I was recently in a department store buying my daughter some new clothes. When I went to pay, the woman at the cash register said, “How old is your son?”
I said, “My daughter is 2.”
The woman looked at the clothes I’d piled in front of her and said, “But these are boys’ clothes!”
I shrugged. “They’re children’s clothes. And they’re for my daughter, so they’ll be a girl’s clothes.”
The woman clucked disapprovingly and asked, “Are you from Sweden or something?”
Now, as a matter of fact, I did live in Sweden for years and am a Swedish citizen, but that’s not what makes me interested in gender-neutral clothing (and I doubt all Swedes want to live in a gender-free world anyway). My wife and I are fairly practical and sensible, and we think our daughter should have comfortable clothing that is conducive to running and playing. Long dresses, fake fur coats, and fluffy tutus wouldn’t really be useful when climbing trees, would they?.
But also, to be honest, I don’t understand why we need different clothes, colors, patterns, or styles for boys and girls or for men and women. Why shouldn’t males wear skirts in our culture (as they do in other cultures)? What makes a striped shirt appropriate for little boys but not little girls? Why don’t many women’s trousers have pockets? Why do men’s and women’s shirts button differently? Why do girls need t-shirts proclaiming that they’re “trophy wives” or “heart-breakers” while boys wear slogans that refer to their heroism and brains? Why are even things like pacifiers and baby onesies so incredibly gendered?
In short, are we so obsessed with being able to differentiate between narrow conceptions of the two genders that we can’t allow even allow clothes to be flexible, neutral, and available to everyone?
The answer, sadly, seems to be yes.
Some girls in my daughter’s nursery always wear dresses and tights. These are children who are outdoors every day, in cold or rainy weather, playing in sand and on the grass, rolling down hills, collecting leaves in the forest, and riding bikes. Even indoors, they’re on the floor much of the time, coloring with pencils, pushing toy cars around, putting together puzzles, and reading books. The children are all pretty dirty by the end of the day, and it’s not unusual for me to notice holes in some girls’ tights. I often wonder whether these girls in their dresses are warm enough outside and if they feel able to participate in everything that the non-dress-wearers are doing. And even if they don’t notice a difference between dresses and trousers now, what about when they’re older and more self-conscious? Will they be hampered by those dresses and by ideas about what girls can or should do? For those reasons, girls’ clothes often seem limiting to me.
And then there’s someone we know who had a toddler daughter and was about to give birth to a boy. She bought an entire new wardrobe for the boy, because she said he couldn’t possibly wear any of the clothes his older sister had worn. As though an infant notices or cares! As though sleepsuits and socks and undershirts are inherently gendered, or a boy might get “infected” by wearing the occasional pink top!
To me, clothes are clothes. A child should be active, and that requires practical, sturdy outfits. And while my daughter certainly does own some clothes from the “girls’ section” of the store, many of the items there are things I refuse to purchase. My toddler is not a “sex bomb” and will not wear a top that claims her as one, nor does she need frilly dresses and long ruffled sleeves while she’s clambering on play equipment. And my wife and I believe that since we, as grown women, like to wear colors other than pink, our daughter might do so well. But it’s nearly impossible to find anything but pink among the girls’ items. We’re much more satisfied with the selection of clothes from the so-called “boys’ section”.
Once, when someone called me “brave” for dressing my daughter in something other than pink, flowered clothes, I explained my thinking to her. She nodded and said she preferred girls’ clothes for her own daughter but–she quickly added–she was glad there were people like me out there.
I’m not sure she really meant it, but I certainly hope there are more parents like me too, and not just in Sweden.