You Are What You Wear
The Dangerous Lessons Kids Learn From Sexist T-Shirts

12/03/2014 09:04 am ET | Updated Dec 04, 2014

future
Art by Damon Scheleur

Mike Adamick was shopping at Target with his daughter when she saw a retro Superman shirt in the boys’ section. She wanted to look for the shirt in her size over in the girls’ section.

“But of course there’s no Superman shirt in the girls’ section,” Adamick told The Huffington Post. So they continued to shop where his daughter could find T-shirts that showcased her interests in Superman, Minecraft, sports and college gear -- the department labeled “Boys.”

Adamick does most of the shopping for his family, and in the last few years, the disparities between clothing offered for boys and for girls have become very apparent to him. “Boys are supposed to like sports and superheroes and the idea of going to college. Girls are supposed to love peace and harmony and cupcakes; they’re supposed to be cute and sweet,” he said, summing up the messages on shirts he sees.

When a photo (below) of a T-shirt for young girls that read “Training to Be Batman’s Wife” went viral, with critics slamming the shirt as sexist and offensive, Adamick wrote on his blog: “Boys can be heroes. Girls can marry them.”

batmans wife


Commenting on a related HuffPost article, some readers were equally outraged by the shirt's overt sexism. But several vocal commenters took no issue with the message. They argued that “just one shirt” is “no big deal.”

In a poll conducted by YouGov and The Huffington Post, a majority of adults surveyed came closer to that second viewpoint. Only 12 percent of respondents said the shirt was sexist and shouldn’t be sold in stores. Forty-eight percent thought that the slogan was sexist but that people should be free to buy it if they wished. Forty percent found no problem with the shirt.

The majority’s core argument is obviously true: No one is being forced to buy anything -- it’s a free country. But multiple researchers and sociologists contend that gendered clothing is too problematic to toss off with a "free speech" shrug.

One big reason is that children can't simply ignore what they see. A 2004 study from Arizona State University and New York University researchers described children as “gender detectives” who seek out information about the differences between girls and boys, attempt to draw inferences about gender and then apply their conclusions to themselves. Even subtle messaging about girls' and boys’ roles -- in the media, in society and on clothing -- affects the way kids see themselves.

Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, said that young kids tend to be rigid about gender stereotypes. “They learn their gender identities are very relevant and they learn that there’s a lot of very complicated rules about how to be a girl or a boy, and they’re at that stage of life where they’re trying to learn the rules,” she said.

For several years now, Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, has been explaining how T-shirts like the Batman example influence how children perceive themselves.

“I can’t say one shirt, one Barbie doll ... that one thing is not going to be a tipping point of making a difference, but it’s the culture they grow up in that, of course, socializes them,” Orenstein told HuffPost. "There is such a large subset of messages that remind girls that they are not supposed to be assertive or they’re not supposed to be good at science or math or reinforce the idea that how you look is more important than who you are.”

And those messages are displayed on children’s clothing over and over again.

In defense of the Batman shirt, some HuffPost commenters asked: “What’s wrong with wanting to be a wife?” Nothing, Wade said. The problem, she explained, is that we “live in a world that defines women by their relationships with men, but not men [by their] relationships to women. … In this context, it is reminding people what the expectations are for women, and the expectation is not just that she will be a wife, but that she’ll be somebody important’s wife, and her identity will be defined by his importance.”

A similar Internet uproar erupted when Marvel sold a set of shirts that read “I Need a Hero” for girls and “Be a Hero” for boys. The message was all too clear: that girls need rescuing and boys are the ones for the job.

Statistics show that in real life, women don't need to be rescued by men. In 1960, only 11 percent of mothers were the breadwinners in their homes; in 2013, 40 percent held that title. With 63 percent of female high school graduates now enrolling in college -– compared to 61 percent of male grads -– women are doing just fine as their own heroes.

Yet kids start hearing the opposite message very young. Baby girls are labeled as a "Future Bride" on their onesies, while their male counterparts declare, "Parental Advisory: Lock Up Your Daughters."

"A person has an identity beyond their marital status, and we are defining girls as having their goal be their marital status. That is a problem," Orenstein said.

In 2011, JCPenney pulled from its shelves a shirt that read, "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me," after protests on the Internet. Again, the message was apparent: Being smart and being pretty are mutually exclusive, but being pretty is more important if you’re a girl. Also, boys do better on their homework.

