The humble t-shirt is close to our hearts – literally but also figuratively. T-shirts have long served as everyday placards for everyone from civil rights campaigners to celebrities with an agenda (remember Melania Trump’s “I really don’t care – do u?” slogan outfit). They are highly visible and can make strong statements. So why do we allow our kids’ bodies to be used to promote gender stereotypes which would frankly be offensive elsewhere? Yes, we’re talking about that cute pink sparkly t-shirt that says “daddy’s princess” (there aren’t so many mummy’s boy versions, for some reason!), and also that dark t-shirt that spells out that your son is a “cool dude”.
Oh come on, I hear you say: Children’s clothes are just an innocent expression of gender and personal preference! Why the big fuss?
Well, let’s take a look at the difference in messages on the t-shirts that popular UK retailer Primark is targeting at boys and girls (sorry Primark, we picked you at random, there are many more examples from other retailers at this link):
Middle-class mummy favourite Boden also shows the stereotype of soft girls and tough boys in its clothing range – if you look closely, you’ll see that their girls’ clothes feature fairies and furry critters (also known as prey animals) while their boys’ clothing range focuses on fearsome predator animals:
So what are these gender-stereotyped clothes saying to girls – and boys?
The overwhelming message for girls is to be happy and smile, sugar and spice, all things nice. Is that so bad? Well, yes. It sends a message that girls should please people, regardless of how they’re feeling. As grown women, they are still encouraged to “smile, it might never happen…”
This perceived need to put on a happy face to please people means girls can’t be authentic. Putting up a happy façade makes it harder for girls and women to make themselves heard and be taken seriously. It also ushers them away from ‘serious’ subjects like science, maths and towards what writer Naomi Wolf termed ‘display professions’, like modelling, waitressing, and other jobs where women are rewarded according to their ability to smile and look attractive. Scientists might be smiling behind their lab masks, but we’ll never know, and it’s not a core criteria for their job.
Certainly, no one’s urging boys to smile all-day long. On the contrary, boys are told to keep it cool. Don’t let emotions show, unless it’s anger, in which case, let’s hear the boys roar. These are all very limiting messages that are printed on t-shirts and imprinted on children’s minds. The message will fade on the t-shirt, but it might last a lifetime in people’s heads.
If we want to promote gender equality, we need to stop perpetuating gender stereotypes like ‘sweet, smiley’ girls and ‘cool, active’ boys. Yes, girls can be sweet, boys can be cool, and hopefully vice versa. Most importantly, children need to be able to be themselves, but pernicious influences are pushing a stereotyped view of who our kids can and should be.
Some people are suggesting that we simply look the other way: if you don’t like a pink t-shirt that says “Born to be a princess”, then simply don’t buy it – problem solved!
But that’s deeply flawed thinking: as consumers, we can and should influence corporations. And boycotts don’t work for many reasons:
1) You might object to stereotyped girls’ clothing but not be in the market for a t-shirt. Maybe you have a son, or you don’t even have a child. You can’t boycott something you were never going to buy in the first place.
2) Gender stereotyping still happens in too many places – large, multinational companies are not going to feel any serious impact on their financial bottom-line if they sell fewer t-shirts. Not buying that princess t-shirt doesn’t send a clear and loud message to retailers to stop producing this garbage.
3) We want companies to change the goods they sell so we, as consumers, get a better choice of goods that affirm our values and empower our children to think they can be anything they want to be. So we need to influence them.
Are we making a mountain out of a molehill?
Well, The UK Advertising Standards Agency would disagree: “Young children appear to be in particular need of protection from harmful stereotypes as they are more likely to internalise the messages they see.” And where are kids more likely to look than at their friends and their own reflection?
Similarly, the Fawcett Society found that “gender stereotypes hold us all back. We have boys who cannot express their emotions, become aggressive, underachieve at school and go on to be part of a culture of toxic masculinity which normalises violence. We have girls who have low self-esteem and issues with their body image.”
Finally, the ‘Unlimited Potential’ report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood sets out how gender expectations significantly limit our children, causing problems such as lower self-esteem in girls and poorer reading skills in boys. The report found that gender stereotypes contribute towards the mental health crisis among children and young people, are at the root of girls’ problems with body image and eating disorders, higher male suicide rates and violence against women and girls.
No change without action
So what can we do to end the toxic gender-stereotyped clothing that is sold online and in shops around the globe? We need to keep up pressure on companies to change: Consumer pressure works. We need to push companies towards sustainability and gender equality.
Let’s call it out!
Let’s issue a direct challenge to firms when we see problematic gender stereotypes on kids’ clothes. Share a picture or screenshot of the t-shirt or other item on social media using the hashtags #ChooseToChallenge and #letclothesbeclothes. Don’t forget to tag the producer/retailer to bring this issue to their attention: we need to let companies know we care about gender equality: Their marketing departments or agencies will monitor mentions of their company’s name on social media and we have a realistic chance of influencing their future product development. The 2021 International Women’s Day had the theme “Choose to Challenge”, and this is one of the ways we can all use our power as consumers and as social media users to challenge these toxic stereotypes on our kids’ clothing.
if you’d like to find out more about gender stereotypes in the design and marketing of children’s clothing, and do something about, you may want to head over to the Let Clothes Be Clothes Campaign.