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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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“Is It a Boy or a Girl?” And Other Gendered Ideas in Children

“Is It a Boy or a Girl?” And Other Gendered Ideas in Children

“Is it a boy or a girl?” That’s the first question on everyone’s lips when they hear someone’s having children. Baby showers and nurseries have started looking like the runoff of Peep factories. And have you been in a children’s clothing department lately? Everything is categorized into boys and girls. Every piece of “boy” clothing has something to do with trucks or football and is absolutely adorable, while all the girls’ clothing has ballet slippers or diamond rings on it and is also adorable. When I say everything is categorized, everything is categorized. There is not a single item of children’s clothing that is not classified as for boys or for girls. Other than the need for Target to hone its marketing, where did this compulsion to define clothing as boys or girls come from? How long has it been around?

“Everything for little girls is obnoxiously pink and frilly and has Hello Kitty on it. I don’t want to buy Julia a bunch of stuff with Hello Kitty on it,” says frustrated young mother, Bethanne McCarty. Along with the sheer fact that Hello Kitty is terrifying, Mrs. McCarty makes a valid point. She says that she tried to find her nine-month-old daughter Elmo pajamas and a jack-o-lantern shirt, but could not find anything that was not labeled “boys.”

“Well, I guess Julia will be wearing a lot of boy’s clothes,” she says firmly. Granted, little Julia will look fabulous in anything she wears, but this discrepancy brings up an interesting issue for modern feminist mothers. Just when we thought that we had made progress towards not using gender to define people, we find that our children’s clothing is even more deeply classified by it than we could have imagined. What are we telling our children– and our peers?

Historically, the gender classification of children’s clothing is a relatively recent development. Until just before World War I, there were no differences in boys’ and girls’ dress until about age 6. It wasn’t until this time that it became convention to differentiate in color between boys and girls, but these colors were not necessarily consistent until the Second World War.  In fact, a magazine in 1927 stated that pink was an appropriate color for a boy child, while blue was better for girls. It’s not as though gender differences didn’t exist, but they were definitely less emphasized in children than they in modern day parenting. Now, partly because of advances in prenatal science, we simply must know the sex– and, supposedly, the gender– of our child before we know anything else about it.

Since the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s, people have– understandably– tried to raise children without the emphasis on gender. Is this truly possible, or is the concept of a rigid gender binary so ingrained in our societal identities that it is fruitless to try to avoid it? In the 1980s, clothes became increasingly marketed to either boys or girls, permanently bringing this question to the forefront. Does it matter whether a child knows its gender based on its shirt? Does gender predict what interests or personality? Should it? According to researchers, gender fluidity is common among young children. In fact, most children will most likely remain that way until around age six or seven. Even though children do not necessarily understand or care about their sex or gender, products continue to distinguish boys and girls by their clothing, their toys, and even their diapers.

For example, training diapers are made based on the biological needs of boys and girls during potty training time in that they are extra absorbent in the places that different sexes need it most.  These areas differ because of the sheer difference in genitalia on children. But where do intersex children come in? And don’t think it stops with diaper design alone; the products add another step of gender classification into the mix by offering certain popular characters and designs that differ between sexes. For example, in boys’ training diapers, it is possible to get characters from the movie Cars or Diego from the popular preschool show Dora the Explorer.  In girls training diapers, the choices are collective Disney Princesses or Dora from the aforementioned show.  So if a biologically female child really likes Diego or the characters from Cars, she is probably not going to get the wetness protection that is best tailored to her biology. This goes for a boy that loves Princess or Dora diapers. In my tenure as a preschool teacher, I can personally vouch for most children’s love for both kinds of diapers. So who decided that boys like cars and girls like princesses? What happens to a child if they don’t fit in these molds?

Do we go too far in allowing everything our children wear to differentiate them by gender? And where does this leave children who fit outside of the gender binary? I don’t see a “genderqueer” or “agender” section of the store. Perhaps we would create a healthier society of young people if children were categorized by what is in their hearts and minds, rather than what is between their legs.

Written by Sarah Garner
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