It’s time to tackle gendered inspirational guff on children’s clothes

Girls are sweet, good and kind. Boys are strong, assertive and bold. Jesus wept.

It’s like a bad joke. It’s so ridiculous at one point that I laugh aloud in the children’s clothes department. (It was more a pffft of disbelief.)

Surely in spring 2022 the powers that be who control such matters have learned the problematic effects of gender-themed children’s clothing?

Looking through a few shops – in a wholly unscientific survey – it’s hard to decide whether it’s down to a famine of imagination and intelligence in buyers’ departments, a careless lack of thought, or part of a plot to, you know, wreck social progress one tiny step at a time.

What we see, what we are told, what we are given to wear or play with, is what we grow to like, and this is what we become.

Did someone decide at some point that an extreme gendering of children’s clothes would push the profit? Or maybe it’s chicken and egg, in a world where gender roles have unhappily become fraught and polarised.

At least we have moved on from the sexualised styles in little girls’ clothes and disturbing messages on T-shirts for 7-year-olds, after an international outcry a decade or so ago about toys, magazines, music and clothes turning young girls into sex objects.

In the 7 to 15-year-old girls section of Penneys this week, thankfully that no longer seems to be an issue. But gender stereotyping is alive and thriving and getting under parents’ skin.Why do almost all the tops have messages of some sort on them?

'All the clothes both online and in shops are in sections for boys or girls. So that's where we go when we browse'

Stack after stack: “Be Kind”, “You are so Lovely”, “More Joy”, “You are Beautiful”, “Choose Happy”. Then the inspirational speaker-style guff: “Grateful for today”, “There’s no plan B”, “All in this together”, “Be kind to yourself”. And the doubly-sweet: “No rain no flowers / Grow positive thoughts.”

The colours are overwhelming pastel, with many, many flowers.

Is it curmudgeonly to think this is cloying and bland along with being blatantly sexist?

Over in the 7 to 15-year-old boys section, there’s the odd pastel, but the clothes are mainly dark, “masculine” colours and camouflage. There are some New England Patriots, Minecraft, “California” and “West Coast” tops, but we still can’t get away from slogans. And boy, they’re of a different hue here: “Gamer Forever”, “Limitless”, “Future”. Even the inspirational twaddle for boys seems to have a different flavour: “You Can Be The Change”, “We are the Future”. Strong and masterful, not wussy and sweet.

Upmarket chains, one-off chi-chi shops and online specialists may well have less of the comically gendered kids’ clothes, but the more affordable multiples are likely where most children’s gear is bought.

Deflated, it’s on to Dunnes. in a sea of sickly pink, here too is more of the sweetie-pie gobbledegook to pin on our future women. Flowers, swirls, hearts and pastels abound, but the girls’ slogans are perhaps less docile: “I decide my vibe”, “Believe”. There are many unicorns (dotted with “smart beautiful kind”, “love”, “you’re a rockstar”).

One pale blue-green top has a full three doses of positivity: “I can change the world / Never stop dreaming together / We can.”

Again, no pink unicorns on the boys’ tops in Dunnes; just more subtly assertive in their (just as trite) messaging: “Awesome vibes”, “Future streetwear”, “No limits”, “Skate City, LA”, “Make today count”. And for the future captain of industry: “Game Changer.”

One cream top appears to cross the imaginary gender boundaries: “Stay chilled, no limits, be awesome”, throwing in the more adventurous “explore” for the lad.

And the one that made us pffft aloud: “Worldwide Warrior, Fearless.”

Jesus wept.

There’s not much change over at Tesco in the 4-14-year-olds range. Girls’ tops are emblazoned to declare they “See Good in All Things”, or “Love Yourself”. There’s more pink, more unicorns, more pastels.

Boys are bolder in message (“Imposter”) and darker in hue, along with more camouflage and “boy” brands: Nerf , Minecraft, PlayStation.

Even passing the window of a more upmarket indie shop, the toddler boy figure wears a “Skate Time” t-shirt, while the little girl sports kittens on hers. The bigger girl mannekin’s suggests we “Cultivate Love”. Inside, boys have tiger images or are urged to “Level Up” and “Give This World Good Energy”, while girls are pushed towards “Self Love” and flowery “Botanique/Like a Flower Field” messages.

Friends with young children agree colours in children’s clothes are very gendered, and choice is very limited for tweens. One avoids the excess (as well as unethical manufacture and environmental destruction) via hand-me-downs and charity shops. She says: “All the clothes both online and in shops are in sections for boys or girls. So that’s where we go when we browse!”

The more that clothes and toys emphasise gender difference, the more our shared humanity is undermined

Her daughter likes the bright colours and animals and even some of the messages like “be kind” or “good vibes”. “At least it’s a positive message.” Her son “doesn’t get as much of a choice with colours. He is sucked into the football branding every time. There are less bright colours, and he’s drawn to the camouflage.” Proving that what is offered is what we are drawn to.

Another is equally irritated by gendered toys: “Small girls’ bikes have streamers coming out of the handlebars. That drives me demented. They serve no purpose and there’s no way they would do that to boys’ bikes. And sexualisation of dolls – mermaids with skimpy bikini outfits – also drives me nuts.”

Is it hopeless? It’s certainly limiting, and dispiriting.

The more that clothes and toys emphasise gender difference, the more our shared humanity is undermined. And the more girls and boys learn to see each other as other. The more children are pushed to conform to gender stereotypes – even via the clothes they’re offered – the more they grow up to fulfil them.

The messages from most of these clothes: Girls are sweet and flowery, good and kind. Boys are strong and adventurous, assertive and bold. See it, wear it, become it.

It’s time for the buyers in these multiples to follow their own messaging. Take a Lead, Be Strong, No Limits – for everyone equally, in colour and message.

Maybe we can all be kind and be strong.

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