The Boy in the Purple Tutu

For the first three years of his life, Wally was a classic boy's boy. He was strong. He didn’t talk much. He liked to jump, push, crash, bump, bang, wrestle, punch, and kick. His resting state was dirty, wet, and clomping around in muddy shoes or—even better—bare feet, outside, on gravel, mulch or hot pavement. He liked cars and trucks okay but more than anything he loved trains. 

In late August, people began to ask him about Halloween (if Christmas decorations go up before Oct 31, everything else naturally has to shift back, right?). What was Wally going to be? A subway train, naturally. Or maybe a conductor. 

But then—something changed. The fascination with trains that had dominated so much of his early years began to give way to something a little bit frillier. Digging through a box of toys in my niece's playroom, Wally found something that intrigued him. He let go of the wind-up car he’d been holding, flung off the walky-talky he’d hitched to his pants, and with the help of his cousins Eliana and Leah, slipped on a…tutu. Tutu! Even the name sounded just right for toddler-speak. He spun around. The world went pink. 

Eliana and Leah take dance classes at a local school. Wally idolized them. It was a simple transitive relationship—of course he’d want to be a ballerina too. At first, I was relieved. Finally, after nearly three years of running around like a train that fell off the tracks, Wally was pretending. This was a giant leap, and not just across the stage. This train-crazy kid was finally "expanding his imagination". This was a milestone we missed somewhere a while back but now Wally was engaged enough with the tutu to sustain a scene, to inhabit a role. 

After that, whenever Wally brought up the tutu, I smiled. That was fun, wasn’t it? I said, remembering back to the day he played dress up with his cousins. On the phone a week before school started my sister mentioned she had a bunch of toys and clothes gathered up, ready to give away. She was bringing over Lincoln Logs. Little People. Various gender-neutral shirts of which there are few tucked away, my nieces’ tomboyish early years having quickly receded into the distant past. At the end of the conversation, she paused. Did I want the tutu? It didn’t fit them anymore. Yes! Of course! It was unorthodox, but it wasn’t ill-advised, was it? And anyway, who cares, whatever, he’d love it. But even as I said yes, something in my stomach kind of dropped. Or maybe that’s just the distorted view I have now, gazing back up the shimmering, icy surface of a strangely slippery slope.

Skip to my sister and nieces visit the following weekend. Buried among the books and legos was the pièce de résistance: the pink, rose-covered tutu. Wally put it on and twirled around the living room. He danced on top of the bed. We had to claw it off of him at bath time. First thing in the morning he cried out for it. I continued to encourage the tutu even as his fascination with it started to verge toward the extreme. Alex was fine with it. The only thing that drove us nuts was that the tutu was too big and had to be fixed with a clothespin to stay on. Every minute or so, after a series of pliés, Wally would come over holding the gathered extra material on his hip and ever so sweetly ask, "May you help me fix the tutu?" 

As the days passed, the irritation of constantly fixing the tutu began to develop into a kind of insular friction in our house, with a lot of sighs and rolled eyes in the evenings. I was afraid that we (maybe more Alex) was becoming fed up with the whole thing not because of the gender-ambiguity issues that surrounded it but because of the simple practical issue of having to constantly attend to it. 

So the story gets even more bizarre. Cut to Buy Buy Baby one day after school where there’s a rack of infant-sized tutu skirts with elastics on clearance for $3 each. I have never bought a piece of clothing for Wally save maybe a swimsuit. But I thought: if I can eliminate the friction around fixing the tutu, it will become less of a hot-button issue. Maybe if there's not the power struggle will Wally's constant demands that we fix it, it will become less valuable, less of a prized possession. Maybe he’ll even go back to begging for a model E train for Christmas. 

Didn't work. 

Instead the wearing of the purple tutu—a tutu now that wasn’t handed down, that didn’t just appear one day alongside a box of old wooden puzzles, but one I specifically bought for him—(how to explain that to people?) just became ever more of a compulsion. It began showing up not only over pants, but without any pants at all, not only inside the apartment but out, not only among family members, but surrounded by strangers on the streets. 

Be careful bargaining with preschoolers. The only thing they’re willing to trade is something they were never allowed to have in the first place. For them it’s always a win-win.

