"Don't be mad, but I got a couple of shirts from the boys' section," my daughter proclaimed as she found me and her little brother sitting on the bench outside of the Gap Kids at our local mall. Her mom was still inside paying with our other daughters.
I wasn't mad, not even close. But I asked why, purely out of parental curiosity.
"All the girls' stuff is too cutesy, and the boys' stuff is just cooler."
My daughter is a pretty typical pre-teen -- except in the many ways that she's exceptional, of course. She likes to ride her bike; plays soccer; has read the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series and all the Hunger Games books. She used to like princesses and Disney movies, and has recently discovered boy bands. She's not what society would call a "gender non-conformist." And that's not what this is about.
But, it is very much about gender and conformity. And fashion, I think.
I went back into the Gap, daughter and her younger brother in tow, to see what she meant.
Like all clothing stores starting with infancy, this Gap Kids is divided neatly into the girls' side and the boys' side. Just like the toy aisle at the department store, pinks predominate one and blues the other. Those are the colors assigned to us in the hospital, after all.
Looking beyond the color, I read the various sayings and slogans on the graphic t-shirts for each sex.
"Smile" proclaimed the first one from the little girls' section. "Good as Gold," another. "Have Your Cake," a third, with eating it too being implied, I assume.
On the boys' side, things were different.
"The Beach Life is the Only Life," said the first; "All Work, No Play... Property of the Lazy Days Department," another; And "Upstate Soccer, Lake George Strikers." Somebody should tell the Gap the best soccer player in Upstate New York goes by the name of Abby.
Of course, it was the end of the summer buying season, which happens in early July -- don't ask me to explain, it's also when I start going through shirts like Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open. We were there because of the summer clearance sale and the "Take Additional 40% Off" signs. The racks weren't exactly bursting, so maybe it was just that our Gap Kids store was picked over, leaving behind only the nauseatingly cute t-shirts for girls and obsessively cool ones for boys.
I went online when we got home to discern whether this sample was representative of the larger population of graphic t-shirts. And it was. The girls' tees had animals and butterflies, cute sayings and lots of smiles. There were no "sporty" ones, and only two of 22 had "cool" as the theme. The boys, on the other hand, were all athletic and beachy, exuding an abundantly laid-back vibe.
There was also a boys t-shirt online that read, "I've Got the Skills to Pay the Bills." I wanted to order it for my wife, but I don't know what size she wears in boys' shirts. Besides, that's a different article. (Or maybe the same article, if it were longer and more introspective).
It's not just the Gap Kids. On a separate trip to a local Carter's, which sells clothes for babies and toddlers, I was surprised at the messages emblazoned across the gender-specific clothes. I expected the pink and blue divide, but not the accompanying words.
The baby girls' onesies included "Super Cute" and "Queen for A Day." Not so bad. Until you compare it to the boys, which had "Mr. Macho," "Ladies Man," and "Chicks Dig Me," among others.
There's no doubt about it, our daughters and sons are getting very different messages beyond just pink and blue. And it starts when they are babies.
Of course, babies don't have credit cards. So it's us parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles buying these things. After all, companies wouldn't make these shirts if we didn't buy the product. Maybe it is super cute to see a baby boy with a "Mr. Macho" shirt. And maybe most young girls prefer butterflies to soccer balls and surfboards. But what exactly are we saying here?
When you step out of the kids' fashion world for a minute, you notice a culture in the midst of a change. People everywhere, and parents in particular, are bucking age-old gender-based stereotypes associated with work and home life. Women who happen to be mothers are launching startups and leading top companies. Dads are shelving careers to stay home with the kids, or working from home to be more involved. There's a generation of parents working together to raise families, doing whatever they have to do to survive and trying their best to make sure their kids don't enter the world with preconceived notions about what it means to be a pink or a blue.
There's a reason. We need more women in fields like science and math, for starters. And I want my girls to pursue those fields, if that's where their interest lies, not become obsessed with a need to be cute. The push to make girls conform to just cuteness limits all the other things they could become.
And young men need to know there's more to being a man than being macho. In fact, much of what we think of as being macho is directly counter to what it means to be a man today. Try wearing that "Mr. Macho" shirt when you're 30 and see if "chicks" still dig you.
All of us consumers out there are at least partially to blame. But the Gap Kids of the world should bear responsibility, too. In the design phase, doesn't someone speak up and ask, "What are we teaching with these t-shirts?"
Isn't there a parent in the room to say, "You know, my daughter loves soccer, too."
If not, there should be. It can't just be about selling t-shirts. There has to be a wider responsibility to the world we all share.
We used to be able to easily point to Disney and Legos as the biggest offenders in this category. Both have been forcing gender stereotypes on our young children for a while, and both have made strides recently (more like small steps) to get away from that. It's time for the clothing industry to follow, and it starts with big retailers, like Gap Kids.
Our daughter happily wears the few boys' shirts bought that day, even though the sleeves annoy her because they're cut different than the Gap's girls' shirts.
Next summer, she'd really like to see a soccer shirt for girls. And, no, it doesn't have to be pink. And yes, we would likely buy that for her, too... after the summer clearance begins.