Of all the changes that I experienced when I became a mother, there is one that remains difficult to swallow: the astounding number of catalogues arriving daily in my mailbox like spaghetti from Strega Nona’s pot. At first, it’s sort of neat – Ooh! Fun things to buy the baby! – and, then, it quickly becomes overwhelming – Hmmm, where’s that baby?
Yesterday, I received a catalogue from a clothing company that I’ve shopped with quite a bit in the past. Their clothes are sturdy and not too expensive, perfect for an active kid who grows faster than a chia pet. When I opened the catalogue to shop for winter clothes, I found this written on the first page: “BOYS & GIRLS aren’t built the same. That’s why we designed our outerwear specifically for them.” For a moment, I naively wondered whether girls and boys really have different average leg or arm measurements, or other physical characteristics that would make differently constructed clothes comfortable or beneficial. Then, I read: “Pretty & playful for her, rugged & ready for him.”
Already knowing what I was going to find but compelled to look anyway, I compared the pages displaying the girls’ and boys’ outerwear. The coats and bibs looked the same. Upon very close inspection, there were subtle differences. A pocket here, the button flap pointing the other direction. The main difference – can you guess it? – was that the girls’ clothes were offered in ivory, deep pink, dark chocolate, sea blue, and black. The boys’ were offered in black, rich red, expedition green, deepest cobalt, and true navy.
When boys and girls as young as one and two years old are given different sets of clothing and styles to choose from, we as parents and a society enforce the old rules. We send the message that certain colors or styles are right and proper for girls to wear, and others are right and proper for the boys. It’s not too big a leap from snowsuits to toys, and from toys to subjects in school. As an elementary school teacher, I often struggled with girls’ perceptions of their abilities in traditionally male subjects such as math and science. I didn’t realize, then, that I was up against assumptions that had been ingrained since birth. I would never argue that dressing our daughters in pink makes them bad in math. The messages and models they get in the home are more powerful than the color of the tee shirt they wear. However, I do believe that we parents need to be mindful of all the messages we are sending our kids and ask ourselves whether we are unwittingly creating narrow definitions of gender. For example, if we dress our girls for the purpose of looking pretty – instead of in clothes that are comfortable, practical, or sturdy – we risk sending the message that being pretty is of the utmost importance, and that their looks define their worth.
The catalogue copy reads that girls and boys are “built” differently, but what they really mean is that their brains, values, skills, and preferences are different. These are dangerous suggestions. I don’t want my daughter, for one, getting the message that it’s important for girls to look good and to be “playful” (isn’t that code for flirty?). And, boys, well, they have to be “rugged” and “ready?” Ready for what? And… rugged? When I think “rugged,” I think “Marlboro Man.” Not a toddler playing in the snow.
Are we really back to all of this again? Or, could this Slate article be right about gender-neutral clothing being in vogue now? I called the clothing company and asked them to stop sending me their catalogue. I’m crossing my fingers that Win still fits into her (sturdy brown) bibs from last winter but, given how much my little chia has grown since then, I’m sure it won’t be pretty.
Shannon lives in Brooklyn, where the sight of more catalogues in the mailbox makes her groan. She blogs about her bookish life at I’m thinking…