Retail chain Forever 21 may have quietly added children’s clothing to its collection of affordable women’s and menswear back in 2015. But we’re making noise right now about a few of the boys’ T-shirts we’ve noticed are being marketed — for boys as young as 5 — as part of the line. The offending shirts contain messages that present boys as being chick-magnet, model-dating studs.
“Hola ladies,” “Sorry ladies I only date models,” “Ladies man,” and “Chicks are all over me,” are among the problematic messages on the tees, available in sizes 5/6 through 13/14 for just $11 a piece on the retailer’s website.
Well they were available on the website — until Wednesday, that is, when the retailer pulled them in response to Yahoo Style’s criticism.
“Forever 21 takes feedback and product concerns very seriously,” noted a statement provided to Yahoo Style. “With regards to the T-shirts in question, after receiving feedback we have taken immediate action to have them removed from our website. We sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by the products.”
Indeed, just a day after the original version of this story was published (without comment from Forever 21, which has not immediately responded to a request), the shirts were no longer to be found — great news to both Yahoo Style and the other critics of the shirts.
“It is completely inappropriate for companies to sell those shirts to young boys,” University of Kentucky professor of psychology Christia Spears Brown, author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, told Yahoo Style. “Even I am pretty shocked by those, and little shocks me these days.”
But the retailer is certainly no stranger to controversy over its clothing: In addition to being sued for more than 50 copyright violations by designers, the retailer, founded by the born-again Christian Chang family, has been accused of pushing a religious agenda both through T-shirts it sold (with sayings such as “Jesus Loves You”) and through printing the bible verse number 3:16 on the bottom of its bags. It also caught flak for selling a girls’ shirt that said “Allergic to algebra.” Blogger Rachel Kane maintains the website WTFForever21 (though it’s out of date) for the express purpose of calling out the store at times when items it sells go “horribly awry.”
And the boys’ T-shirts may have indeed been among those times.
“It sexualizes children at an age when they should not be sexualized,” Spears Brown continued. “It reinforces a harmful stereotype about boys that says their value and worth is dependent on how many girls or women they can ‘conquer.’ This has a ripple effect that can harm boys, both gay and straight, as well as girls. It indirectly says that girls are only for sexual attention and not for friendship. Anything that says that only models are worthy of attention is never positive for girls.”
The shirts push a heteronormative standard, Spears Brown added, which could be particularly uncomfortable messages for boys struggling with their sexual orientation. “For children, everything is educational,” she said. “They learn from these messages about how they are supposed to act, what they are supposed to value, and how they are supposed to treat others. Parents of sons should question whether these are the messages they want their sons to take into adult relationships.”
Indeed, Michael LaSala, associate professor of social work at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child, saw these shirts as teaching moments.
“I think what this reflects is the need for a broader conversation about children’s sexuality, gender, and relationships,” he told Yahoo Style. “Because what happens in our society is that we love sexiness but we don’t love — and even castigate — real sexuality.”
The T-shirt’s messages, LaSala added, both highlight ideas that parents need to discuss with their children and reflect “an anxiety” that heterosexual men have around women. “What belies these thoughts is a concern: ‘Will girls like me?’ ‘How should I talk to girls?’ It’s almost a defense mechanism against that, as well as a projection of adults,” he said. “There needs to be a talk in general around how you treat women. And what if she isn’t a supermodel? What makes someone attractive? What does it mean that Forever 21 thinks this will sell? And what does it say about pressures on boys, men, women, and girls? And about how we live in a world with unrealistic expectations.”