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Crystal and Brian Kells watch as their son Cian, 5, dances through the living room of their home in Ancaster, Ont.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Crystal Kells remembers the exact moment her little boy discovered his first true love.

"Oh my gosh, Mummy!" three-year-old Cian gushed when he saw his mom wearing a dress. "Can I wear it?"

The dress was green with white stripes, "pretty simple, nothing to it," says Crystal, a photographer who lives in Ancaster, Ont. "But he thought it was the best thing."

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It was too big for Cian to walk around in – he was a toddler at the time – so Crystal bought him one of his own, a Frozen-themed nightgown. "He never took it off," Crystal says. "He'd cry if I had to wash it."

Cian, who is now 5, is one of the boys featured in aboycantoo, a continuing project by photographer Kirsten McGoey. With the tagline "stamping out gender biases one click at a time," the project, launched last January, features boys ages 3 to 18 who love to dance ballet, play with dolls, paint their nails or dress up.

It's one of a series of barrier-breaking projects and events in recent years that aim to erase gender norms for boys. Parents say that just as girls should be free to do traditionally masculine things, ideas about boyhood need to be less rigid and confining.

McGoey lives in Whitby, Ont., and is the mother of three boys, ages 5 to 11. "I grew up as a tomboy," she says. "My parents just let me be myself and that was a great way to grow up."

People comment all the time that she must spend all her free hours in hockey arenas or playing cars. But the inspiration for aboycantoo came from her second son, who loves sparkles and the colour pink. "He inspired me to really see the world in a different way," McGoey says. She says that having a child who "beats to his own drum" made her extra aware of enduring gender biases in society, sometimes barely perceptible and other times shockingly explicit.

Boys (and men) can do more than they used to. Last year, CoverGirl made headlines when it announced that 17-year-old makeup artist James Charles would be the brand's first-ever male CoverGirl model. That was followed by last January's announcement that Maybelline signed makeup artist Manny Gutierrez, who has 3.5 million followers on Instagram.

Jason Laker, a gender-studies expert at San Jose State University, says public figures such as Charles and Gutierrez, along with the kids featured in aboycantoo, help society overcome gender-biased thinking by exposing people to a more diverse range of self-expression.

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"Rigid stereotypes of gender are central to the way we organize societies," Laker says. "The more images that affirm a range of expressions, the better, because then nothing is dominant. There's just all the different ways people can express themselves."

Much has changed over the course of a generation, says Mavis Staines, the artistic director and chief executive officer at Canada's National Ballet School, in Toronto. "I trained and danced in the era where there was the assumption that all female ballet dancers were neurotic and anorexic and all male ballet dancers were neurotic and homosexual," she says. "There have been giant strides in terms of how not just dance is perceived but how ballet is perceived."

Three years ago, the male population at the school's professional ballet program broke 40 per cent for the first time. Today, it stands at 41 per cent, a significant achievement helped by the popularity of dance shows on television and, Staines says, the 2000 film Billy Elliot, about a boy from working class England who pursues his love of dance.

Nazneen Dindar of Whitby, Ont., credits aboycantoo with helping her face her own stereotypes about boys who dance. She and her husband have fraternal twins, now 16 years old.

At the age of 4, her son, Brenden, expressed an interest in attending the same dance class as his sister, Yasmin. Dindar says she and her husband were under the sway of gender stereotypes and refused to initially accept some of their son's more typically feminine interests.

"We fell into [saying things such as] 'It's really her thing, but he's just kind of doing it,'" says Dindar, a school principal.

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She says that aboycantoo helped her and her husband recognize that bias in their own thinking and overcome it. More importantly, it did wonders for Brenden himself. "The project helped him realize he doesn't have to minimize it," Dindar says. "He is a dancer and it is powerful and it is meaningful."

It's tempting to think that boys who enjoy pursuits typically associated with girls have a harder time than girls who like activities we associate with boys. But there is still tremendous pressure on girls to be "girly" and meet "this unrealistic expectation of perfection," says Kate Parker, a photographer based in Atlanta, Ga., whose project Strong Is The New Pretty celebrates young girls.

Both Parker and McGoey say parents have told them their kids face stares and rude comments for gender-non-conforming activity.

The one question parents of boys featured in aboycantoo hear most often is, "Is he gay?" It's something parents of girls who prefer getting muddy over playing with Barbies frequently hear as well. In return, these parents inquire what such a question means when asked about a four-year-old, and what difference it makes, in any case.

Her project's message is "who you are is unique and beautiful and it's enough, and go be more of that, whatever that thing in you is that is unique and different," Parker says. Both boys and girls should be encouraged and applauded for expressing themselves, however they choose to do it.

McGoey has a simpler message in mind, one that cuts straight to what should matter most. Whenever she meets a new boy that she is going to photograph, she always begins by telling them the same thing: "I'm really excited for you to tell me what you love."

Video: Gender takes a back stage to makeup and manicures for some young Japanese men
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