how my son made me a feminist



I would rather be whole than good. — Jung


My son was five years old. He liked colors and textures and shine. He told me one morning, with a shy, sweet smile, that he would like to make drawings with glitter pens.

Soon I was cruising the aisles of a local toy store, checking out the kiddie arts and crafts.

Which were mostly packaged in pink.

My son was old enough to feel self-conscious about liking something girly, and I worried that his brothers would poke fun at him. I kept scanning the rows of merchandise, the jewelry-making kits and boxes of markers and crayons: where the hell were the boy glitter pens? Or, at the least, glitter pens in a unisex packaging?

And as I failed to find them – because they didn’t seem to exist – another question lifted its head from the corner of my brain:

Why did the packaging even matter?

I was prepared to admit that girls and boys are wired for different forms of play; I had, after all, watched one of my sons transform bananas into imaginary guns when he was a toddler and I wouldn’t allow toy guns in the house. The boy thing, as I tended to think of it, kicked in early. But this wasn’t about trucks or dolls. This was a shiny metallic ink used in art projects. Assigning it to one gender instead of the other seemed arbitrary.

Even so, why should I care? Why should a simple marketing decision have the power to dictate what my child could and could not play with?

The solution was easy enough: remove the pens from the incriminating package before giving them to my boy. But that didn’t change my sudden, vivid sense of the stigma of the feminine, and how it threatened to limit my sons. Glitter pens were all very well, but what about the other things my kids might feel compelled to turn away from because of that feminine tag?

Things like emotions.

And caring.

And empathy.

And self-expression.

There’s a movie called BOXING HELENA, in which a man with certain skills kidnaps the Helena in question, drugs her, and amputates her legs — and then, in a second surgery, her arms – in order to contain and control her. It’s disturbing as hell. Now I could see how this culture of blue and pink – of blue over pink – also threatened to perform a psychic amputation on my sons, chopping off whatever parts didn’t fit this very particular box with three very particular words emblazoned across the front:


And since you can’t talk about one box without talking about the other, I could also see its mate:



For a long time, off and on, I was involved with a writing workshop. On the designated Saturdays I would drive out from Bel Air to where the Pacific Coast Highway curves up along the coastline — blue sky over blue water — and make my way into the hills of Topanga. I sat on a deck with six or eight other writers and ate artisan bread smeared with fig jam. We would critique manuscripts, one after the other, as the day turned from cool to hot to cool again and the sun took its dying fall into the long yellow grass.

We talked a lot about going there. It wasn’t enough to string together pretty sentences, or know how to stage a scene, or understand the cause and effect of plot. You had to travel into the deeper places, the soul-places, that scare you and strip you raw. Because it was only when you showed your inner self that you showed us something we haven’t seen before (perhaps many times before). That work was original, because it was infused with the originality of you. That work was true, because it came from an honest place, and touched off the kind of vibe that went through the reader’s body.

When you went there, the writing came alive. It got juicy. It resonated.

It wasn’t until those conversations — and I saw the quantum leap in ability the writers made when they blasted through the levels of their own resistance – that I began to understand the relationship between creativity and authenticity.

Creative intelligence draws from the different parts of you, the various dimensions of your experience. Instead of trimming yourself to fit a pre-existing mold, you work to reclaim the lost and shadowy parts of yourself. The more of yourself you can access, the more powerful your work becomes, the more likely you are to connect with an audience.

When you create, you take what’s inside you and give it shape and substance in the world.

Other people can see who we are, what we stand for, and respond accordingly. Some will reject us – which is what makes creativity a high-risk endeavor – but others connect with who we are, instead of who we’re pretending to be.

Creativity makes it possible to connect and belong.

There is a difference between fitting in and belonging.

As researcher Brene Brown describes it in her book DARING GREATLY:

Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are…

We are hardwired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging and connection always leads to suffering.

We are also hardwired to create. As Brene Brown points out, there is no such thing as an uncreative person. Creativity

lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.

That we are hardwired for both connection and creativity is not a coincidence. If connection gives meaning to our lives, it’s creativity that makes meaning possible.

But you can’t go there when you’re stuck inside the gender box.

When you’ve disowned your power (if you are a woman) or your vulnerability (if you are a man) in order to fit in. When you’re trapped in constant power plays between those who conquer and those who are conquered, life becomes a series of chess moves, a game (The Game) that has rules (The Rules) about who wins and who loses. Which would be fine, perhaps, if the evidence didn’t suggest that we are destroying ourselves in the process, whether it’s the soaring rates of addiction, depression and heart disease, the plundering of the planet, the exploitation of children, the global violence against girls and women, the…you get where I’m going with this.