The latter concept is not just insulting to girls. Perpetuating the idea that boys are inherently more competent -- especially in subjects like science and math -- has effects far beyond hurt feelings.

A 2012 study from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Sun Yat-sen University researchers found that believing you possess innate qualities that make you good (or bad) at something affects how you perform that task. In other words, telling girls that they are bad at math increases the chances that they will perform poorly on math puzzles.

There's no denying that girls draw away from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as they grow up. Studies show that girls and boys don't differ significantly in their math and science abilities during their early schooling, but that big gaps develop in their expressed interest in those subjects and their confidence in their ability to perform well. In college, less than 20 percent of female undergraduates earn degrees in STEM fields. And once in the workforce, only a quarter of STEM positions are occupied by women.

Orenstein sees in such statistics the ruinous influence of gender stereotypes on vulnerable minds. A Forever 21 shirt from 2011 that declared, "Allergic to algebra," is just one of the culprits.

Society's message that being attractive is better than being smart can be highly detrimental to young girls, according to Rebecca Bigler, professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the internalized sexualization of girls ages 10-15. She found that girls who believe being sexually attractive is an important part of their identity have less academic success and less motivation to succeed in school.

Speaking to HuffPost, Bigler cited earlier studies that also found those girls to have lower self-esteem and fewer peer relations.

For their research, Bigler and her colleagues first tested girls to find out where they fell on an internalized sexualization scale: Girls who indicated, for example, that they preferred to wear sexy clothing scored higher; girls who preferred modest clothing scored lower. Then, the researchers had the girls prepare to shoot a newscast on which they were told they would be evaluated. The girls were secretly filmed as they got ready for their segments. The group who had scored high on internalized sexualization spent more time putting on makeup and less time reading the script than the group who had scored low.

"That suggests to me there are real consequences to internalizing the idea that our appearance is what’s important. There are real consequences for academic performance," Bigler said.

Wade made a similar point about the impact of labeling girls as pretty -- on shirts or otherwise.

"Young girls do learn that what they look like is very, very important and that does have impact in what they value and what kind of decisions they make and who they think they are," she said, adding, "Little girls are constantly told how pretty they are, and they learn very quickly that being pretty is important."

Boys are picking up cues from these T-shirts too, said Wade. They're learning that "they should expect women to defer -- to defer to their authorities, their careers, their aspirations."

Gendered clothing teaches boys that they're supposed to be tough, strong and smart like their dads, while girls are reduced to glitter-loving princesses who are pretty like their moms. Compare those two sets of traits, and you can see why boys might conclude that girls are lesser, Orenstein said. That's why doing something "like a girl" is the classic insult that little boys hurl at each other.

"Because 'girl' means secondary, 'girl' means physically unskilled, 'girl' means weak," said Orenstein.

The result? Boys begin distancing themselves from girls and "girl" behavior at a young age, which affects how they treat women later in life. A 2013 study from Arizona State University found that boys and girls growing up "separately" from each other have a "lack of understanding" about the other gender that can carry into male-female relationships in adulthood.

What should parents do with this information?

"Don't walk through the aisles of Target," Orenstein suggested sarcastically.

What can help, she said, is to give young girls a better framework for analyzing what they see.

"I'm always up for asking questions like, 'Gosh, I wonder why the boys have a shirt that says Batman and the girls have a shirt that says Batman’s wife? That's funny, isn't it? I wonder why all the dolls have giant lips and huge breasts,' or whatever. Asking wondering questions with little kids is very effective," said Orenstein.

Teaching children to be critical thinkers about media, pop culture and what's for sale in the marketplace is what Orenstein calls the biggest challenge for the current generation of parents.

Adamick, too, sees his shopping trips with his daughter as conversation starters. After she was unable to find the Superman shirt in the girls' section –- as her dad suspected would happen -– the two talked about society's ideas of what kids are supposed to be like.

He's hopeful that today's children will have the power to make changes. "Kids are raised with this discussion that all men and all women are equal. ... I think we are onto something good here," Adamick said.

As for his daughter, she walked out of the store with a brand-new Minecraft shirt and the next day reveled in the compliments she received for it at school.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Oct. 14-15 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the poll's methodology are available here.

CONVERSATIONS