Boys Will Be 'Girly'

I have four sons so you might assume that world of My Little Pony, Hello Kitty and Barbie would be an alien one; that rooms would be painted boyish blue, clothes would be boring jeans and T-shirts, activities would revolve around muddy kickabouts and conversation would be dominated by league tables. Oh how wrong you would be.

When my oldest son was at nursery he had a penchant for girly toys and loved nothing more than to dress up in his best girlfriend's Snow White costume whenever they had a play date.

He took ballet classes until he was eight and was regularly the only boy invited to all-girl birthday parties, where he enjoyed the liberal application of nail polish and glitter tattoos as much as the next child.

So when my youngest fell deeply in love with all things pink and sparkly I didn't turn a hair. I happily indulged him with Disney Princesses, My Little Ponies and all things glittery. It didn't bother me when he inherited the famous Snow White dress from my son's old friend who had long outgrown it.

I will admit that when he said to me 'Mummy I want to be a girl' I wasn't entirely sure how to answer, but on the whole I am comfortable with my sons' free expression of their feminine side.

If only my laissez faire attitude was shared by society as a whole. The hard work put in by the feminist movement means that a girl who wants to wear jeans, play football or fight on the front line is lauded for her aspirations.

This is not the case for a boy who wants to wear a frock, play with dolls or become a stay at home dad. Of course such men exist, but they are few and far between and generally have to have skin as thick as rhino hide to cope with the scorn heaped upon them.

My eldest son eventually gave up his ballet classes when the teasing from his football mad classmates got too much, although the way the little girls in his dance group ostracised him didn't help.

Not one of them would offer to dance with him, after all what was a boy doing in a ballet class? So it's not just other boys who make their less-than-macho peers feel small, girls are just quick to judge a boy whose fancy footwork is on the dance floor rather than the football pitch.

At five, my youngest is probably still too little to notice the barbs that are thrown out at him by a disapproving society. For his last birthday he visited Build a Bear and chose a lovely bear with white fur emblazoned with pink and red hearts. He dressed her in a deliciously sparkly dress and sequined pumps. When you press her paw she sings the My Little Pony song. He was puffed up with pride at his creation.

But for me the whole experience was marred by the shop assistant giving me disbelieving looks and asking: "Really? Are you sure?" after each increasingly pink and sparkly choice he made.

In the end I hissed "Yes, he is sure", just to stop her from constantly raising her eyebrows as my boy enjoyed his birthday treat.

But she wasn't alone in her surprise. Another mum looked just as horrified watching us dither over which tiara went best with his bear's new dress, while she paid for her own son's teddy which sported a full Arsenal kit. When he proudly took his bear into school a classmate pointed and laughed, sneering: "Look, he's got a girl's bear". If looks could kill I can assure you that boy wouldn't have made it past five.

The problem is that boys who like 'girly' stuff aren't seen as striking a blow for equality, but more freakish specimens who betray mankind by daring to prefer dolls to diggers and frocks to football.

This was evidenced by the recent story of a boy who was banned from his local playgroup because he liked to wear dresses. All power to his mum who refused to make him feel bad, just because he doesn't want to follow the herd, but the playgroup's attitude is far more prevalent.

There has been much talk of gender neutral toys, but it seems to be more aimed at not forcing girls to prefer pink, rather than allowing boys to love this pastel shade best . Of course girls should be allowed to play with trucks, soldiers and dinosaurs if they choose, but shouldn't it work both ways? Shouldn't we fight for our sons' right to play with beads, prams and fairy dresses if that's what they like?

Even my husband, who is surely more aware than most that not all boys fit the puppy dog tails stereotype feels uncomfortable when my son wants to wear a dress in public. Last New Year, when he had just inherited the Snow White dress, he wanted to wear it to a small party hosted by close friends. My husband said no, claiming it was because my son would be embarrassed, but I suspect it was more his own awkwardness he wanted to avoid.

Equally when I admitted that I had promised my little boy he could paint his room pink in our new house, my husband gruffly said: "But what if he grows out of this phase?" Funnily enough he didn't use the same argument when I said I wanted a picture of Superman painted on his twin brother's bedroom wall – presumably they are equally likely to grow out of their obsessions, but one is safe to indulge while the other is not.

I know my husband's prejudice is only skin deep. He adores his boys and no doubt simply wants them to benefit from the easy acceptance a more typical boy enjoys. But I think society as a whole is still made much more uneasy by a boy who doesn't fit the mould, than the girls who seek to break free from it.

But I believe that suppressing my sons' desire for all things girly would make them believe there is something wrong with them or that they should be ashamed of being different. How could any mother consider this acceptable?

In fact I feel rather militant about it. Girls can wear trousers, play with any toys they like and it is lauded as equality, but pity the boy who loves pink dresses and dollies.

It is time that we started to recognise that gender stereotyping works both ways and while we women fought for the right to enjoy all things masculine, we shouldn't have forgotten about those boys who are left cold by football, but adore the flutter of fairy wings on their back and a slick of polish on their toes.

What do you think?