What does it mean when a boy tries on his sister's bra?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 16, 2011 06:00 AM

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I have a question about my son, and I really don't know what to do. My son got out of bed this morning, came downstairs, and gave me a hug. I felt something on his back, and realized he was wearing one of his sister's training bras, under his pajama shirt. He is 8 years old. I did ask him why he was wearing it, and he said he didn't know. I am just still shocked. We have tried to be very open to my children about sexual issues. We have talked about homosexuality, explaining that if they are gay, we will still love them. Or, if they have friends who are gay, they will be welcome in our house, etc. This, however, I wasn't prepared for. I know some children cross-dress at 4 and 5, maybe wear a skirt to play house, etc, but this, to me, is different. Should I ignore it? Not bring it up again? Talk to his pediatrician? Please help! I don't want to do or say the wrong thing. Thank you.

From: Confused & Concerned (no town given)

Dear Confused & Concerned,

I consulted with psychologist Michael Thompson on this. He's someone whose work I've admired, both professional and personally.

Here's our conversation:

MT. Let's see, the sister is probably about 12. At one level, he must be fascinated by his sister’s growth & development.... Possibly this is just curiosity about the life of girls and women. He sees his sister changing and wonders what it's all about....

BM. ....and doesn't have any way to express it?

MT. Precisely. Did you ever see a French movie, "Murmur of the Heart"? This reminds me of that. There's a scene where a boy takes his mother's clothes and lays them out in the shape of a woman and stares at them. I thought that showed great understanding by the filmmaker, Louis Malle, of a boy trying to understanding the other gender by putting himself in their shoes. So possibly all this is about is a curiosity of the life of girls and women.

BM. On the other hand?

MT. On the other hand, it is also possible this is a foreshadowing of a boy who will be interested in cross-dressing or gay, two very different categories. It is unusual, however, to see a first sign of [cross-dressing] at 8; [this mother] is right, that it often surfaces at 4, 5.

BM. What would you suggest to her?

MT. Consider this a wait-and-see situation, whether it's a one-time thing or not. Look for a chance to say to him, "When you had on your sister’s bra, it made me wonder if you're curious about her and the way her body is changing. Do you want to ask me any questions about it?"

Books on puberty, mentioned recently in another Q&A, may also be helpful.


I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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9 comments so far...
  1. I'm a foreign language teacher, and our classroom activities include frequent skits. The boys vie to play female roles: feather boas, high heels and twirly dresses, exaggerated "female" mannerisms, falsetto voices, the lot. They love it - and the more public, the better. Part of the appeal is the comedy aspect, of course, but I'm certain that there's also a good deal of plain old curiosity about what might it feel like to be the other gender. It's interesting that the girls generally don't have nearly as much interest in playing male roles, though, and I've often wondered why.

    Posted by alien57 May 16, 11 09:48 AM
  1. Alien -- That's an easy question to answer.

    Girls are readily allowed to wear pants, polo shirts and other items which were once considered the exclusive territory of men. They're permitted to be rough and tough and are called tomboys.

    If you look at newsreels and films before and after WW2, you'll see girls only wearing skirts and dresses, because society said they weren't allowed to wear trousers. In fact, there were even laws on the books *requiring* people to wear at least three items of clothes specific to their gender!

    Boys, on the other hand, aren't allowed by society to wear or be interested in *anything* even hinting at being feminine, for fear of being called a "fag" or "sissy" unless it's in innocent play like you describe.

    Look at the recent outrage spewed by societal dinosaurs when the J. Crew ad featuring the woman painting her son's toenails a neon pink! Reading their pathetic mewlings. you'd think the boy will be forever traumatized by this act, but as you can see, the two are having fun!

    Society will be the better when a boy puts on a bra, or stockings and heels, or even attends school like that and nary a brow is lifted when he's hand-in-hand with his girl friend who's wearing jeans or slacks and a polo shirt.

    Posted by Marlene May 16, 11 11:52 AM
  1. I am the original letter writer, and I wanted to thank you for your answer. I will admit, that when I wrote the letter, I was still in a state of panic about the whole thing. I have calmed down a lot. I get what Marlene said, and it did cross my mind, that I have no problem with my daughter wearing jeans and sneakers (she has rarely been interested in dresses, and much prefers the color black to pink). This, to me, was different, because it was an article of underwear. I would have had the same reaction if my daughter had come downstairs in a jock strap and men's underwear. Also, because it was underwear, it occured to me that he was trying to hide it from me, and that concerned me, as well. I didn't want him to feel shame, which is why I felt I needed a professional opinion, before pursuing it further.
    Thank you, again.

    Posted by Confused and Concerned May 16, 11 01:37 PM
  1. I think Barbara should have addressed the sister's side of this. If the older sister is in a training bra, then she is in the throes of a lot of changes. If my brother had taken my training bra at that period in my life, I would have felt a lot of anger that something private that I was trying to grapple with had been taken from me.
    I would definitely NOT want to condemn the boy or make him feel like it was a Big Bad Problem that he wanted to try out a bra. But the sister is entitled to some space, and I think this violates that space.

