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Guest Post: How Clothing Can Reduce Gender Boundaries for Children

This week I’m featuring a guest post by Sara Upton. Sara is a freelance writer with a passion for technology, fitness, and fashion. She is particularly interested in the ethics behind clothing manufacturing – where the clothes came from, how they were made, and the material they’re made of. You can check out her blog to learn more. 

“It’s unfair because everyone thinks girls should just be pretty and boys should just be adventurous.” 

That quote came from an eight-year-old girl who was shopping for clothing with her mother at a Tesco, a major British retailer. It’s a pretty remarkable statement for such a young child to make, but it seems to sum up years’ worth of similar concerns about clothing (and toys, for that matter) for kids. Tesco isn’t alone in this matter—numerous brands and department stores have been criticized in the past decade for selling slogans and designs that emphasize gender stereotypes with young children. 

In some of the worst examples, boys’ shirts celebrated them as superheroes, and girls’ items carried messages like “future superhero’s girlfriend” (or similar phrasing). This type of messaging isn’t only detrimental to girls. While pushing girls into predetermined gender constraints can have a negative impact on development, the same can be said for how it also affects boys. These tropes serve to reinforce the idea of toxic masculinity that can discourage both intelligence and sensitivity in men while promoting the idea that all boys should strive to be macho superheroes.

More common examples are less overtly problematic, but still serve to further emphasize stereotypes. For instance, think about the last time a family member or friend of yours had a baby. In all likelihood, you saw photos of that baby immediately being swaddled in either pink or blue, as much for identification of gender as for warmth and comfort. That’s relatively harmless in the greater scheme of things, but the characterization of boys as loving blue and girls as loving pink tends to carry over past infancy and into childhood. Expanding things a bit, we tend to imagine young girls in pink and purple and boys in blue, red, and green. Even when there aren’t messages or themes on clothing, we tend to know if even a basic shirt looks more “male” or “female” appropriate.

So when that eight-year-old girl went on her now-infamous rant at the store, she wasn’t responding only to a particular selection, but to a long-running trend in how we outfit children. While there’s been some scientific debate about whether girls and boys might inherently prefer different colors at birth (there doesn’t seem to be a definite conclusion), it’s clear that clothes are designed and marketed differently according to gender. The most disturbing thing isn’t classification by color or pattern, but by interests and ambitions. It’s not uncommon to see boys’ shirts with related to adventurous or scientific pursuits whereas girls’ shirts are usually dedicated to beauty and glamour. The message is clear: boys should achieve, and girls should look nice.

Fortunately there are things being done about this troubling trend in children’s clothing for kids everywhere. Specifically, there are stores and brands all over the world looking to design more gender-neutral options for young children, and remove the idea of pigeonholing girls and boys into different styles.

One way this is being done is by creating designs that appeal to both boys and girls, even if they’ve already been exposed to traditional stereotypes. Tootsa, a UK brand that’s been putting out gender neutral clothing for some time now, offered a perfect example through a line of African-inspired prints for all kids. This included a few colorful patterns and designs but also meant embracing something loved by all children: animals! Any child would love a shirt with an adorable animal in the middle of it, and lions and elephants are hardly thought of as specifically for boys or girls. This is a popular and effective alternative to some of the usual stereotypical themes.

And this is only one example. As you look at more brands exploring the idea of gender neutrality, you can find all kinds of different examples of change. Some brands might swap traditional boy and girl colors, so that girls’ dresses come in baby blue and boys’ shirts come in pink while other brands might find other fun looks that all kids can enjoy like nature and funny phrases. You may even start seeing more direct responses to some of the inappropriate examples of sexist kids’ clothes, like girls’ shirts with female superhero themes (as opposed to the superhero’s girlfriend idea).

Through ideas like these, clothing designers can do a whole lot to reduce gender boundaries between our kids. A great deal of exposure to stereotypical gender roles and even sexism comes from how we inadvertently divide boys and girls based on what they wear and what they play with. But while changing clothing options can definitely help, parenting also comes into play.

Every Day Feminism actually wrote a wonderful guide discussing what to do for a child who shows interest in gender non-conforming outfits. The basic idea is that parents also try to realize that there should be no such thing as “girl” or “boy” clothing, from a design perspective, and to act accordingly. That means allowing children to have a say in shopping for their own outfits, and having open discussions with them about what they like, what they want to express, and how they want to dress. Open dialogue is probably the most important aspect of all. For instance, if a girl chooses a pink shirt with polka dots a parent can try to get a feel for whether this is simply how the girl wishes to express herself, or if she’s choosing such an outfit because she feels like she’s supposed to.

Ultimately, all of this can go a long way to changing how our kids dress and help to foster healthier understandings of gender roles. It’s just important to realize that the change starts with parents.

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