Old Navy divides even lunch bags into "boys only" and "girls only."
I grew up in the early-80s burst of bright solids and stripes for everybody, of dolls marketed at boys, and of that awesome Lego ad that assumed girls build stuff too. Fast-forward a few decades and we’re in a different reality. Like so many parents of my generation, I was genuinely surprised by how gendered simple things like clothing options, toy packaging, and book marketing are now. The world of children seems to be more openly sexist than it was twenty years ago. Popular blog Sociological Images has a whole collection of “sexy toy” makeovers and the world of kids’ clothes is distinctly divided into pink and blue.
Adults support that difference by claiming it’s just “natural”: little girls naturally want to be fancy princesses and pretend to clean the house, while little boys naturally want to ram their trucks into other people’s heads while definitely not wearing nail polish. Many adults also think the small-people exaggerated gender performances are cute. The result is that my husband can wear a pink shirt to work and think butterflies are neat without anyone batting an eye, but our preschool-aged child quickly learned that he wasn’t supposed to like—or wear—pink, purple, aqua, flowers, butterflies, ruffles, or anything else bright or pretty.
Products manufactured for children today are typically either for girls or for boys. This is overwhelmingly true of clothes. Shopping online at Old Navy, I quickly learned that you cannot simply view all the available pajamas. You must choose “girl” or “boy” before you can see any products at all. This pink vs. blue divide is reinforced by surreal “girl” versions of what seem like totally gender-neutral objects: a pink Scrabble set, for instance, or a sparkly globe. That way, if you have both daughters and sons, you get to buy two of everything! Capitalism hates a hand-me-down.
Shopping across the “boy”/“girl” aisle helps, but it’s an imperfect solution. At least in my family, we aren’t any more enthusiastic about our sons wearing “I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework, So My Brother Has to Do It for Me” or “Pretty Like Mommy” t-shirts than we would be if we had daughters.
Nor do we love the idea of our children (of any gender) wearing sexually objectifying clothes, whether they’re “girl” clothes that highlight nonexistent breasts and waists or “boy” clothes bearing boys-will-be-boys slogans like “Lock Up Your Daughters.” Crossing the aisle only helps if there are decent options on both sides of the aisle. Too often, there aren’t.
But we’ve muddled through with solid colors, stripes, and plaids, avoiding licensed characters like the plague. We’re lucky to live in a big city where we can buy high-end brands on the cheap at consignment shops and thrift stores: fancy children’s clothing lines like Tea and Hei Moose often include beautiful and sturdy gender-neutral options, but that doesn’t help much if you can’t afford them.
While we’ve been muddling, though, some other awesome parents have chosen to DO something. Irritated parents have written and signed petitions, met with company representatives, and organized to create change (like the parents who got JC Penny to stop selling those “Too Pretty to Do Homework” shirts). Others have reacted to the pink and blue world of children’s products by becoming entrepreneurs.
More and more mothers, especially, are taking DIY to the next level by creating product lines, not just clothes for their own children. Some have created gender-neutral designs and shopping experiences, while others are working to change what “girl” or “boy” clothes can look like. They all resist the sexist and limiting status quo. They’re all motivated by a fierce determination to create healthier ranges of options for their own children—and for other people’s children, too.
Here are 5 parent-entrepreneurs to check out:
1. Jill and Jack Kids is the brand new project of philosophy PhD and parent Jenn Neilson. When Neilson was pregnant, she went baby clothes shopping and couldn’t find what she was looking for. What she saw, instead, was a shopping landscape that “taught children that there is only one right way to be a boy, one right way to be a girl, and that you have to pick one or the other.” So naturally she’s launching a new children’s clothing line, complete with a bright orange t-shirt that proclaims “Half of the T.rexes were girls.” My eight-year-old heard about this and said, “Yeah, because I’m always wondering, how do people think they reproduced? Males shouldn’t get all the credit for reproduction.” Thank you, dear.
2. Handsome in Pink has offered gender-stereotype-challenging children’s clothes since 2007. Creators Jo Hadley and Helena Simon have known each other since they were wearing kids’ clothes themselves: they met in kindergarten. Both are emphatic about how individual and changing their own children are, not easily shoved into “girl” and “boy” boxes. The company’s mission statement says: “We believe that colors (such as pink and purple) and active imagery (such as firetrucks, tool belts, and electric guitars) belong to everyone and should be mingling, not dividing up along gender lines. The way we see it, there should be more sharing of clothes among girls and boys.” I do love sharing!
3. Indikidual is an organic cotton “unisex capsule collection for all kids aged 3 months to 7 years,” which is to say, I can’t afford it. But it’s gorgeous, fun, and nonsexist. Creator Syreeta Johnson worked as a children’s clothing buyer before having a child; her solution to the work/parenting crunch was to quit her full-time job and develop this line from home. It’s gender-neutral and super-playful because Johnson’s daughter blew her away with energy and a powerful personality from the get-go.
4. Girls Will Be headlines itself as “your headquarters for girl clothes without the girly.” Sharon Burns Choksi came up with the idea when her daughter rejected “girly” clothes (“Why do boys get all the cool stuff?”) and even her fashion-loving niece couldn’t find anything that wasn’t “cutesy” and uncomfortable. Working with her sister and brother, Choksi offers shorts in various fits and bright, graphic tees and hoodies in sizes 4 to 12.
5. Quirkie Kids (“Pink Tees for Girls and Boys”) is the brainchild of Martine Zoer, working with fellow parents Liam Robinson and Emi Halvorson. This team offers awesome pink t-shirts and onesies emblazoned with line drawings of ice-cream-eating monsters and the like. Zoer’s time with her two sons made her realize how arbitrary and limiting gender rules like no pink for you! are—and how utterly unrelated they are to individual children’s preferences and personalities. So she set out to create different options.
Know about other anti-sexist parent entrepreneurs—or other great options for finding children’s clothes that don’t elicit feminist sighs and eye-rolls? Leave ’em in the comments!
Related Reading: How My Little Pony and Barbie Market to Horse-Loving Girls.
Thanks to Jenn Neilson of Jill and Jack Kids for pointing me toward Handsome in Pink and Quirkie Kids while I researched this piece. I love how feminist entrepreneurs cheerfully recommend their “competitors” as we all try to create awareness and a different way to think about children. Feminists, you are the best.
Molly Westerman is a writer, book nerd, literature PhD, and parent. She blogs about gender and parenting at First the Egg and is currently working on a book for feminist parents. Follow her on Twitter at @mollywesterman.