From Madness to Manhood: Sex, Sexism, and My Red Keds

I’ve been writing a memoir, From Madness to Manhood, and sharing chapters with you, my readers. Your comments and feedback mean a lot to me. You can read other chapters here, here, here, and here.

When I was four I announced that I was tired of my white baby shoes and I wanted “big boy shoes.” My mother dutifully took me to a shoe store and I was entranced by the colors and variety of shoes. It was like going from a world of black and white and discovering that there was color. I wandered past all the shoes looking at each pair until my eyes lit up.

“Mommy, mommy, I want those.” I was jumping up and down and pointing to most beautiful shoes I had ever seen. They were red Keds.

I finally settled down enough for the salesman to sit me down, measure my little feet, and go in the back to find the right shoes. I couldn’t stop smiling and the wait seemed interminable. But finally he emerged from the back with a number of boxes.

“I brought a couple of different sizes, to be sure we’ve got the right ones,” he told my mother. It seemed even better than Christmas when he opened the box and folded back the tissue paper covering the shoes.“Here you are,” he proudly announced.

My smile collapsed when he took out the first shoe. It wasn’t the shoe I had admired. It said “Keds” on the heel, but it was blue, not red. I was crestfallen.

“But I want the red Keds,” I was finally able to say.

He smiled and patted me on the head. “Red is for girls,” he told me and smiled at my mother. “Blue is for boys.”

I thought about that for a second and a half. I had never heard of colors being assigned by sex. I had thought all shoes were white until recently. But even as a small child, I knew what I liked.

“I want the red Keds,” I stubbornly told him, though I was beginning to feel a little shakey and tearful.

He turned to my mother for support. The truth was certainly clear to him. Blue was for boys, red was for girls. We didn’t want to start out life on the wrong foot.

I looked at my mother and she looked at me. “Give the boy want he wants,” she told him and her voice was firm like I knew it could be when a decision had been made and it was time to obey. I smirked to see the salesman shake his head, but go back to get the shoes I wanted.

He returned with my new red Keds and I was overjoyed. I put my feet in the shoes and he laced them up. I was on cloud nine.

My mother and I left the store hand-in-hand, though I quickly dropped her hand and ran up and down the side walk to get the feel of my red Keds. The shoes felt great, but it felt even greater to know that my mother stood up for me and let me know that what I wanted counted for something.

I soon learned that there were all kinds of things that were supposed to separate males and females and there was a kind of formula that proclaimed that the very things that men cannot be are the very things that women must be and vice versa. For example:

  • Men cannot be and women must be: Soft, gentle, sweet, quiet, tender, curvy, receptive, giving, apologetic, emotional.
  • Men must be and women cannot be: Hard, strong, rugged, loud, tough, cut, assertive, acquiring, unrependent, logical.

As a kid I heard the nursery rhyme about boys and girls.

            What are little boys made of?

What are little boys made of?

Snips and snails

And puppy-dogs’ tails

That’s what little boys are made of

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice

And everything nice

That’s what little girls are made of

Even as a little kid I wondered, who says? And later I began to question what it was telling me about being a boy. I’m made of snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails? That doesn’t feel like what I’m made of. It also seemed to suggest that I’m inherently violent, that if the dogs lost their tails I must have snipped them off. If I had to choose based on the nursery rhyme, I’d rather be a girl and be made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I mean, if we are what we eat, would you rather eat snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails or sugar, and spice, and everything nice?

Although, many of the cultural constructs that tell us ways in which males and females are different are not accurate or helpful, I’ve come to believe, as an adult, that there are definitely important differences between men and women. That became more evident to me when I became a father. I remember trying to give our son and daugther toys that didn’t push them in sterotypical “male” or “female” directions.  Jemal loved his little dolls, but I was dismayed when he held them like twin six shooters and blasted away at one of his friends. I was equally surprised when I overheard Angela, “Now, sleep well red and you too, blue,” as she tucked her two new trucks into her bed.

Marianne J. Legato M.D, is a cardiologist and founder of the Institute for Gender-Specific Medicine. “Everywhere we look, the two sexes are startlingly and unexpectedly different not only in their internal function but in the way they experience illness. For instance, men produce 52% more of a hormone (serotonin) needed to prevent depression than women. And when their serotonin levels drop, women tend to withdraw and become anxious and reclusive. Men, on the other hand, respond to low serotonin levels with aggressive behavior and often increase their alcohol intake.”

It’s not surprising that those who have been harmed by our focus on sex differences lean towards a view that inherent sex differences are minor. My early experience with red Keds made me want to downplay differences. This has also been true for women who have been greatly harmed through the ages by sexist beliefs and practices. But it’s more helpful to end sexism than to fight the evidence that there are important differences between males and females.

I’m sure we’ll learn more about the ways males and females are the same and the ways they are different as more scientific studies are completed. But scientists aren’t the only ones with wisdom to share. Each of us has personal experiences to share. My friend Robert Bly, poet and wise elder told me that it is important for boys to spend time with older men in the tribe in order to “hear the sound that male cells sing.” Clearly, he understood the importance of being in touch with who we are as sex-specific beings.

I think it’s wonderful to recognize that we are each a symphony of ten trillion cells and there is a unique sound made by each one of us as well as a collective sound that male cells and female cells sing that are unique to our sex. It’s undoubtedly true that for some humans dividing us as XX or XY is too simplistic and variations from the norm need to be respected. Yet, for most of us the journey to understand who we are is inexorably woven into who I am as a man or a woman. But if you think sexism over red Keds is dead, do a Google Images search.

I appreciate your comments. It makes writing worthwhile.


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  1. Fun read. I used to play with my sister and we played with dolls, but I also started killing the dolls with my dinosaurs – lol. What happens when serotonin levels drops to low, and what might be some reasons? Since you mention anger can be a symptom of low serotonin, I`ve been angry lately, I guess thats why I am reading your books and blog 🙂

    • Khetil,

      There are many reasons serotonin levels drop including stress. There are also dietary reasons. Too many people go on a low carbohydrate diet to lose weight. But letting go of good carbs like vegetables, rice, potatoes, etc. can lower serotonin which can make us more irritable and angry. So, keeping a good balance of good eating and low stress, can keep our serotonin up to good levels us healthy and happy.

  2. Heya Red Ked Jed – Great story.
    Strength in recognition of diversity & in natural patterns!