To Brief, Or Not to Brief
It was with “big girl panties” that the trouble began.
From birth until age three, underwear had been easy: Unbleached Seventh Generation diapers, followed by Sesame Street and Cars-themed pull-ups. But when it was time to leave behind the cute, gender-neutral pull-ups and move on to actual undies, G. was not pleased.
It wasn’t the idea of “big kid” underwear that bugged her. It was panties. The elastic waistbands and leg opening were scratchy. They were mostly pink, which was bad, and they were decorated with Disney Princesses or Hello Kitty, which was worse.
She wanted Elmo. Mickey Mouse would also suffice. She wanted a flat waistband. Preferably white or yellow, but she would compromise as far as lavender if necessary. I looked high and low, in stores and online. More princesses. More kitties. More hearts and rainbows.
But G. has a solution. “These are the ones I want,” she said. She’d wandered to the other side of the underwear rack at Macy’s while I was frantically searching through packs of panties trying to find one that didn’t involve sparkles or My Little Pony and had come back bearing a pack of Minions briefs. From the boys’ section.
“Those are cute,” I said. “But they’re for boys.”
“Why only for boys? Girls like Minions, too.”
“Sure, girls like Minions. But these are for boys because they have that opening on the front. The fly. That’s for boys to...put their penis through so they can pee without pulling their pants down.” A concept that sounds really ridiculous when you say it out loud.
“But you don’t have to use the fly. You can also just pull them down. I mean, obviously boys pull them down when they poop.”
“This is true.”
“So? Can I get them?”
“I’ll need to talk to Daddy,” I said, though I couldn’t have really said why it was worthy of a discussion. Underwear was underwear, right? I held up a pack of panties from the movie Brave that I’d unearthed; mostly teal and purple, with just two pink plaid pairs. “But these are cool, huh? I'd wear these. They make me want to ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrows in the Highlands.”
G. sighed. “They're okay. But Merida is still a princess.”
“We’ll talk about the briefs,” I said, tossing the Minions on the other side of the rack. “I promise.”
We didn’t talk about it. Of course, Bryn were still dealing with the fallout of our separation at this point, and talking about anything was strained. And there seemed to be more important issues around G.’s gender identity that needed our attention: Bullying in the girls’ bathroom at school, the reaction of Bryn’s conservative parents to seeing their granddaughter rapidly becoming their grandson. Maybe I brought the panties situation up once or twice, but mostly, we both just hoped it would go away, or at least that some company would start making more gender-neutral panties.
Neither seemed to be forthcoming. I kept up my shopping expeditions, and once thought I’d scored when I found some neat panties with classic comic book images of female superheros that an artist was selling on Etsy. I could tell that G. appreciated my effort and she tried to wear them, but there was still the issue of the itchy elastic, the tight legs. And while I scoured websites and store shelves, she was getting bigger, and was now squeezing herself into the only panties she’d ever enjoyed wearing: little white ones with Elmo print, size 3T. We had to find a solution, if only to save her circulation.
The easy thing would have been to buy the Minion briefs. It was, after all, just underwear, and who besides us was going to see it? But it seemed to be a move neither of us wanted to make. I completely knew where G. was coming from; I’d spent 40 years struggling with one torturous women’s undergarment or another and could absolutely relate to not wanting to be pinched/scratched/squeezed every minute of her life. I also wouldn’t have appreciated facing an array of princesses every time I reached for my underwear. It seemed like the adult equivalent of having the Kardasians emblazoned on my thongs. But briefs? With a fly?
“Maybe we should just get them if it will make her happy,” I told Bryn one night on the phone. “It’s just underwear.” I’d been repeating this sentence--It’s just underwear--frequently in my own head. Apparently, now I was trying to use it to convince both of us.
“But if we do, aren’t we starting down this transgender path?” He paused. “I’m still secretly hoping she’s just a lesbian.”