    Posted by MC May 16, 11 07:32 PM
  1. Maybe I can help?
    It doesn't mean anything.
    Transsexual children *tend* to show many other signs. Trying on a training bra is just curiousity in a normal boy.

    BTW I'm Intersexed, but was effectively Transsexual, and one of the few who didn't show any other signs at that age. I was too busy trying my hardest to be a boy - any behaviour like that would have been absolutely anathema to me, I would *never* have done that. I was so focussed on maintaining the facade that even the slightest hint of femininity was absolutely forbidden. Not by my parents, but by myself.

    Summary: don't worry. While I can't say it's 100.000% insignificant, it's at least 99.999%

    Posted by Zoe Brain May 17, 11 08:37 AM
  1. Hi! Letter Writer here! Thanks, again! I am getting so much advice here. This is great. I took Dr. Thompson's advice, and told my son that if he has any questions about how his, or his sister's body, is changing/will change, he could ask either of us anything at all. I didn't mention the bra at all, just told him that he could come to us. And MC, you are right about the sister. I don't think she knows, but I will tell my son that we must respect her privacy. Thank you!

    Posted by Concerned and Confused May 17, 11 10:41 AM
  1. My 36 year old brother used to want to try on my sister's nightgown, and called his underwear "panties". It didn't last very long.

    My eight year old son came downstairs with my bra on the other day, singing a Katy Perry song, "....bikinis on top". I'm not worried about it.

    Posted by mom2boys May 17, 11 11:04 AM
  1. I'm so glad the letter writer checked back in! Its always nice to hear some follow up.

    However, I do have a quibble. Concerned and Confused may be sincere when she says this, but I don't think it would alarm people nearly as much if their daughter came downstairs in a jock strap. They's think she loved her daddy or big brother. Most people would not be concerned about asking the daughter about it. There is something about boys wearing girls clothing that alarms people. No one cares if their daughter plays baseball or calls herself a tomboy, but people don't like to see a boy do ballet and it would be an insult to call them a nancygirl.

    No judgement in that, just reality. I think people are more worried about their sons being gay than their daughters being lesbian (and I don't think that really crosses people's minds as much as the fact that their son might be gay). Also, there is something sexual in men who are not gay wearing women's clothing and I think that is what alarms people. I don't know that people are so concerned that a girl wearing boys underwear is doing so in a sexual context.

    Posted by ash May 18, 11 08:38 AM
  1. Now for another perspective. I'm a crossdresser who had my first foray into trying on girls clothes at about age 4 or 5, walking around in my mom's high heels. A few years later I would sneak a girdle and bra out of the laundry for short periods of time and feel absolute bliss wearing them. Later still, I 'found' some ladies underwear in the costume room of my school theater group. Bras stuffed with anything to give them shape became a mainstay of clandestine dressing for years. I'm 60ish now and with my marriage ended, I'm relatively free to fully dress when I want. I've developed a knack at makeup and am mostly passable when I go out in public. It is amazingly freeing and enjoyable to feel, although only briefly, as a woman. I also thoroughly being a guy, and never seriously consider (but did fantasize about) a sex change/gener reassignment surgery.

    That is prelude to my advice. I never told my parents, and never told my wife of my secret -- enjoying crossdressing. I regret every day of the lie. Don't ever put your son (or daughter) in a position where s/he is ashamed of who or what s/he is. From your earlier reply posts, I doubt you will. Others reading this should take it to heart. Gay, transgendered, crossdresser, lesbian, and others don't have the characteristics they do because of choice. We can suppress it when needed for self preservation, but it's not going to go away.

    Posted by Rhonda May 23, 11 08:53 AM
 
9 comments so far...
  1. I'm a foreign language teacher, and our classroom activities include frequent skits. The boys vie to play female roles: feather boas, high heels and twirly dresses, exaggerated "female" mannerisms, falsetto voices, the lot. They love it - and the more public, the better. Part of the appeal is the comedy aspect, of course, but I'm certain that there's also a good deal of plain old curiosity about what might it feel like to be the other gender. It's interesting that the girls generally don't have nearly as much interest in playing male roles, though, and I've often wondered why.

    Posted by alien57 May 16, 11 09:48 AM
  1. Alien -- That's an easy question to answer.

    Girls are readily allowed to wear pants, polo shirts and other items which were once considered the exclusive territory of men. They're permitted to be rough and tough and are called tomboys.

    If you look at newsreels and films before and after WW2, you'll see girls only wearing skirts and dresses, because society said they weren't allowed to wear trousers. In fact, there were even laws on the books *requiring* people to wear at least three items of clothes specific to their gender!

    Boys, on the other hand, aren't allowed by society to wear or be interested in *anything* even hinting at being feminine, for fear of being called a "fag" or "sissy" unless it's in innocent play like you describe.

    Look at the recent outrage spewed by societal dinosaurs when the J. Crew ad featuring the woman painting her son's toenails a neon pink! Reading their pathetic mewlings. you'd think the boy will be forever traumatized by this act, but as you can see, the two are having fun!

