“Thanks so much! And no, the baby hasn’t decided.”
This is an actual text message exchange with a friend of mine. If you think I’m being unnecessarily snarky, this article is for you.
My wife is 34 weeks pregnant. Amidst all the loving, supportive messages are a bunch of people asking when we’re going to have a “gender reveal.”
Just to put my stance at the top of this article: “Gender reveal” parties should not exist.
But many people disagree with me. Gender reveal parties are everywhere online and seem to be getting wilder; attempts to reveal blue or pink smoke in a theatrical fashion have left us with headlines of forest fires, pet alligators and even death.
“Gender reveal parties” are improperly named, as they incorrectly assume gender is binary. Plus, they endlessly play into stereotypes. It’s time to abandon this social media-fueled tradition.
Side note: Why is anyone trying to impress strangers with these videos? I don’t think they actually care if you’re having a boy or a girl. (If you find yourself offended by that last comment, ask yourself if you’ve ever cared about the sex of a random person’s baby.)
Gender versus sex
First, let’s straighten out the terminology: the terms gender and sex should not be used interchangeably.
Chromosomes determine sex. Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes, which house DNA. One specific pair, the sex chromosomes, determine your biological makeup as a male or female. If you have an XX pair, you’re genetically female and XY, male. (Some individuals, including intersex people, may have variations in the their X and Y chromosomes, which is known as sex chromosome aneuploidy.)
Some couples can find out the genetic sex as early as 10-weeks into pregnancy from prenatal cell free DNA screening or noninvasive prenatal screening (NIPT). An NIPT screens for genetic conditions such as Down’s syndrome. But because it assesses fetal chromosomes, it can also determine sex. Last fall, my wife had her blood drawn for an NIPT. The results showed no chromosomal abnormalities and the presence of two X chromosomes. We’re having a girl. More on this later.
This chromosomal blueprint only determines physical characteristics. It has nothing to do with gender or the “characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed,” per the World Health Organization.
Board-certified pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Rochelle Wilson, who cares for transgender individuals as part of her practice, stresses the importance of personal identity.
“Gender refers to how a person identifies … although sex does play a role in one’s gender identity, how they interplay are left to the individual’s internal awareness or sense,” she told In The Know.
If you didn’t know the difference, you aren’t alone. Plenty of scientific articles and mainstream websites still use the term gender when they’re actually referring to sex. Feel free to correct people.
Why the conflation of gender and sex can be harmful
Now, let’s discuss the potentially harmful expectations set in motion by fetal sex determination — and why jumping for joy at the sight of blue or pink confetti may be a setup for psychological distress.
Once people found out we were expecting a baby girl, we received a flood of presumptive messages. My wife runs a wedding and event planning business, and people said our future daughter would “fit right in with the ladies.” Others told me she would “study classical Indian dancing” and be “an Instagram-able baby fashionista.” These comments were well-intentioned — but my wife was barely 11 weeks pregnant at the time.
A lot can happen during development, per Dr. Wilson: “What the general public most likely does not realize is that anything can happen during pregnancy, more specifically, the chromosomes may say one thing, yet the development of external (genitalia) and internal (ovaries) reproductive structures may not coincide,” she said.
She also commented on the swing of emotions some families experience.
“There are a plethora of disorders of sexual differentiation that often leads to the disappointment and devastation of parents and families,” Dr. Wilson added.
Disappointment comes from sex-based expectations, which I encounter often in my job as a pediatrician. When I’m on call in the hospital, I meet plenty of newborns and new parents. Next to each little baby is usually a namecard in blue or pink, denoting the sex (Although, I have seen cases where babies are born with ambiguous genitalia, and the fetal sex cannot be immediately determined.)
Sometimes new parents celebrate the sex of their babies. I’ll hear comments like, “She’s going to be a cheerleader, just like mom” or. “He’s already a ladies’ man!”
On the other hand, I’ve met families upset about the sex of their baby. These comments stem from preconceived notions of a what child will or won’t do based on their sex chromosomes.
Most children began to identify with a gender around three to five years old, although it may happen much later. If we keep hyping up these gender roles before children get to self-identify, we add to the environment that creates gender dysphoria.
Even the “creator” of “gender reveals” has called for their end
There are places in the world where people place higher culture or economic value on certain babies based on sex. Don’t stand for that. Gender exists on a spectrum, and children should be encouraged to do whatever they want and be whomever they want, regardless of what society defines as feminine and masculine.
It’s telling that Jenna Karvunidis, the mother widely credited with creating the first publicized sex reveal, publicly denounced the tradition.
She posted on Facebook: “Assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.“
Right on, Jenna.
There are many other positive aspects of a pregnancy to celebrate. But if you absolutely must have a “gender reveal,” at least call it a “sex reveal.”
Just be sure to let attendees know the biological sex doesn’t define your baby. Only the individual gets to have that honor.
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