Let Kids Be Who They Are - Smash Gender Norms With Better Clothing Options
Our culture crams kids into tight little categories like 1-inch pegs in 3/4-inch holes.
Some say "just be who you are" but at the same time the stuff around us says just be who you are as long as it fits in one of two tidy little boxes. We've essentially created two funnels and insist that every kid squeeze down one or the other.
This is a problem, people.
And some folks wonder why teenagers struggle so much with self-confidence. Maybe it has something to do with the "approved" paths laid out for them since birth.
I've seen this dynamic more clearly since my daughter was born. It's undeniable when you shop for kids' clothes. Walk into any department store, and you'll see what I mean.
The girls' sections are full of pink, pastels, and stereotypical "girl" colors. Ruffles, sequins, metallics, tulle, and all kinds of other fancy extras.
The boys' sections are full of dark, muted colors. Solids and basic prints.
So many girls' clothes are made from flimsy, thin fabric. Even the jeans are thin.
The boys' clothes, on the other hand, are made with sturdier fabric and practical features like reinforced knees.
Most of us are so used to it we don't even realize how it affects us.
My 7-year-old daughter hasn't ever liked wearing dresses. She received dresses and tutus and all kinds of adorable, girly things as gifts. Some of them were never worn. They were either itchy, hot, or just got in her way.
And all the sequins, decorative buttons, and extra stuff just snag.
Especially when dad is the jungle gym.
My daughter loves playing sports, climbing trees, and working and romping in the yard. How do you do that in a frilly dress and stiff, shiny shoes? Not real well. Not without ripping your tulle and peeling your patent leather.
Can't a little girl get some sturdy pants with reinforced knees? Some that aren't bedazzled, lacy, sexy, or cutesy?
Washing froofy girls' stuff is its own adventure.
The different doo-dads get stuck together and the "special" fabric gets torn. Different materials require different dryer settings, yet some of them are sewn into the same garment. And that's just the supposed machine washable stuff. First, you have to sort the laundry and pull out the pile that's hand-wash only, because you know the one time you miss some silky hand-wash-only piece it'll end up totally ruined. And getting these things neatly folded should be some kind of professional sport. It's ridiculous.
Yes, girls' activewear exists. My daughter can romp and climb in that.
The point I'm trying to make is that when it comes to mainstream clothing options, girls are offered mostly bodily decorations. And the message that sends is that girls exist to sit and look pretty - and they probably shouldn't do stuff like kick balls and climb trees.
But let's go back and talk about mainstream girls' activewear. Even when it's durable (and a lot of it isn't), it's where you see gender stereotypes clearly.
Starting with fit.
Why are little girls' clothes cut like they're designed to fit a 25-year-old woman? Little girls don't need that kind of attention.
Up until puberty, kids' bodies are pretty much the same size and proportion. Regardless of gender. A size 6 could just be a size 6. So could a size 8. Maybe even a 10. It works in infant sizing, it should work in kids' sizing too. Their shapes aren't that different.
Instead, the girls' clothes are fitted. Tops are tighter at the waist to give a curvy look. Bottoms hug their behinds. But the boys' clothes are boxy and loose.
We're talking about little kids here. I don't see much difference there.
The other glaring problem is the selection of themes and messages on the clothing. You can see this whether you look at activewear or other kids' clothing.
I just scrolled through several websites of big-box companies to see what they have for kids.
And guess what?
The girls' sections are packed with hearts, princesses, unicorns, rainbows, puppies, kittens, more unicorns, butterflies, dance and ballet themes, bows, make-up, and yet more unicorns.
Even when you can find a girl's shirt with, say, a dinosaur on it, it's probably some cutesy, girly dinosaur. My search found a pink dinosaur with metallic gold hearts... and glitter dino-corns. (Dinosaur-unicorns. Really.) Are the realistic dinosaur images really for boys only?
Then there are the captions.
Messages on these pieces focus primarily on appearance, having "sparkle," staying positive, and believing in yourself and your dreams. A few captions about strength and girl power were tossed in the mix, but overall the themes tell girls they're meant to be submissive, sweet, and ornamental.
Whether it's Disney or some off-brand, so many messages teach girls that they're just helpless damsels who can't do anything for themselves. All they should aspire to be is a princess. Or their only purpose is to look pretty or attract attention.
The gender stereotyping problem isn't only in princess-land.
The boys' sections are full of themes involving trucks, football, monsters, dinosaurs, race cars, sports, astronauts, outer space, sharks, planes, jokes about gaming and wifi, superheroes, fighting, camouflage, camping and hiking themes, ninjas, ninja dinosaurs, a shark in outer space, a dinosaur using a selfie stick, sharks eating pizza, pizza, skateboard themes, "genius" and "prodigy" themes, more dinosaurs, and, yep - more football.
Messages there focused on strength, athletic prowess, confidence, eating, being wild or out of control, high intelligence, adventure, exploration, destruction, or being a hero.
That's not including the rude, sarcastic captions.
Do you see the problem here?
For one thing, the limited selection tells kids they have these small lists of things to choose from. And from a young age, they limit themselves accordingly.
We make them pick either the pink, sparkly, pretty funnel -
or the muted, sporty, smart, tough-and-strong funnel.
What about the guy who loves ballet? Where's his ballet shirt? Or the boy who plays in the youth orchestra? Must the only "boy" shirts that reference music be about "rocking on" or listening to an iPod?
What about the girl who loves football? And the smart girls… why aren’t we celebrating girls be prodigies also? Why must girls always look cute and sparkle?
On top of that, what's usually the first thing people comment on when they interact with kids?
The kids' clothes!
People talk with kids about the images and captions on their clothes. If a shirt has a dinosaur on it, the kid is asked about that. We all know this.
The clothes we put on our kids influence people's comments.
What kind of stuff do you want people saying to your kid? Because given the options, unless you are really intentional about finding specific themes, it's likely that your son will get comments about football season and being "tough" while your daughter gets comments on how she looks.
The clothes we put on our kids influence people's perception of our kids. Does their clothing accurately represent who they are and what they're into?
The clothes we put on our kids influence their perception of themselves and their beliefs about what and who they are allowed to be. Their clothing options tell them who they're supposed to be, what interests they're supposed to have, how they should behave, what activities they should participate in, and what their aspirations should be.
I say let kids be kids.
Let's put actions to our words, smash the gender norm funnel system, and let kids be themselves.
If that means letting your daughter wear the hard-to-wash froofy stuff, pastels, and messages about being beautiful or gentle, fine. As long as it's a reflection of who she is and what she likes. Same goes for your son who wants to wear all football all the time. That's his thing.
This isn't about making you the bad guy if you or your child pick out conventional colors or themes. It's about expanding the options so every kid can express themselves confidently through their clothing.
That's why I started Beeniebean.
Some kids fit in one of those funnels. Some don't. And you know what? That's ok.
My daughter plays soccer or catch with her grandmother. She's never touched the tea set she received as a gift. Her little brother likes to play with his sister's dollhouse as much as he loves to crash his trucks into each other.
While my daughter and I watch college football together, my 3 year old son "reads" books to himself.
My kids don't fit the narrow stereotypes, and I know a swath of other kids who don't either. It's ok. It's also normal.
Kids need clothes they feel comfortable in - physically and emotionally. They need clothes that help them express their interests, aspirations, and activities. Clothes that allow them to explore and play wherever it takes them. Clothes that let them celebrate who they are and the things they accomplish. That let them actually dream big, not just "big" within a little box.
Ready to make a difference?
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Shop where there are non-gendered and stereotype-free options. Let your kid pick a t-shirt that makes her feel like herself.
Change starts now.