Gender Constructs: Let My Toddler Go!

So this week in my inbox, along with petitions from the anti-horse-and-carriage folks (signed), anti-ex-gay-torture-clinics-in-Ecuador folks (signed), and a request to “like” United to End Genocide on Facebook (done), landed a little gem of a petition from, urging moms to protest Gymboree’s gender-obsessed clothing—specifically, boys’ onesies that say “Smart Like Daddy” and a girls’ version that says “Pretty Like Mommy.” Seriously, Gymboree? What’s with sticking infants in sexist gender stereotypes? the petition asked. I signed it, of course, because the onesie sayings are seriously egregious. But oh, MomRising. If only it were the one store guilty of such nonsense. Been inside the kids’ department at Macy’s lately? Or Old Navy? Or even flicked through the Hanna Andersson website? Hyper-pink on one side. Dull blues and tans on the other. It’s assaultive. And it takes a focused determination to reach across the aisle and shop on both sides for your one boy or girl.

At a time when societal definitions of gender are becoming more and more blurred—at least from my queer perspective—it seems that gender lines for children (certainly for children’s clothing) are getting more and more aggressively defined. And it’s the marketing of those rules that’s got toddlers brainwashed with ideas of what is and what is not okay for little girls and boys. And the repercussions of that, to me, are chilling.

It’s all been on my mind lately, even before the Gymboree petition, as I’ve been trying in vain to buy a new pair of shoes for my 3-year-old. In vain, because Lula has suddenly discovered her hyper-femme, girly-girliness, and only wants footwear that is pink and shiny and sequined. And my partner and I are not so sure how we feel about it.

I grew up on the girly side—I had shiny black Mary Janes and loved dresses and lived for evenings spent with pretty babysitters who would blow-dry my hair and polish my nails. For my partner, wearing a dress was a punishment. A bad one. So we understand that kids are hardwired toward different ends of the gender spectrum, and if Lula wants to dress as a tiara-wearing fairy for Halloween and eat her dinner in a tutu and lavender feather boa from her dress-up bag, then by all means, we support it. I mean, at least she has a gender-nonspecific imaginary friend (“Her name is John. She’s from Africa. And sometimes she’s a he.”) and knows the difference between Miss Richfield and Dina Martina (thank you, P-town!) and has an amazing Uncle George who wears pink Converse high-tops.

But still: pink sequined Mary Janes? No can do. We’re not even entirely sure why, but we’ve been processing it all week, natch, and we think it goes something like this: Just by walking into a shoe store, Lula’s being sold a bill of goods—gentle little impractical-for-winter Mary Janes in sparkly pastels for her, cute and rugged little butch booties in chocolates and grays for John (well, not exactly for John, but you get my point). When I suggested a pair of the cozy brown booties, she said, “Mama, those are not for girls,” and it stopped me cold. We’d never told her that, she doesn’t watch TV, she’s not in school yet, and—the clincher—I was wearing my unsexy but beloved brown Dansko clogs at the time. Still, she’s somehow learned it. And we want to spend lots more time letting her know that it’s actually not the truth—not our truth, anyway. And then, just maybe (and if she’s not moved on), some sequined shoes.

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11 Responses to Gender Constructs: Let My Toddler Go!

  1. Elisabeth Verde says:

    Experiencing the same thing with my very stereotypical boy except for recently choosing pink bunny slippers out of a catalogue, “So I can hop!” Worse than Gymboree, I think, is that if you order a Happy Meal at the drive through at McDonald’s (yes, I am confessing that I have when on long trips). they ask, “Boy or girl?” Not, “Power Rangers or Barbies?” which would be bad enough! Perhaps you can compromise and find her a pair of pink boots.

  2. Julia says:

    Love the post!
    It’s just a phase right? Just think in another 10 years she”ll be wanting to wear all black and dye her hair.
    One thing I have noticed recently (and I haven’t even started buying clothes for our girls) is how all the girl clothes seem to be cut in ultra sexy style, like short shorts, even the youngest girls, or push-ups for pre-pre teens. What’s up with that?

    • Beth says:

      You are right about the sexy cuts! It’s totally weird and disturbing—like low-cut jeans with “hips” or skinny jeans that are clingy. For toddlers. Puke. xoxo

  3. suzanne says:

    this is so great for myriad reasons- the writing, the humor, the POINT you’re making (!), the larger sociological issues – and the breezy, easy writing style. Seriously, I love where you’re going with this blog. I am going to wear my spangly, sequined Mary Janes and my brown Ugg boots with pride. xo

  4. Jen Higgins says:

    I think Dansko clogs are totally sexy.

  5. Well said, Beth. I’ve been thinking of these issues a lot. I spent the day going over the final manuscript for a book by mom of trans children (some little ones, others adults who transitioned well into their thirties). Their stories are so heartfelt and moving. They tell of their own transition toward acceptance of their kids’ gender identities. And their fierce protection of their children! Anyway, I don’t ever get emotional and wipe tears while going over the last corrections on a copyedited ms… (well unless it’s, you know, terrible!) I’m with Kiki on the dresses. Oh my I felt so ugly and wrong in my body when I was made to dress up. I remember fondly a pair of red corduroys I had at age 5 or so… (The book I was working on is out in April — Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children)

  6. Vicky Brown says:

    How true! I went to Gymboree the other day, and, as always, I’m looking for something cute for Lula. I walked out of there thoroughly frustrated. I couldn’t find one thing I really liked. I was looking for pink because I know she loves pink, but everything was too fussy. Argh! After reading your piece, I better understand why I was frustrated. When I was a little girl I had mousy brown hair and crossed eyes, my eyebrows ran together and my teeth were too big for my mouth. My sister, on the other hand, was beautiful! Mother did us the disservice of saying she was the pretty one and I was the smart one, so I dressed in drab tans, no ruffles, and accepted that my sister was the pretty, girly one, in bright colors and girly stuff. So, sometimes, how you dress has to do with how you feel about yourself. Now that I’m 70, I dress how I darn please and brown is one of my favorite colors. So, keep being the great Moms that you both are and let her free spirit soar. It’s what’s inside that counts. Today it’s pink…tomorrow, who knows…

  7. Melissa says:

    Excellent post Beth. It’s really disappointing that these stereotypes somehow seep into our childrens’ brains. Max used to love to wear his friends pink gingham pj’s until he was about 3.5 when suddenly he decided that wasn’t boyish and was therefore unacceptable. It is just a phase though… He still won’t wear pink. He’s 7 now, but recognises thatnit is ok formboys to wear pink. He does recognise the peer pressure of conforming at this age, though. I think that might be more depressing somehow.

  8. Pingback: Censorship: Alive and Well in Our Home | Beth Greenfield

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