Sparkly Shoes For Everyone! (or, let's do away with gendered clothing!)

Mir Kamin wrote a great piece about the recent flapdoodle over the “girls don’t do math” t-shirt being sold by The Children’s Place, which has just issued a “gosh we’re so sorry we didn’t mean to offend anyone” statement.  It’s great that they apologized, but it seems to me that it might be more cost-effective simply to avoid making clothing that promotes sexist stereotypes in the first place.

 Kamin points out that there are lots of clothes made for kids that have stupid logos or comments on them, but that not all these things draw such consumer anger. Where (and why) do consumers decide to shift from “nah, not gonna buy that stupid shirt” to GET IT OFF THE SHELF?

I don’t have an answer for that question, but Kamin’s post made me think about my experience as the mother of two boys, and the irritation I feel, like some kind of Gap-related skin rash, every time I walk into a store to buy my boys some piece of clothing.

 On what ancient tablet is it written that all boys’ clothing must be decorated with sports gear, machinery, or threatening animals?  And for the love of all that’s colorful and holy, where oh where is it written that boys must dress exclusively in brownbeigebluegray—or in camouflage? For that matter, when did “camo” become a design option for everyone and not just the military?  Do pink camo underpants really honor the armed forces?

Before I became the mother of boys, I never really thought about how society constructed “masculinity.” Women were the ones who’d been historically oppressed by the patriarchy, right? And men just sort of went along for the ride, so to speak.

 Okay, true, that’s a pretty narrow understanding of gender, but what can I say: I was in graduate school reading a lot of feminist theory and pretty much worshipping at the altar of Judith Butler, although I understood only about every fourth word she wrote.  I decided that my children (thinking only about girl children because it never occurred to me that I would have boy children: how could a woman give birth to something so utterly different from herself? I mean, does a tomato plant suddenly sprout beans?) —my children would grow up free of gendered expectations.

 And then? I had not one boy but two, and there I was, sifting through onesies decorated with tractors and football helmets, and then toddler gear emblazoned with rockets and other explosive devices.  All of it, from baby clothes on up, was executed in a palette that would make El Greco happy, except that even he occasionally used red or splashes of yellow.

Ironically, now that my boys are older—9 & 13—their clothing is more colorful, due to the garish soccer jerseys they wear almost all the time.  The jerseys all carry the logo of whatever brand sponsors the team, which means, unfortunately, that my kids have become mini-billboards hawking Red Bull, AIG, and Emirates…but I think I’d rather that than a t-shirt promoting hunting season:

  kmartshirt

In all my years as a mother-of-boys, however, I’ve never seen any protests about the stereotypical attitudes that get paraded across boys’ clothes.

 Why is that? Do we tolerate the boys-and-machines-and-sports attitude because it’s somehow less constraining than girls-are-bad-at-math?  The flip side of this dressing-related problem, of course, is that girls can shop in the so-called “boys” section of the store and no one bats an eyelash, but let a boy wander over to the shelf of sparkly shoes or pink sweaters, and eyelashes bat so fast you’d think everyone in the store was about to faint.

 A long time ago, when I was in therapy and in my thirties (that sound you hear is my sighing at the fact that my thirties now counts as “a long time ago”), my therapist would ask, in response to some anxiety or other of mine, “what’s the worst that could happen?”

 So let me ask that question of you: what’s the worst that could happen if we stopped dressing our kids in gendered clothes? What if boys wore sparkly shoes or pink sweaters and girls wore sweatshirts with tractors on them? Or what if we all wore sparkly shoes? What if we all simply ignored the blue-side/pink-side designations that store merchandisers have created?

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