It’s raining on Wally’s first day of preschool. He already has on sweatpants, a long-sleeve shirt, sneakers, and the ladybug jacket handed-down from his cousin Leah. I thought it was axiomatic that you don’t wear tutus to school. Not so to a three-year-old who had never been to school before. 

After much stomping and flailing about, Wally agrees not to wear the tutu to school as long as he can wear it immediately.

“Tutu is for after school?” He asks, still wearing it.

“Yes, after. I guess."

“When you pick me up I can put it on?”

“Maybe. Just take it off and let’s go. We’re going to be late.”

Preschoolers are like those Vaseline-y pigs in, what is that children’s book where the wolves can’t catch the slippery pigs? Wally just kept slipping right out of my hands and running off to another room. Finally I caught him. 

“Tutu is for the playground?” He said, as I wrestled it off him.

“Okay, yes. The playground, whatever. Let’s go.”

And so it was said. The playground was protected ground.

To the boy wearing the purple tutu in our playgrounds around Chelsea, the reactions have been mixed. Many moms are supportive. As they pass by they sometimes shout out, “Great style.” Or "That's so sweet." They tell Wally, "I love your skirt." Or tell me, "That's great. He’s an individual.” Others think he’ll be a fashion designer. Some think he’s just a preschooler. “That’s so 4. I bet he never takes it off, right?”


Not even when kids ask: "Is that a boy or a girl?" 

"It's a boy wearing a skirt.” (Another child pipes in.)

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, it's a boy." 

Some are critical— "Why are you dressed like a princess?" they ask. I've even seen a group pointing and laughing on one occasion. That’s what really got to Alex. He doesn’t mind Wally wearing the tutu, but hates the idea of us sending him out to the wolves, with no protection, acting like everything’s normal. “We should at least let him know it’s not what most boys wear,” he cautions.

In the elevator riding up the other day a neighbor seemed supportive. "Let him wear it." Then followed with the one-two-punch: "The kids will tease him so badly he'll know never to wear it again." 

One father said hi to Wally in his unusual get-up recently then turned to me. "I'll pretend I didn't see that." I said something back about how I thought in Chelsea of all places a purple tutu on a boy wouldn’t be a big deal, to which he snapped back, "Gay doesn't mean cross dressing". Even my father, who runs a group of transgendered vets at the V.A. asked over Rosh Hashanah, “Where’s that tool belt we got him?”

Before school in the mornings, more bargaining has been taking place. It is not just the tutu now that Wally adores, but everything girls get to wear. He stares in the mirror pulling his hair back. He goes in to school some days with pigtails, other days a headband, a necklace, a bracelet or a ribbon tied around his shirt. His teacher thinks it’s a good idea to “phase out” the object of fixation, to gradually transition to more socially appropriate things. Alex gets me to agree to “tutu-on days” and “tutu-off days”, but the purple tutu continues as a regular feature on the playground. 

Alex says I am naïve and suburban, having come from a town where my friends and I could be outrageous and cross boundaries without any repercussion. But in the NYC public school hopefully Wally will attend in a few years, boys don’t wear tutus. It’s not so much, “What will people think?” as “What will people do?”

Of course Halloween is coming up, and Wally wants to be—no need to wait for it as you probably already guessed—a princess. To me it seemed like a good idea. Isn’t Halloween the one occasion when you can dress however you want, without regard for what’s socially appropriate? Isn’t social inappropriateness, outrageousness, disguise and outlandishness kind of the whole point?

Alex’s mother has zero tolerance for the whole situation. She changes the subject when Wally touches her earrings or tugs at her skirt. In her world, gender roles are not ambiguous. Boys don’t wear skirts. Boys are not princesses for Halloween. She sends him home from a mid-October visit with a brand new Thomas the Train costume tucked in his bag.  

On Halloween, Wally’s teachers let him wear the tutu along with the train costume. He tells people he’s a “princess and a train”. The teachers call him a “prince”. Wally is supremely happy, flouncing around. He is still getting looks, but he still doesn’t care. 

Then Halloween is over and it’s back to the daily routine, and back to the hard part again. Back to gray pants, (“Why do I have to have a pants day every day?”) and navy blue turtlenecks with a ribbon around the waste that “can be like a tutu”. What Wally really wants now is not the costume, or the tutu, or the princess gown, but just to wear a skirt. Like Penny, like Abby, like June, like Lilly, like Katie, like Skylar…like Eliana and Leah. Why can’t he just wear a skirt? “No costumes allowed in school” doesn’t satisfy. Those kids are not wearing costumes, they’re wearing dresses or skirts. For people with names like Anna and Willa, everyday is a tutu-on day. Even terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days. Even in school. 

