a gender expansive girl "photo bombs" her family while they pose for a portrait

Gender Roles and Family Photography

A framed family photo was on display in our living room when I was growing up. It’s a nice photograph: my sister and I are seated in matching cornflower blue dresses, the lighting is even, the composition is good and our hair is perfectly coiffed as we smile crooked-toothed grins.

I hated dresses but was expected to wear them for holidays and photos. My sister loved dresses but looked odd without “nakey baby”, the doll that always dangled from her side in those years. There was nothing you could do to get my sis to put clothes on it.

To be these children we had to be plucked out of context: out of our messy playroom, out of the backyard where I would dig for bugs, away from strange or embarrassing habits. To be these children we needed better clothes and a LOT of hair brushing.

Thirty years later, as a professional photographer myself, I recognize how gender performance remains.

I see her standing next to her brothers who get to wear pants, socks, sneakers, sweaters/sweatshirts and vests while she is wearing thin white tights, uncomfortable dress shoes that match the dress and tights and a giant bow. I watch her face turn grey/blue, I hear her teeth chatter. Sometimes her mom asks her to remove a cardigan to better show her pretty dress. There are constant reminders to keep legs together and not show undies. “Its just for a few minutes, you can do this”, they say.

I always feel awkward. I notice her mom is also wearing a sleeveless dress with heels as she smiles. I realize the only difference is that she is more practiced: she has been doing this for photos much longer.

I really do push for family photos in the summer time. No tights necessary and sundresses are adorable!!! What I really want to capture are bubbles and goggles and sprinklers and popsicle drips running down small arms but I would settle for a sundress and warm air.

If you feel judged right now please know this is not your fault. I don’t want to single anyone out or sound like I’m criticizing my own (very feminist) mom. We the moms have all been conditioned to present our children a certain way because we were presented a certain way once.

I always wonder….what if we took family photos that leaned into who we really are instead of who we think we are supposed to be? How joyful could family photos be and what could they look like? How might this approach empower our children while affirming that they are loved no matter how they present themselves to the world?

Back to that picture in the cornflower blue dresses. My sister and I are in our 40’s now and that photo hangs downstairs in my parents house. These days, the living room is filled with photos of their grandkids. Downstairs is where the photos of our childhood live but, the photo I first described is not alone. There are also a series of collaged frames that describe the childhood they remember. (Side note: my niece, upon noticing these photos, said to my son, “Hey, check out these pictures of our moms in the 1900’s!”)

The downstairs photos replay vacations and day trips, ordinary days in ordinary clothes, homemade Halloween costumes, a turtle I built out of snow, the softball team that my dad coached, that time we drew a moustache on the family friend who wanted to be “French”.

There’s a family I want you to meet in connection with this reflection. They work with me every year and continuously embrace the process of being seen as their daughter embraces her gender expansive identity.

I also want to share the wonderful blog Colleen and her daughter KK write on raising gender expansive children, Raising Unicorns. I hope you will check it out and share it with others because, not only is it honest and beautifully written but it’s also full of resources for families whose children question the gender-shaped boxes that society wants to sort them them into.

I wanted to write about my own experience being photographed as a girl and photographing girls while sharing KK and her family with you because, as we celebrate Pride this month with and all the people who refuse to live inside those gender-shaped boxes, its valuable to look more closely at the boxes themselves.

Pride is about fighting for the existence of our most authentic selves and I’m proud to know KK and her fam. I learn from them how to be a better parent, community member and photographer. We’re learning together.

Happy Pride and props to every family out there parenting with courage, loving fully and learning to be seen!

Do you have gender expansive kids and are ready to be seen? Ready to celebrate your uniqueness and pride with photos? Book your session today by clicking here.

Related Posts