If I asked you to think about most girls clothing what sort of images come to mind? Here is what I get:
Kittens, kittens wearing bows, kittens wearing lipstick and heels, kitten heels, bows, lipstick, hearts, kisses, girls and boys kissing, PRINCESSESS (a lot of these). Stars, frills, tiaras. Pink, purple, tiny bikinis.
What have I left off? Oh yes inappropriate designs & slogans which are creeping slowly and inexorably into our little girls clothing like this one recently posted by an appalled Dad*.
Now bring to mind boys clothing. Trucks, trains, planes automobiles. Dinosaurs, racing cars, monsters and camouflage. Green, khaki, black and Blue. Diggers, planes, skateboards too. ‘Rad’ ‘Awesome’ and Supercool.
By the way this stuff is NOT awesome at all.
The gender signposting that is on kids clothes (and by the way not on adults to nearly the same extent) speaks to a world of intensive gender stereotyping. It is gender stereotyping that seems firmly situated in the 1950s. Where girls like small cuddly animals and love and marriage and babies – “feminine things”. Where boys do the heavy work of our society, are active, play on skateboards and drive trains. They like ‘man things’. While our society is without a doubt still separated in many ways along gender lines, it is simply not genderized to that extent anymore, so why the extreme nature of it on clothing?
I have heard the argument many times that this is what girls and boys want themselves, that it sells, they don’t like unisex clothing, they like to be labelled as a boy or girl and parents are just going along with it. Girls are just born to like kittens and purple and babies and boys just like trucks and blue; their brains are different. But the science does not support this at all. I won’t go into the detail on this here, but scientists have resoundingly rubbished the idea that the brains of girls and boys are different and that this leads to different behaviour between them.
Rather their different behaviour is about us, our societies messaging and our direct reinforcement as individuals of their behaviour.
Developmentally children spend a lot of time trying to understand how the world works, developing ‘schema’ or a set of internal rules about situations and people and society. This helps them rub along and just be human beings in a collective society. As part of this development children swing to the extreme ends of the rules they see and that they are trying to understand. Kind of an overcorrecting in order to get the rules well imprinted. And who sets the extremes of those rules? We do. Parents, adults, society. So if little girls reach for the princesses, the purple, and the boys the trucks, it is because we have ‘told them’ through a landslide of implicit & explicit messaging, that these are where girls and boys should look to understand who they are. By the same token if we brought the extreme boundaries of those rules closer together, then their understanding of gender and gender roles would reflect those too. Of course there will always be a spectrum of kids behaviours (human behaviour exists on a bell curve) but we provide the framework of that curve.
To look at it another way lets replace gender with ethnicity and see if the argument that girls and boys are just born different and their clothes reflect their differences in skills, interests and desires still make us comfortable. Because we know there is as much difference in girls and boys brains as there are in the brains of children of different ethnicities (none!).
Imagine that the clothes available for children of Pacific ethnicity were made in a small range of tropical colours and depicted only specific activities, for example fishing, or swimming, while the clothes for the children of European ethnicity were in a different but specific set of colours and depicted only images of reading and science. I think we know what that would be called.
Were we to deliver the message so clearly to children (through their clothing) that kids of a specific ethnicity only aspire to, think about or are interested in a restricted (and lets face it limiting) set of activities and behaviours, then I think we know where our society would go (and there are plenty of examples where exactly that has happened).
SO, why do we accept this for our boys and girls? If the science tells us that children are not different in their behaviours because of anything to do with their sex, why do we continue to insist on delivering messages to them that they are? Messages that limit their potential, their imagination and their fun?
Clothes are a fundamental part of our identity, whether we like them to be or not, so along with the toys our kids play with, why are we not just focussed on giving the message through those clothes that being a kid is fun, it is a time of discovery and exploration and limitless potential for all of them?
Well at muka kids we are. So we say Noooooooooooooo to the kittens! (not that we have anything against the cute and furry animals, just not on our kids clothes). Our unisex clothing for kids is totally free from gender stereotypes.
* Sexualized clothing is a slightly separate but related issue that I have not spent time addressing in this blog. Needless to say the messaging associated with designs and slogans that point to sex and sexual availability are a serious concern in the context of what we know about how children absorb and acquire ‘rules’ about how society works. This type of clothing in particular does not just tell girls and boys that girls have specific roles in life, but that sex (and I am not talking normal sexual development) is something they need to absorb as part of their identify at a young age. Just another reason to avoid gender specific clothing.