I know I’m supposed to be continuing the phase out but I’ve flat-lined at alternating, with a ribbon or bow substitute for school. Most days I pick different battles. And I am stuck on how to explain to Wally why—other than at dress-up times—he can’t wear a skirt, not to the playground, not to school, not to a party, not to Thanksgiving. What is the reason, really?

Because I don’t want him to be made fun of? Because I don’t want to send him out unprotected into a cruel world with a giant “kick me” sign on his back? The tutu is getting pretty torn and ragged now. Will a Jewish explanation do? “It’s a Shmatta.” How about a WASP approach: “It’s simply not done.” And many moms who see him in second position about to barrel down the slide continue to be supportive, saying of course boys like girly things – sparkles, wands, headbands, pink shoes, sequins, glitter and the like. Why wouldn’t they? Most days I set off from the playground full of renewed energy to defend the boy in the purple tutu for whatever critical comments are about to come our way. 

It’s December now, and one day I realize the “Why can't I wear a skirt” questions are for the most part being replaced with…“I’m getting bigger?” That’s an easy one. “Yes, you are.”

“I can ride the Acela now?” That’s the fast train. 

“Not yet,” I answer.

“When I’m four?”

“When you’re a little older than that.”

“I’m four now?”

“Not yet. Soon.”

The tutu days continue.

“Wally, listen.” I said today, before we head to the playground. I’m still trying to figure out how to explain what it is I have to explain, to protect him, to let him know that I think it’s okay, but some people don’t. You’re a rebel not a slave? Express yourself, but some people won’t approve? How do I put it, simply, clearly, so that something that really doesn't make sense (boys can’t wear skirts or dresses or tutus) makes sense to him?

We’re on our way to the playground. He’s slipping out of sight, laughing. “Wally, hold on. I have to tell you something.” We’re on the walkway across the street now, heading past the blacktop. He’s running ahead.

“Wally, wait.” He’s darting around the corner, tearing down the sidewalk to the playground gate. “I just have to tell you one thing.” 

He’s not listening. He’s not turning around. “Wally, boys don’t wear tutus” I call after him.

He stops long enough to turn back and smile at how silly I am being. Boys don’t wear tutus? Clearly that’s not the case.

“Sometimes they do,” he says. And he’s off.


  1. First off, two times around, I find this stage 3 1/2 - 4 1/2 the hardest one in the early years. It is all about control, finding your own way...your identity. For us, that has led to many battles.

    Mael, just four, still insists that I paint his toe nails anytime he sees me do it. He was also convinced that he would be a mommy when he grows up, despite big brother telling him that is simply not possible until this morning apparently. As we were getting ready, I asked if he would be able to feed a baby when he grew up like I did for him. (We had been discussing nursing.) He looked at me like I had two heads. "Nah, boys don't have big boobies like girls, so they can't." Okay, well that was a change from him telling every stranger he met that he was going to be a mommy when he grew up!

    He loves show tunes and wants them on repeat. And yet, he "is King Arthur" ready for battle/wrestling with his brother at all times. He goes from modeling everything Mommy does one minute, to the fiercest little boy in town the next.

    I think it is natural to play with identity and yet, "the norms" make us fear how our kids will be treated out there. It is terrible. I want to just let them be who they are and figure out there place in things on there own. Why does that have to be so difficult?

    Remi always seems to be the target for many playground bullies. He beats to his own drummer and is the "Free to Be You and Me" poster child and don't try to tell him to be any other way. I love that he owns who he is and doesn't want to try to fit in, but still he is sensitive when made fun of now and reacts big (which kids eat up). It hard to watch, but I would rather he be authentic. Those who know him well all joke that those kids better watch out because he will be their boss someday, and that is probably true. He will find his way. For now, my job is to let him know that he is loved and supported, and to pick him up, brush him off and build him back up, when others are not able to appreciate his beauty and individuality.

    Sometimes getting older just sucks. Wouldn't you love to where a purple tu-tu to the coffee shop and not care what people thought. I just wish there were fewer social rules and standards in life. We would all be better off. For now, I say rock that tu-tu Wally, and if you want me to paint your toes nails to match, I'd be happy to do so.

