Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have been criticized for letting their 7 year old daughter Shiloh dress like a boy. It seems some think their refusal to discourage Shiloh’s predilection for cropped hair and traditionally masculine garb makes them unfit parents.
I was once in their shoes. My youngest by one minute daughter Eliza spent her childhood dressed in boys’ clothes, specifically, her older brother’s hand-me-downs. Like Jolie and Pitt, I felt that if this made her happy and comfortable, it was fine by me.
People had a tendency to lump the triplets together. As erroneous and annoying as this was, I figured that if we just raised them as individuals things would work out. Occasionally I’d dress them in matching stuff but most of the time they wore whatever they wanted. Rachael liked the color pink, along with a red turtleneck worn inside-out on her head so she could pretend she was Ariel, the Little Mermaid. Sarah liked sparkly jelly sandals and leggings. Eliza liked Jake’s cast-offs: his Ninja Turtles T-shirt, his cargo shorts, and his ratty Converse hi-tops. The times I did dress the girls for special occasions it would be only a matter of time before Eliza whipped off her dress and was running around in tights or underpants.
She also liked her hair short and uncombed, and was often mistaken for a boy. She didn’t care. But I caught a lot of grief from people I knew and complete strangers because I didn’t intercede. She’ll be confused when she grows up, people would say. Or, as one elderly woman in line at the grocery store said, “She should be wearing girls’ clothes. You don’t want her to turn gay”. Eliza, who was around four at the time, said, “That lady is dumb.” “Yes, honey, she sure is,” I replied.
Today, Eliza lives in Brooklyn. She does stand-up comedy several nights a week and works two jobs. With her waist-length ringlets and love of crop tops, no one would mistake her for a boy now. Her metamorphosis has been cool to watch from the sidelines, purely organic, like watching a flower bloom, only in this case, a flower holding nun chucks and the middle school record for push-ups.
I look at photos of Shiloh I see the same feisty jaw-set, the same spunk and confidence I saw in seven-year-old Eliza. This is what self-knowledge looks like. It’s a force to be reckoned with, and by reckoned, I don’t mean judged or manipulated. I mean celebrated.