“I’ve known a lot of lesbians who wear men’s underwear,” I said. “So even if you get your wish, we still might have to buy the briefs eventually. And she can always go back to panties. It's not like it's something permanent." This was a concept--it's not permanent--that we employed wherever we could to assure (or kid?) ourselves that no real changes were taking place with our kid, nothing that couldn't easily be undone.
“I don’t really blame her,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to wear any of that shit women do, with the wedgies and the strings all up in your piece. I barely want to wear men’s underwear.”
“I guess that’s what we’re doing if we make her wear panties,” I said. “Making her feel how you’d feel if you wore women’s underwear, or how I’d feel if I was forced to wear men’s.” I was starting to feel contentious. Was he against this just because he suspected I was for it? Was he going to let the narrow-minded influence of his parents get in the way of our child’s happiness and mental health?
“I don’t know what to say,” he sighed. “I’m not for it, but I’m also not against it. I need to think about it some more.”
I dropped it. The truth was, I needed to think about it more, too, but blaming Bryn for putting the decision on hold was easier than admitting to myself that I was struggling, and that I was deeply bothered by the fact that I was struggling. Since the earliest signs of G.’s gender-fluidity, I’d supported whatever she wanted to wear or do: I bought little boys’ clothes, I (hiding my tears) let her cut off her long, beautiful hair, I made Captain Hook and Ziggy Stardust costumes for Halloween. When people mistook her for a boy in public, I didn’t correct them. But while I was doing these things, I knew that underneath the hair and clothes and costumes were little girls’ panties. Bryn and I might have been in conflict over pretty much everything else, but we were both hanging onto panties as the last, secret hope that this might just be a phase, or that G. was simply androgynous, or that she was a lesbian--but that she was still a girl.
For a while, I thought I might be saved from my to-brief-or-not-to-brief struggle by Bryn, who I assumed had stronger feelings about the boys’ underwear than I did, and would eventually declare a definitive no that I couldn’t in good conscience override. When G. brought up the Minions again, I could say, “We can’t right now. Dad said no.” She would be disappointed, even upset, but she wouldn’t blame me, and we’d have more time, either for me to adjust to the idea of my daughter in underwear with a fly, or for her to decide that panties weren’t so bad, after all.
Bryn did end up resolving my dilemma, but not in the way I’d imagined: One afternoon during her weekend with him, G. called me to say that Daddy had bought her a pack of boxer briefs. “They’ve got bicycles and lightning bolts on them!”
“Wow,” I said. I truly was wowed. “That’s great. Are you happy?”
“Of course! I’ve wanted these forever.”
“Are they comfortable?”
“Yes! Yes! No elastic!” I knew the comfort was partly to do with the lack of itchy elastic and iron-on Snow Whites, but really, it was because she was finally wearing the underwear that really fit him.
For a minute or two, I considered being angry at Bryn--for making the final decision without my input, for not including me in the historic purchase of the briefs--but this was ridiculous. In spite of my secret hesitations, I'd given him nothing but signs that I supported G.'s desire for boys' underwear, and I realized, as I listened to G. go on and on singing the joys and virtues of the new briefs, that it really didn't matter to me what he wore on his tushy. I'd just needed someone else to force me to see it.
I quietly removed the mostly unworn princess panties from her drawer and replaced them with the beloved new briefs. I did keep the 3T Elmo’s. They’re tucked away in a storage box with a bunch of G.’s baby clothes, which I sometimes still take out to look at. They give rise to little swells of nostalgia for G.’s babyhood, when things were simpler and the question of gender identity wasn’t one I even knew existed, but they’re also a reminder that the simple things are often the most central to our understanding of ourselves. Little bits of printed cotton around her private parts were an important way G. wanted to express who he was.
For us, the well-meaning, occasionally bumbling parents, they were furiously waving Disney-princess-printed flags that we needed to confront our own conflicting emotions about the fact that, all along, our daughter was a boy we’d been trying to dress in panties.