This is why I’m a feminist. Certainly not because, as certain stereotypes would have it, I hate men (I don’t) or because I think women are superior (I don’t – although we are very damn cool), or because I don’t like to shave various body parts (laser hair removal, baby).

But I have learned to value the feminine, in myself, in other women, and in men; I believe that if feminine values were expressed alongside masculine values, and weighed as equally valuable, the world would be a better place. I believe that women have the right to step into power and men have the right to be seen for who they are instead of the money they make (or don’t). I believe that both genders have the right to pursue accomplishment and relationship. I believe that no one – and certainly no box, no pink or blue packaging – has the right to tell you who you are, or define your experience for you.

I have nothing against traditional masculinity/femininity in and of themselves – the world needs the warriors and the nurturers. But most of us fall somewhere in between: gender as a spectrum inside a shared humanity, rather than two fixed points eyeing each other across an abyss.

I believe in your right to remember who you are, and be all of what you are.

To create and connect.

After all, in the end, what else is there?

Dec 29, 2013

11 comments · Add Yours

The title of this piece reminded me of when I was about ten-years-old (circa 1978) and walking across a parking lot, I found a button, the kind with a message. It had been in the parking lot a while because it was dinged and dirty. It read, “A woman’s place is every place.” I remember being slightly confused by the message. Why wouldn’t a woman belong in every place? It occurred to me though that women weren’t in every place. Hmm. And it had to be an issue because it was on a button. I cleaned the button off on my jeans and pinned it to my purse.

There were many things in my life guiding my towards feminism, but I think of that moment as key. And I still have the button.


Wow. I love your definition of Feminism. I never did fit the stereotype of the pink-loving, dress-wearing, need-a-man-to-be-happy kind of girl, and I still don’t. I am neither ashamed of who I am, nor do I apologize for who I am. I think pink and blue boxes are made in order to keep the masses “in line”, to keep the current power structure in place. More power to you, Justine, and your boys. Let’s not put limits on each other – seems to me we put enough limits on ourselves.


Thank you again for being right on target. You not only write about embodying both the Warrior and the Nurturer, but the very way your writing comes through reveals that you are living both of those archetypes. I can’t tell you how much your writing has been and continues to be a lifeline for me! You are that wise, cool, (only slightly) older sister I never had.


Brilliant piece Justine, you nailed it.


You have a way of putting into words exactly how I feel in a way that I makes me understand it better myself. Alleviates the confusion that settles in my mind. Thank you.


Hi Justine, I stumbled across this today and wanted to add my two cents. The gender specific coloring of consumer products has nothing to do with gender specifics.It all about selling more product. By categorizing products by color and assigning those colors to genders and making boys and girls feel uncomfortable or that they will be ostracized for selecting the wrong color, marketers have doubled the sales of their products to families with both boys and girls. Years ago products like crayons were sold in pretty neutral packaging. If you had a boy and a girl you bought one big box and they shared. When I was a kid there was only one brand of sneakers. Keds. Navy blue or white and boys and girls both wore them. Now there are so many more choices designed to be gender specific. Glittery, pinky, sparkly for the girls, Batman black and yellow for the boys. It’s marketeers who have categorized the genders to an obscene extent for no other reason than to make more money.


Totally agree. Which is why it’s so ridiculous we take this gender coding to heart the way we do as a culture. The whole concept of *toddlerhood* was initially a marketing ploy — and *then* became incorporated as a developmental stage we now take for granted. Marketing is that powerful.


guys can be vulnerable and girls can be powerful.

but girly guys and manly girls are not the key
to ‘saving the world’


Hmmm. Say you had some terminal disease and the only guy who could come up with the antidote likes to paint his nails and wear heels. He wouldn’t be key to saving *your* world?

‘Girly’ and ‘manly’ according to what standards? Whose standards?

It’s about — wait for it — tolerance. And understanding difference. And seeing things from other perspectives. And allowing other people as well as yourself to thrive. And celebrating the right to self-expression and authenticity. And connecting to other human beings. And realizing we are all in this together, even when people make comments as annoying as yours. It’s about getting over stuff like this so we attend to other things.

Which actually *is* key to saving the planet.

Which, last I checked, requires a hell of a lot saving. So what we’ve been doing so far? Isn’t working.


What’s even better than tolerance? Full acceptance. But yeah, it starts with tolerance.


@Osiris [Correction] As a “manly” guy for the last seven decades, I can attest to the fact that some (many?) of us are a bit more girly guy under the skin than we are prepared to admit, let alone to display. From that point of view I envy the amount of freedom today’s guys have to express their real selves, personalities that are sublimated from very early on. I know that when I was young I was mercilessly teased as a weakling, the result being that I learned to cover up my real personality to the detriment of both my self image, and, in fact, to my marriage and close friendships. To this day I have not been able to be open – in that sense, I am still deeply in a societal closet.


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