It’s no newfound observation that children’s clothing for girls and boys conforms to the confines of gender categorisation.
Walk into the children’s section of any high street clothing retailer and you’ll see a variation of the same slogans sewn into every hanging garment. For boys, ‘Here comes trouble’, ‘Daddy’s little helper’, ‘Rascal’, ‘Brave Hero’, ‘Mr. Strong’, ‘Cheeky Monkey’, Mini monster’. For girls, ‘Cutie pie’, ‘Mummy’s angel’, ‘Princess’, ‘Too pretty to care’ ‘Drama Queen’, ‘Little miss diva’, ‘Shopaholic’. These slogans, although opposing each other, share one strong message: the age-old opinion on what makes a boy and what makes a girl.
A paper by The Fawcett Society (the UK’s leading gender equality and women’s rights charity) explains how “parents create a “gendered world” for their young infants through the provision of different toys, clothing and furnishing.” Before children can think, read, or talk for themselves, parents are teaching them that boys and girls are inherently different, and things are not to be the same for each.
“Oh, no, you can’t have that one, that’s for *insert the child’s opposite gender here*”
How many times have you heard an adult say a variation of this phrase to a child?
Children are exposed to sexism before they can comprehend it. They are predisposed to following gender stereotypes because their caregivers teach them that the socks printed with cars are only for boys and the socks printed with flowers are only for girls. A divide is created, and the small seed of gender bias is planted and ready to sprout and climb as quickly as a child’s height. The negative tone towards a child showing interest in something branded towards their opposite gender encourages them to view their opposite gender in a negative light. Gendered parenting and mentoring pits boys and girls against each other instead of allowing them to simply be children who coexist alongside one another. To explore anything considered as the ‘other’ gender category is discouraged, as though it is somehow beneath them and therefore dismissible. So, what becomes of this? As children get older, many tend to remain in their gender-typical boxes.
Looking at exam entries in schools, “66.8% of UK entries for art and design GCSEs in 2018 were from girls, whereas 79.8 % of UK entries for computing were from boys”. These figures follow a similar pattern every school year. These subject choices can of course be personal preference, however, in many cases, young people feel pressure to follow the societal expectations of gendered subjects. Girls are foreseen to pursue creative and literature-based subjects and boys science and maths. This has been the way of it since the era of sending girls to finishing schools to become perfect wives and boys to medicine and law apprenticeships to become respectable money-earning machines. It’s backwards, it’s outdated, yet it is familiar because a couple of hundred years ago isn’t all that long ago. The interests and passions of children are still largely edited toward gender to this day, even if it is subconsciously.
Our personalities, interests and dreams begin to establish very early on in our lives, interestingly, this is at the exact time parents are fishing the wriggling arms of toddlers through the sleeves of slogan sweatshirts. Just like that, the options for what they can be as a girl, or a boy become labelled limitations. A boy could be an astronaut, a rockstar, a firefighter, an explorer, or a race car driver. A girl could be a ballerina, a model, a singer, a mermaid, or a princess (because apparently there aren’t enough real-world examples of what a girl could be). Children’s clothing not only projects stereotypical personality traits upon the young wearer but also prophesies the child’s future, completely based on their given gender.
Unfortunately, the effects of gender stereotyping cut even deeper than future career choices. Ypulse conducted a nationwide online survey of 8 to 18-year-olds in 2018 and found that between the ages of eight and fourteen, “girls’ confidence levels drop by 30%”. Throughout their tween years to late teen years girls’ confidence that ‘other people like them’ plummets from “71% to 38%- a 46% drop”. This is unsurprising when the importance of being ‘admired’ acts as the baseline gender norm for girls. A lack of confidence within yourself seeps into every other aspect of living. Findings from Fawcett “showed that where ‘gifted girls’ perform as well as ‘gifted boys’, their confidence in the subject is lower.” Low confidence levels in girls hinders them from actively realising their academic potential and discovering that their abilities completely match that of their male peers. This carries forward into their adult careers and all-around confidence levels as women in a world that still caters more to their male counterparts.
