10/07/2013 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2013

Why My 9-Year-Old Daughter Shops for Clothes in the Boys' Section

Malika Saada Saar

Last week, my daughter and I went shopping for clothes. After feeling the cold edges of autumn in the early mornings, Sage and I looked at her clothes, and decided that it was time to stack up on new pants, long-sleeved shirts and maybe even a light jacket. Like many parents at this time of year, we headed to the typical children's clothes stores to make the new wardrobe happen.

My daughter is 9 and she is very clear about her fashion aesthetic. She is a tomboy. Sage likes feeling comfortable in her clothes, and wants clothes that she can play soccer or kickball in during recess. Dresses and skirts, according to Sage, are constraining.

All of which is fine by me. I want my daughter to feel comfortable, and for her to feel agency over how she dresses herself. I got to dress her as a baby and toddler (and, yes, I did choose "girlie" dresses and outfits) and now she is of the age to make her own decisions (for the most part).

But, I have to admit to losing it last week. In every store we went to, my daughter headed straight for the boys' section. At first I thought, this is great, she is selecting her style and is entirely indifferent to the looks and even sneers of parents and other kids in the boys' section. She is powerful and fearless in who she is.

And then another feeling took over: annoyance.

I thought to myself, Couldn't she just look at the girls' section? When I suggested just that to Sage, she rolled her eyes at me which, under any circumstance, works my nerves, but had an especially bad effect at Target. So, I started in: "I just don't understand why we can't look at the girls' clothing? Why are you being so shut down to that option?"

Now, at this point, I had to check myself. Why did I really want to go over to the girls' clothing? Was I caving into to the judgmental looks of the other parents? Did I feel uncomfortable that my daughter was playing out, in a very public space, gender non-conforming behavior? Was I a total hypocrite such that I can intellectually elevate notions of gender non-conformity, but when my only daughter starts doing that, I am actually embarrassed?

After a few deep breaths, I got in touch with what was really going on for me. I want my daughter to be open to all possibilities. I want a world for her that is never restrictive or narrow or deficit-based. I tried to explain exactly that to her.

Whether we went over to the girls' side because she could hear and honor my feelings or because she was just so thoroughly frustrated with me, I am not sure. But travel to the terrain of dresses and skirts we did. At which point, Sage pointed to some of the especially frilly, glittery outfits and said, "Really mom? Really?"

"Sage," I said, "let's go over to where the girl athletic wear is." And, with her head now cocked to one side, she responded: "Mommy, everything athletic for girls is either pink or purple."

Of course, with complete self-righteousness, and in an attempt to topple her attitude with my greater attitude, I responded: "Oh please, that is so not true. There is no possible way that every outfit is pink or purple."

Low and behold, as we walked over there, I could see the pink and purple popping out of each of the athletic girl outfits. Damn it.

But really, beyond the annoying fact that my daughter proved me wrong, I was angry that she couldn't find her comfort zone and sense of expression and self in the girls' section. Why is EVERYTHING for girls pink or purple? Why can't girls have the freedom to express themselves in more colors, and in more outfits that are fun and not cutesy or even sexualized?

It is so striking to me that as my daughter has access to educational and economic opportunities that were unimaginable to her grandmother -- or even to me -- she is, at the same time, confronted by a paradoxically narrow notion of what being a girl is. She can either be cute or sexy.

Perhaps this is part of an inevitable push and pull -- and backlash -- of recognizing and living out gender equality and being in a dynamic conversation around what girls need. But, in the meantime, it's the boys' clothing section for us.