How does the children’s clothing industry perpetuate oppressive gender dynamics? What are some changes we can make in order to make it more inclusive?
It seems that no industry so overtly supports the gender binaryand the stereotypes within it as the children’s clothing one. For boys, it is difficult to find a shirt that isn’t blue and spattered with some sort of athletic symbol. For girls, even the animals that are showcased in their clothing have long eyelashes, glossy lips, and rosy cheeks. The reality of just how extremely the children’s clothing industry perpetuates harmful gender roles is something that we are constantly reminded of in department stores, children’s clothing catalogs, and elementary school classrooms. However, somehow, the gender justice movement has largely overlooked the leverage that this industry has on influencing gender dynamics.
Through this project, I hope to utilize academic resources and local field studies in order to deeply analyze the role that children’s clothing plays in gender dynamics: how it perpetuates exclusive gender roles, why it markets clothing the way it does, and what some companies are doing in order to be more inclusive. In my local community, I analyzed how a conventional chain retail store and website, as well as a locally based website, markets and develops their children’s clothing. By the end of this project, I use my observations and analyses to propose three realistic and systemic changes we can make to the children’s clothing sector that will not only mitigate it’s current harms, but also take one step toward a completely gender inclusive society. I hope that this project will bring us closer to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality by aiming to provide everyone the same freedom to choose what they want to express through fashion, even from a very young age.
Contextual Introduction to Relevant Gender Theory
Gender, contrary to what some might think, is not directly equivalent to sex. For the most part, when a newborn baby is assigned a sex at birth based on their genitalia, their gender is inferred to be the same. However, this inference does not always pan out to be true. As stated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children tend to form their own sense of identity by the age of four (University of Washington). This identity isn’t always parallel with the sex that they were assigned at birth. And, sometimes, that identity doesn’t align with the either of the two sexes at all. In other words, such individuals don’t identify within the gender binary. The gender binary, broadly speaking, is the concept that only two genders exist: men and women. This construct has gone to shape many aspects of human society and, within it, other oppressive gender constructs have been created.
Of such constructs, perhaps the most extreme and oppressive one is that of gender roles. Gender roles are the idea that each of the two genders within the binary are predisposed to a certain lifestyle and set of behavior. Although the exact roles differ greatly across different cultures and communities, there are some that are more commonly reinforced than others. For example, it is often expected for individuals who identify as girls/women to be caring, emotional, and kind while it is expected for individuals who identify as boys/men to be competitive and aggressive. While girls are expected to like horses, dolls, and the color pink, boys are expected to like sports. These roles have become so ingrained in our society that some gender theorists argue we understand them from very a very young age and subconsciously alter our mannerisms and decisions in order to fit inside one “mold” or the other. This concept, called gender performativity, calls upon one’s environment to shape gender. When seeking to pinpoint an elementary example of such outside factors shaping one’s gender “performance”, children’s clothing emerges as a clear big player (“Judith Butler”).
The notion that clothing influences the way we think is a proved one in the adult’s clothing sector. A study from Columbia University shows that individuals wearing formal clothing are more adept to critical and abstract thinking (Slepian, Michael). Another study showed that individuals who wore lab coats thought more “scientifically” and were generally more focused in their work (Blakeslee, Sandra). Thus, we can deduce that putting our girls in tight glittery shirts that say “Mommy’s Beautiful Princess” and tights that are impossible to run in and putting our boys in shirts that say “Toughest Guy on The Block” influences their notion of who they are supposed to be and how they behave from a very young age. And soon, these children find themselves altered by these notions and behaving in a way that conforms to how our society wants them to. This is exceptionally damaging for individuals who don’t truly identify with every nuance of their assigned gender role, and thus, it is in our best interest to try and mitigate one of the major roots of the problem through children’s clothing.
Field Study #1: Traditional Retail Store
In my first field study, I went to my local Target in order to analyze how one of the biggest retail chains in the world frames their children’s clothing section. The first thing that struck me is how separated the boys and girls sections were in the first place, with large overhead signs differentiating the two. Another thing that I noticed right off the bat, as well, is that each sign had respective “icons” next to it that summarized what could be expected in the section itself. In the case of the Girls, such an icon was a simple dress with a bow at the waist (shown below).
Next, I looked at a variety of displays in both the boys and girls section in order to make direct comparisons of what I observed. Below are some of my observations.
1. Even the portrayal of animals was characterized by traditionally hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine ideals.
This pattern was alarmingly prevalent. In everything from the graphic tees to the patterned pajama pants, I couldn’t seem to escape these uncannily humanoid animals. With the boys, fiery yellow eyes and bulging face muscles glared at me from every corner. With the girls, varieties of unabashedly mascaraed and lip glossed birds seemed to appear everywhere I looked.
This observation has a direct connection to the harsh physical standards and expectations that the two genders in the binary grow up to face. Such standards heavily support and perpetuate oppressive gender constructs and are known to have a negative impact on mental health (Simon, Robin).
