My husband and I chose not to find out the gender* of our unborn child, for two reasons. Firstly, I felt that finding out the gender at the moment of birth would be the reward for my hard work in the labour room, that it would be motivation during the contractions and incentive when the time came to push. Well, it was a c-section in the end so that didn’t work out. But I’m glad we didn’t find out anyway, and remember the excitement of the midwife’s voice floating from behind the blue screen, asking, “Do you want to see or be told?”We had a son.
The second reason to keep the gender a surprise was that I had no intention whatsoever of painting the baby’s room blue or pink, stocking up on drawers full of transport-related shorts or frilly knickers, or filling the toybox with either trains or dolls. Surely, in 2016, we all agree it’s wrong to impose strong gender stereotypes onto children. I don’t personally intend to raise what is called a ‘gender neutral’ child; avoiding gendered pronouns in what seems to me a slightly artificial way. We have to manage in the society we live among, and there are certain norms that are broadly accepted. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and dressing my son in a pink dress is not going to reverse the opinions of our culture. However, the idea of a little girl doomed to a lifetime of pink frills and a boy doomed to 50 shades of blue doesn’t sit well with me.
More than the colour of their clothes, I resent the way certain toys and activities are assigned to each gender. Shops have been guilty of assigning science kits and Lego to the BOYS section and dolls and puppies to the GIRLS, in an appalling display of sexism.
If your little girl ends up loving pink and dolls that’s lovely, and if your son wants a dinosaur tshirt and a toy spaceship that’s also fine – this issue isn’t about being contrary or ‘alternative’ for the sake of it. But the opposite ought to be accepted as well: a girl who wants a dinosaur tshirt or a boy who wants to play with dolls. And if you only ever offer one option, they only ever experience that and it normalises one particular expectation.
My personal approach is to dress my son in clothes that are suitable for boys in the society we live in, but keeping away from the million blue montages. Don’t misunderstand: I love blue, and he wears it! But I resent the walls of blue that greet me in the BOYS section of every baby clothing outlet I find. I’d like to think that if I ever had a daughter, I could dress her in her older brother’s clothes without hesitation.
I don’t dress my baby boy in dresses and skirts, as that would be an extreme approach in the society we live in. I don’t want my son to be an object of ridicule. But as he grows older, if he expresses a wish to wear those things, then I wouldn’t stop him. What is more likely, is that he will enjoy dressing up in skirts, tutus and princess dresses during play. As a teacher, I have seen ten year old boys make a dash for the dressing up box at playtime and gleefully dress themselves in pretty dresses and tutus. (For that matter, most of the grown men I know take the opportunity when a stag night presents itself!) Your average little boy wants to play and explore, and he should be allowed to – as a healthy part of exploring issues of self and identity.
I admit that the issue of sexist children’s clothing and toys is, probably, more of an issue for little girls than little boys. Boys may be deprived of dolls and the colour pink, but girls are the ones who face the sort of unhealthy messages that you will see in the images below.
Gender stereotypes may seem unimportant to you – after all, pink is just a colour. But these sorts of stereotypes are connected to children’s understanding of self, their aspirations, the expectations they have of themselves and the possibilities they see for their futures. Look at the slogans and messages found on girls’ clothing for an idea of the messages girls are receiving today.
Furthermore, have you ever noticed the difference in the sizes between girls and boys clothing? Boys wear baggy shorts, comfortable tshirts. Loose, so they can climb, and kick, and throw. Girls are given mini shorts and fitted tees; designed to make them look cute. Essentially, we dress our boys to facilitate function, and we dress our girls to make them look pretty. Then we’re shocked that reporters ask famous women more questions about their appearance than their male counterparts. When was the last time a male tennis star was asked to ‘give us a twirl‘?! Or a male astronaut asked about his hair?!
This starts from babyhood – my son was given sturdy dungarees to wear the knees out of, not frilly knickers that would poke out adorably and accentuate a puffy baby botty. Frilly knickers are super cute of course, but that’s not the point! When I shop for my son I find a lot less choice than there is in the GIRLS section: why? Because, simply put, it seems we find more pleasure in dressing up little girls than we do in dressing our boys. Why? Because we value the physical appearance of our girls more than that of our boys.
We want our girls to be pretty; our boys to be able.
We want our girls to play nicely; our boys to win races.
We want our girls to show kindness; our boys to show strength.
This is how it seems, when we perpetuate these steretypes.
Blogger Stephanie wrote an open letter to American clothing store Target when she found girls’ clothing too skimpy for her daughters. Just look at her picture below: girls’ and boys’ shorts from the same store, in the SAME SIZE!
Please don’t think I hate pink, or blue, or frills, or dinosaurs. I just think we need to offer our children choice, and thereby give them agency in their own aspirations.
I have dressed my son in blue, his lunchbox has sharks on it, and his pyjamas are space-themed. However, if I ever had a daughter I would do the same.
If this article has spoken to you in any way, please consider looking into some of the clothing brands seeking to address the balance between BOYS’ and GIRLS’ clothing. How about we start talking about children‘s clothing?!
This Huffpost article lists twelve gender neutral brands.
This is an interesting Telegraph article about this topic.
This organisation fights for toys to be gender neutral rather than labelled for BOYS or GIRLS.
This campaign ‘targets the products, media and marketing that prescribe heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls’.
How do YOU try to encourage your children, male or female, to access a range of toys and to avoid some of the negative stereotypes I’ve mentioned? Have you made the decision to bring your child up as ‘gender neutral’? Or have you embraced the pink – and if so, what made you decide to do so? Has your daughter or son surprised you with their toy and clothing choices?
*Throughout this article I am discussing gender in a simple way, and do not seek to address issues of transgender. I refer to boys and girls in the most obvious sense, and I hope I don’t offend anyone by doing so.