  2. Wow. I love this comment. I am always asking if you'll do a homeschooling blog but with your wonderful comments on mine you're already creating a narrative here. I will respond, but first wanted to post this quote from a Kahlil Gibran essay:

    "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you.
    And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
    You may house their bodies, but not souls.
    You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you..."

  3. Great post and great comment by Roo and Moo. Fashion is as fickle as the times. There's certainly some hard wired stuff regarding sexual attraction and gender identity, but fashion isn't one of them. Take a look at men's fashions over the last few hundred years. Some of those outfits would be too much for RuPaul. Even today, Prince Charles marches around in a kilt. Might not play well in Des Moines, but it seems perfectly fine across the pond.

  4. Parentdish had a good article on this subject in June.
    "Dress Blues: Gay Moms Learn a Lesson On Gender Norms"

  5. Roo and Moo -- so much here to respond to. Wally lately has been saying he has a baby in his tummy. I kept thinking-- this is WEIRD --but hearing about Mael makes me think it's not so uncommon. How come this stuff rarely seems to come up in parenting magazines/books/advice? You're spot on about this time being about finding identity. Wally's so into showtunes as well (funny--guess it was passed in the blood from both of us?) And the switch from painted nails to Medieval battles is a riot, that wonderful fluidity of a child's imagination.
    I LOVE that Remi's the "Free to Be You and Me" poster child. Still it's gotta be so hard to see him get hurt. Still, isn't that the definition of courage? If he didn't mind the taunts, it wouldn't be as courageous for him to be himself. But the fact that the reactions bother him but he doesn't try to conform -- it's brave and inspiring.
    Funny, in an episode of dirtgirlworld tonight Ken (male character) was wearing a tutu. Maybe it's catching on. Thanks for your support Roo & Moo, Hawkeye and Manny. Checked out Parentdish - very nice piece. Someone posted on FB in response to this another great article
    Also, Hawkeye, I appreciate your pointing out that fashions change, and what's considered feminine today might be considered the height of testosterone on display in other times or places. Sophie made a similar point on the FB link to this post, about kings in the past dressing up in all kinds of "blinged out finery". We should all definitely take a lesson from these kids and listen to our instincts regardless of what others think.

  6. It's not weird :) My boys have nursed their dolls, just like Jocelyn did. And Jocelyn tried to pee standing up and was very disappointed to learn she couldn't.

    Jesse was so obsessed with putting on Jocelyn's pink leotard that Josh was actually getting annoyed, do we bought him a wrestling singlet and everyone was happy. Apparently it had nothing to do with the color. I wanted to just let him wear it, but once Josh was annoyed and it became an "issue", well, it became an issue. I was pretty sick of fighting about it, and figured it didn't count as liberated if putting on a leotard meant you got to hear about how boys don't wear pink constantly!

    How about a kilt?


  8. Agree with Hawkeye. "It takes a brave man to wear a kilt, outside of Scotland or Scottish gatherings."

    Tell Wally to check this out.

    "We are an international band of men who enjoy the freedom, comfort, pleasure, and masculine appearance of kilts or other male unbifurcated (skirt-like) garments, and who reject the absurd notion that males must always be confined to trousers. We are men in kilts, Utilikilts, and other kilt-like clothing. Our purpose is to liberate men from the "tyranny of trousers" that has been imposed upon us by Western society. We encourage and promote the wearing, acceptance, and availability of kilts and other unbifurcated garments for men."

    This is pretty true stuff! "the boy must be physically and psychologically torn away from his mother and all things feminine, in order to achieve a new, masculine identity. He must go through repeated ordeals to strengthen his body and desensitize his feelings. He must become mortally ashamed of anything soft or feminine within him. He must literally come to believe that he would rather die - actually die! (as in battle) - than to be considered unmasculine or like a woman."

    alex is not 100% wrong. boys in skirts/tutus will be harassed for sure.

    like the kilt idea. "A man in a kilt is proud, independent, and courageous. He exudes confidence in his manhood and sexuality. "

    wally might want to look at "confronting the objections of trouser tyrants"

  9. Thanks Rhonda, Man Fan & Anon for the comments and links. I had no idea there was a whole movement out there to liberate men from trousers. The kilt suggestion is a good one. Rhonda - thanks for sharing that about Jesse's leotard fascination as well as Josh's reaction, boys nursing, and Jocelyn's attempt to pee standing up without the ability to aim. It's so natural that kids would want to explore, if nothing else, and a shame that b/c of societal expectations, gender-bending experiments tend to raise a few eyebrows if they go unchecked. I appreciate you parents of boys opening up about similar experiences you've had. Going to check out kiltmen a bit more now.

