Earlier this week, the Washington Post featured a story from mother Beth Jacob about her daughter, Alice. Alice loves dinosaurs — and can’t understand for the life of her why she can’t find a T. rex T-shirt anywhere in the girls’ section at department stores.
Frustrated by the lack of reptiles, superheroes, and skateboards emblazoned on the clothes being made and marketed to her, 5-year-old Alice took matters into her own hands and wrote a letter to the Gap pleading her case.
My name is Alice Jacob and I am almost 5½ years old. I like cool shirts like Superman and Batman shirts and race car shirts, too. All your girl shirts are pink and princesses and stuff like that. The boys’ shirts are really cool. They have Superman, Batman, rock-and-roll and sports. What about girls who like those things like me, and my friend Olivia?
Can you make some cool girls’ shirts please? Or, can you make a ‘no boys or girls’ section — only a kids’ section?
And when I read Alice’s letter, I was mad at myself that I hadn’t thought to do what this savvy child did.
Because I can’t even count how many times I have had to cross the aisle to get my almost 2-year-old daughter a T-shirt with a dinosaur on it. Sadly, I have yet to find a single item bearing a single extinct creature anywhere in the girls’ section of any store I’ve been to.
And the problem goes beyond dinosaurs.
Bears? Boys department. Sharks? Boys department. Seemingly gender-neutral characters like Daniel Tiger and Thomas the Tank Engine and Mickey Mouse and Marshall from Paw Patrol? Yup you guessed it — all in the boys department.
When I sent the emboldening tale of young Alice Jacob to several friends of mine, I was met with overwhelming waves of recognition of the problems that moms of daughters face in getting their girls dressed, in (literally) whatever form or fashion.
“Story of my life!” my friend Chelsea wrote back. “I would go as far to say that I’m disgusted with little girl clothes.”
This same friend added that when her daughter is old enough to pick out and express opinions over her own clothes, she would happily let her wear “pink and purple and maybe even a tutu. But I can’t help but think that little girls only really want that because that’s what’s advertised to them.”
She said she shops in the boys’ section more than the girls’ section for her own toddler daughter “because it’s the only way to find gender-neutral clothes.” In the girls’ section, she says, “It’s damn near impossible to find clothes that aren’t sparkly or have a saying like ‘princess’ on them — and we don’t use that word.”
My friend Claire replied that she frequently shops in the boys’ department for her pre-K-aged daughter who wants to wear clothes with “superhero themes or other TV characters that they don’t make for girls.”
“What also bothers me is that they only put female characters from various movies or TV shows on girls’ clothing, furthering the stereotype that girls should only admire or aspire to be female characters. And they’re all pink or purple!!! Why?!?!”
And my friend Monica simply texted me a picture of her toddler daughter proudly wearing a dinosaur T-shirt, with the words, “Purchased from the boys’ department. We need to talk.”
Clearly, I wasn’t alone in my quest for the elusive dinosaur T-shirt made for girls.
But other friends expressed a different set of wardrobe anxieties altogether.
My cousin Sue told me that her daughter, who is almost 3 years old, “will only wear tutu dresses. She picks them out. I guess it’s our fault for buying them, but it’s what she picks out herself in the store.”
And my friend Sarah said my question about whether she had ever run up against any problems shopping for her own young daughters “obviously hit a nerve.”
Sarah explained that as someone who “hated pink and wore oversized T-shirts and knee-length jean shorts through elementary school and loved to play football with the neighborhood boys,” it would be effortless to raise a daughter who dressed in a way that expressed interest in things that aren’t thought of as being stereotypical “girl.”
But her oldest daughter, she explains, “is a girl girl. Not full on, pink only, princess-y, but she does love dresses and ballet.” And she wants a pink plate to eat her dinner off of. And she announced recently that she doesn’t like boys, only girls.
“Where did she learn that she’s supposed to hate boys and only be friends with girls?” Sarah mused, before recalling that whenever her daughter wears a dress, she receives seemingly boundless attention from the world at-large for it.
“People see her and say, ‘Oh, what a pretty dress!’ or ‘Look at that little cutie in her sparkly star dress!’ Or whatever,” Sarah said. “When she’s in jeans and a T-shirt, she might get the occasional ‘Hey, buddy’ from someone who thinks she’s a boy on the playground. Basically, if you’re part of the world, you cannot control the messages your kids hear about gender and dress. It’s maddening.”
Michele, whose daughter isn’t yet 2 years old, echoes this sentiment: “I have found it frustrating and strange that retailers and culture more generally find it necessary that the gender of your child be easily detectible through their clothes. I can’t tell you how many times my infant girl was identified as a boy because she was wearing a light blue sweatshirt (even though it had ruffles!) or a pair of black pants. I didn’t find this problematic because I was so worried about her being mistaken for a boy but because of the absurdity of strangers needing to know ‘what’ she was.”
Michele continues, “This is why I actively avoided those pretty pink headbands for babies that seem to be popular now. It seems that the only reason to put your baby through the ordeal of having a tight band on her head is because of this bizarre need to differentiate between girls and boys. This then carries over into toddler clothes and toy merchandising later.”
Which brings us back to the wise words of Alice Jacob and the call for a general kids’ section in lieu of clothing delineated as being just for boys or just for girls.
Because then kids — all kids, regardless of their sex or gender identity — could just pick the clothes that are right for them, whatever that means and whatever that looks like, whether it’s a tutu or a dinosaur or a tutu-wearing dinosaur. But it would be even more helpful for grownups to see for themselves that colors and interests, whether reptiles or dance, have nothing to do with gender.
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