2. The most heavily marketed pants for each gender aligned themselves with traditional gender roles in the binary.
In the respective sections of children’s clothing, there were two displays of pants that were clearly the primary ones. For the boys, there was a rack full of khaki pants: loose, neutrally colored, and featuring deep pockets. For the girls, there was a large display of brightly colored leggings: tight, bright, and — that’s right — undeniably pocket-less. Although such an observation might initially seem superficial and obvious, this points out what activities retailers expect our kids to need clothes for. For the boys, it’s a pair of pants suited to rough and tough it out someplace where pockets and freedom of movement are a must. For the girls, it is something that is good for not much else other than looking.
“Field” Study #2: Traditional Children’s Clothing Website
Here I take a brief look at the layout of a traditional children’s clothing website. I use the same retailer, Target, as an example of one of the biggest and most impactful corporate giants out there.
The common theme here is clear: one girls’ section and one boys’ section. No space for the in between.
“Field” Study #3: What is possible in gender inclusive children’s clothing
Here I observe the website layout of a gender inclusive children’s clothing company, Free to be Kids, based here in Seattle, WA. Throughout my study of this website, I will incorporate information I learned from my one on one interview with the founder and creative director, Courtney.
To begin, we can see the launchpad home page for the Free to be Kids website. Instead of a site that’s clearly split into a “boys” and “girls” section like the target one, the bulk of it is categorized by type with no gender attached to it: Baseball Tees, Long Sleeve Tees, Short Sleeve Tees, etc. However, there are two sections that have gender attached to them…and such sections are exclusive to gender identities within the binary. This is something that through me for a bit of a loop, so I asked Courtney about it.
Why did you choose to include the “Inspired by Boys” and “Inspired by Girls” sections on your website as opposed to keeping it completely gender neutral?
Courtney: “We actually tried creating a company that was completely gender neutral before creating Free to be Kids. And, unfortunately, that company was met with the sobering reality that consumers just don’t respond to that. So, we made these “inspired by” sections as kind of a ‘compromise’ of sorts. At the end of the day, we haven’t made any new products that can only be found in these sections. They are just curated collections that make the website easier to navigate and more marketable to the common consumer. It’s not a compromise I’m thrilled about, and I hope that our society can get to a point where it is wholly receptive to a completely gender neutral site, but it is a small change we needed to make in order to make the most impact we could. And we think that the wording of “inspired by” helped settle our uneasiness about this decision; there isn’t any exclusivity implied in that wording”.Courtney, Creative Director and CEO of Free to be Kids
In the above screenshot, we are able to see what the future of gender neutral children’s clothing could look like. This is a random screenshot from the gender neutral “Short Sleeves” section of the website. When scrolling through the designs, I saw none of the perpetuating common patterns that I observed at the common corporate retailer. However, in an amazing way, none of the clothing would necessarily seem out of place at such a retailer. The cute and playful aspects of the clothing were, somehow, retained; there just weren’t any gender connotations attached to them.
1. Remove Girls’ and Boys’ sections in retail stores and websites
Having these sections actively supports the gender binary and often leads to clothing that supports a gender exclusive society. Although, at some point, it would be ideal to have no gender connotations to children’s clothing at all, “Inspired by” sections in addition to completely gender neutral clothing sections are an acceptable interim solution.
Making this change will help dismantle gender constructs from the ground up. Without these two sections, clothing that is inherently exclusive, damaging, or oppressive is discouraged. And, of course, this would be providing a space for individuals who don’t identify within the gender binary from the very beginning, hopefully mitigating the societal oppression and personal struggle that many of these people face with their identity.
2. Remove insinuations of gender-based physical ideals
Such insinuations, as pictured in Field Study #1, can be exceptionally damaging to society’s perceptions of gender.
3. Make clothes that serve different lifestyles accessible to everyone
Clothing that is comfortable and made for playing should not be shelved off into a section full of traditionally masculine branding. Similarly, clothing that is made just to be looked at shouldn’t be shelved off into a section full of traditionally feminine branding. Clothing stores should divide their storefronts and website based on these different “types” and uses for clothing, without the layer of gender on top of it.
Children’s Clothing Companies to Support
Free to be Kids: This is the retailer that helped me with my project, who I used as an example of a company that is “doing it right”!
Feel free to comment more companies you know down below!
Interested in making the children’s clothing industry an inclusive one? Here’s what you can do!
- Design your own T-Shirt! Websites like Bonfire (bonfire.com) and Custom Ink (customink.com) provide easy to use interfaces that can be used to create your own shirt design. Through Bonfire, you can even create a fundraiser out of selling your shirt!
- Get involved with a non-profit organization working within this field! There are many organizations, such as Gender Spectrum and Gender Justice, that are pushing for greater gender equality in all industries. Pledge your support to one of these organizations to help.
- Comment below your thoughts! I would love to hear from you.
Thank you so much for viewing my project! I hope you enjoyed it and feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!
My MLA Format Works Consulted/Cited: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jwQTIbFGng9uxXlTFdIRNwrdLGF3YqAAptigJkix09I/edit?usp=sharing