  10. For Goodness sake have you ever looked at what Jesus wore?

  11. Did you see this one?

  12. Thank you Anon. I hadn't. I wanted to post this as well--add it to the catalog.

  13. Have to recount brief convo tonight with Wally and my niece, Eliana. Wally was really set on painting his nails like his cousins.

    Wally: "Boys can paint their nails for dress parties. And for birthday parties. Sometimes boys can."

    Eliana: "It's not really whether you can or not. It's whether you want to or not."

    Rachel: "I think he's saying that because some people think boys shouldn't."

    Eliana: "That's just stupid. And ridiculous. And kind of mean. There's no reason why boys can't paint their nails or do whatever they want to do."

  14. Came to your blog from the other Rachel's blog. I'm the mother of two young boys. I respect your desire to not suppress creativity and individuality in your son. However, isn't it our jobs as parents to guide them and teach them how the world works and how to thrive in it? Isn't it making it harder for your child if you let him "find his way"? If I travel to a foreign country I like having someone who knows their way around and knows the customs and how things work to lead me and help me, not have to figure it out by walking down the wrong alley, offending someone with what I thought was an innocent gesture or the like. If I were in the same position I would tell my son that in our society boys do not wear skirts. Boys who do can be made fun of or bullied. Lay it out for him. It is the truth. If he still chooses to wear one, so be it. Then you tell him where he can/can't wear it. You are the parent, there to protect him from comments, teasing etc. Do so by letting him only wear it where he will not be teased and made fun of. If you think telling him he can't wear a purple tutu will crush his spirit then you underestimate a child's spirit. Many of the greatest minds in history (most of the world, in fact, until the last 100 years) have been told how they should dress. Borders, limits, and rules don't crush, on the contrary they provide a freedom and simplicity. They allow one to be more creative because there are less decisions to be made and "figured out" on one's own.

    Here's a good quote from Jack White, “Constrictions force ourselves to create – only having red, white and black colors on the artwork, only guitar, drums and vocals, storytelling, melody and rhythm, revolving all these things around the number three, all these components force us to create…you force yourself into it. Deadlines make you creative, but opportunity and telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors of the pallet you want, anything you want – that just kills creativity”

  15. G - The foreign-country analogy is a good one. Having someone who knows the way show you the customs. That is pretty clear, what you wrote. "Boys don't wear skirts. Boys who do can be made fun of or bullied." Hmmm. I guess I just don't know how to respond when he says, "Why not?" "They just don't" feels inauthentic to me. In our culture they don't - but, as commenters pointed out above, in many others, and in other eras, they did. And yet I can't disagree with you that the outcome is kind of indisputable--like you said, the teasing and bullying that inevitably follows. Although I still think it's different for a preschooler than for, say, a 6 year old. Isn't it? Right now they're all dragons, princesses, dinosaurs, magicians. It's almost like denying them that fantasy world. But maybe the key is to allow it inside the house, for dress-up times, but not on the playground or in school?

    I like what you wrote: "Borders, limits, and rules don't crush, on the contrary they provide a freedom and simplicity". This is really true, and I've found it to be the case in writing and many different areas. The truth is humans often think they want freedom but boundaries, but they're usually happier operating within them. And quite full of angst--children and adults alike --when the boundaries aren't clear. Wow! Awesome quote from Jack White. (Did they break up, by the way? Never thought of how intentional that minimalist stuff was for him, but it makes sense.) There's another quote, I'll have to find it, about how much easier it is to write with limitations, how it breeds creativity. Very similar thought. Sorry, that didn't add much to the discussion. I'll have to find the quote and, as Sarah Palin said, "get back to ya". In terms of unlimited time and space to create--it never happens. Writers are always conjuring up the image of having a vacation to "just write" and how everything but writing gets done. Whereas having only cracks in the day, full time job, full time mothering...then you really use that time, and sentence by sentence piece together a novel, etc.

    Great thoughts from you, G. I really appreciate! Quite well-written, too. Are you a writer?


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