    Society will be the better when a boy puts on a bra, or stockings and heels, or even attends school like that and nary a brow is lifted when he's hand-in-hand with his girl friend who's wearing jeans or slacks and a polo shirt.

    Posted by Marlene May 16, 11 11:52 AM
  1. I am the original letter writer, and I wanted to thank you for your answer. I will admit, that when I wrote the letter, I was still in a state of panic about the whole thing. I have calmed down a lot. I get what Marlene said, and it did cross my mind, that I have no problem with my daughter wearing jeans and sneakers (she has rarely been interested in dresses, and much prefers the color black to pink). This, to me, was different, because it was an article of underwear. I would have had the same reaction if my daughter had come downstairs in a jock strap and men's underwear. Also, because it was underwear, it occured to me that he was trying to hide it from me, and that concerned me, as well. I didn't want him to feel shame, which is why I felt I needed a professional opinion, before pursuing it further.
    Thank you, again.

    Posted by Confused and Concerned May 16, 11 01:37 PM
  1. I think Barbara should have addressed the sister's side of this. If the older sister is in a training bra, then she is in the throes of a lot of changes. If my brother had taken my training bra at that period in my life, I would have felt a lot of anger that something private that I was trying to grapple with had been taken from me.
    I would definitely NOT want to condemn the boy or make him feel like it was a Big Bad Problem that he wanted to try out a bra. But the sister is entitled to some space, and I think this violates that space.

    Posted by MC May 16, 11 07:32 PM
  1. Maybe I can help?
    It doesn't mean anything.
    Transsexual children *tend* to show many other signs. Trying on a training bra is just curiousity in a normal boy.

    BTW I'm Intersexed, but was effectively Transsexual, and one of the few who didn't show any other signs at that age. I was too busy trying my hardest to be a boy - any behaviour like that would have been absolutely anathema to me, I would *never* have done that. I was so focussed on maintaining the facade that even the slightest hint of femininity was absolutely forbidden. Not by my parents, but by myself.

    Summary: don't worry. While I can't say it's 100.000% insignificant, it's at least 99.999%

    Posted by Zoe Brain May 17, 11 08:37 AM
  1. Hi! Letter Writer here! Thanks, again! I am getting so much advice here. This is great. I took Dr. Thompson's advice, and told my son that if he has any questions about how his, or his sister's body, is changing/will change, he could ask either of us anything at all. I didn't mention the bra at all, just told him that he could come to us. And MC, you are right about the sister. I don't think she knows, but I will tell my son that we must respect her privacy. Thank you!

    Posted by Concerned and Confused May 17, 11 10:41 AM
  1. My 36 year old brother used to want to try on my sister's nightgown, and called his underwear "panties". It didn't last very long.

    My eight year old son came downstairs with my bra on the other day, singing a Katy Perry song, "....bikinis on top". I'm not worried about it.

    Posted by mom2boys May 17, 11 11:04 AM
  1. I'm so glad the letter writer checked back in! Its always nice to hear some follow up.

    However, I do have a quibble. Concerned and Confused may be sincere when she says this, but I don't think it would alarm people nearly as much if their daughter came downstairs in a jock strap. They's think she loved her daddy or big brother. Most people would not be concerned about asking the daughter about it. There is something about boys wearing girls clothing that alarms people. No one cares if their daughter plays baseball or calls herself a tomboy, but people don't like to see a boy do ballet and it would be an insult to call them a nancygirl.

    No judgement in that, just reality. I think people are more worried about their sons being gay than their daughters being lesbian (and I don't think that really crosses people's minds as much as the fact that their son might be gay). Also, there is something sexual in men who are not gay wearing women's clothing and I think that is what alarms people. I don't know that people are so concerned that a girl wearing boys underwear is doing so in a sexual context.

    Posted by ash May 18, 11 08:38 AM
  1. Now for another perspective. I'm a crossdresser who had my first foray into trying on girls clothes at about age 4 or 5, walking around in my mom's high heels. A few years later I would sneak a girdle and bra out of the laundry for short periods of time and feel absolute bliss wearing them. Later still, I 'found' some ladies underwear in the costume room of my school theater group. Bras stuffed with anything to give them shape became a mainstay of clandestine dressing for years. I'm 60ish now and with my marriage ended, I'm relatively free to fully dress when I want. I've developed a knack at makeup and am mostly passable when I go out in public. It is amazingly freeing and enjoyable to feel, although only briefly, as a woman. I also thoroughly being a guy, and never seriously consider (but did fantasize about) a sex change/gener reassignment surgery.

    That is prelude to my advice. I never told my parents, and never told my wife of my secret -- enjoying crossdressing. I regret every day of the lie. Don't ever put your son (or daughter) in a position where s/he is ashamed of who or what s/he is. From your earlier reply posts, I doubt you will. Others reading this should take it to heart. Gay, transgendered, crossdresser, lesbian, and others don't have the characteristics they do because of choice. We can suppress it when needed for self preservation, but it's not going to go away.

    Posted by Rhonda May 23, 11 08:53 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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