict avoidance. Right? I patted myself on the back for eradicating a problem before it even had a chance to become one.

But what message was I sending my child? That he should crouch and contort to fit some arbitrary societal construct for how boys should look? That he isn’t free to be exactly who he is?

I wear what I like; why shouldn’t he?

So I bought him the pink shoes. I admit I’m still a bit trepidatious, awaiting the snide comments I’m certain will come our way. My son has been primed to expect them. I’ve suggested he reply that every colour is for everybody. Because, really, how can anyone deny that?

There has yet to be any conflict, though it’s been only a few weeks. And because of the pandemic, we are rarely in public. We did go to the park the other day, where a group of twentysomethings laughed at him. I didn’t hear what they said, but they looked after my son as he ran past, gesturing and jeering. His pink shoes, however, might not have been what drew their ridicule; it may well have been the toddler-size swimsuit he was wearing like a painted-on Speedo. Or the laboratory goggles.

My son is thrilled with his shoes … for now. The day we bought them, as we waited for the sales associate, I saw him gaze at a pair of mauve sneakers in the store window. Eyes glimmering, he said, “Next I want those.”

Suzy Royle lives in Perth, Ont.

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