Just as girls lack confidence in their overall ability, boys lack confidence in speaking about their emotional health. The Children’s Society found that “1 in 8 of the young people interviewed said that ‘being tough’ is important in boys”. The word ‘tough’ is code for emotionally closed-off and distant. The Mental Health Foundation explains that “Men are often expected to be the breadwinners and to be strong, dominant and in control.” Showing emotion and talking about personal feelings is all too often labelled as ‘weakness’, the opposite of the sought after ‘tough’ persona. With this comes the bottling up of emotions which leads to issues with mental health, and “men who can’t speak openly about their emotions may be less able to recognise symptoms of mental health problems in themselves, and less likely to reach out for support.” The men’s mental health crisis is undoubtedly caused by the toxic masculinity enforced upon boys to fit society’s strict mould off what a man should be. The Mental Health Foundation recognises that “traditional gender roles play a role in why men are less likely to discuss or seek help for their mental health problems.” Furthermore, the emotional range of men is often condensed into one word: anger. “Anger is sometimes referred to as a secondary emotion – in other words, feelings of anger may mask other underlying emotions like fear or sadness”, ‘anger’ is used as an umbrella term for the complex and serious emotions men experience because it is the reaction that society deems a normal for a man to have. This leaves plenty of room for turbulent emotions and unvoiced thoughts throughout a man’s life to crowd and tangle within the mind, with little hope of the man reaching out for help, because he hasn’t been taught how and he was never told that he could. “Identifying the causes behind behaviours among boys perceived as problematic, may go a long way towards nurturing healthy adult men.” If we are to prevent another generation of boys from entering this vicious cycle, guardians and teachers must show boys support and guidance in understanding and managing their emotional and mental wellbeing.
Stereotypical slogans are a big supporter of keeping children within their gendered lanes, but children’s clothing doesn’t stop at phrases. The contrasting colour palettes of the girl and boy clothing sections act as a stark metaphor for existing gender control. Rainbows, sequins, glitter, and tutus versus plain navy, green, red, greys. I think you can guess which colour scheme belongs to which gendered aisle. Boys are limited to a muted colour palette because society says they’re practical. A boy strives to succeed, to do, to conquer. They need serious colours, and no-frills. A girl? Well, society says her worth is based on her looks, so she must be adorned. When boys are unable to explore their sense of self at a young age, through the likes of their wardrobe, they stand little chance of being able to express themselves confidently as they go through life. When girls are believed to be beautiful and delicate and not much else (their clothing only reinstating this) the opinions and comments of others can easily impact their confidence. Girls can be made to feel silly for thinking they could ever strive to be more than what society deems appropriate for them, to go beyond what is said to be within a woman’s reach.
Combine the lack of confidence of girls’ and boys’ inability to talk about their emotions and you have the perfect recipe for a power imbalance. When little Billy shoves little Milly in the playground and she cries, it’s alright. Billy’s just a ‘Troublemaker’. That’s what his t-shirt says, and so that’s what he is. Milly? She’s just a sensitive little girl. Already, the narrative is written that destructive and aggressive behaviour is to be expected and accepted of boys and that girls shouldn’t mind them. Just wipe your tears as you walk away- oh, and smile. You’re far prettier when you smile. A forgotten reality is that one day, Billy and Milly will be adults.
Male violence against women is at an all-time high. This year, “UN Women report that 97% of women aged 18 – 24 in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in a public place”. Important conversations about attacks on women have ignited all over the globe following the beginning of the ‘Me Too’ movement and after the horrifying murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa society has had no choice but to recognise the risk of violence women face, simply for being a woman.
To prevent male violence against women and girls, it must start at the beginning, with promoting and creating a society of complete gender equality. If children’s clothes promote equality, this equality will be normalised in their early years and carried through with them into their teenage phase and adulthood. We must tackle more than children’s clothing to achieve full gender balance, but you can’t start much closer than the fabric on their skin. The Future is FeMale survey “showed that 61% of women and 46% of men believe children should be raised in as gender-neutral a way as possible to guard against rigid gender restrictions.” Awareness and opposition towards the harmful nature of traditional gender roles are continuing to rise. The outlook on adopting gender-neutral parenting is hopeful. Young people deserve to enter a world in which human autonomy is respected unconditionally, with no restrictions or exceptions based on gender identity.
The weathered everyday wear of gender stereotyping has outstayed its welcome and must be ripped from the seams up. It starts with children viewing each other in an equal light, no matter what gender they identify as. Young people with healthy views on equality and mutual respect for others will grow into the adults of tomorrow who will discard the dangerous stereotypes and stitch together a society in which gender status holds no say on an individual’s right to a safe and free life of opportunities.