When I was working at a popular Canadian retail chain, I couldn’t help but notice the stark difference between the “girls” and “boys” sections of the store. The majority of items available to young girls were decorated with glitter, doe-eyed creatures, and (no surprises here) pink, while clothing for boys consisted of dark colours, truck motifs, and shirts stamped with phrases like “Tough guy” and “Boy genius.”
What was even more eye-catching to me than the gender-stereotypical clothing, were the shoppers who casually strolled into the boys section after surveying the pieces for girls. They would sift through the boys clothing and grab a few rugged plaid flannels and graphic tees.
When it came to shopping for boys, though, I noticed that people stayed confined to the invisible boundaries of the boy’s section. Why is that? Sure, there are some boys who enjoy the typical “boyish” things and that’s okay, but, I wonder, are they granted the same amount of leeway that girls are afforded?
The answer: not so much.
Although society’s “rules” regarding how male and female bodies should be dressed have relaxed over the years, they have not disappeared entirely. A study looking at parental attitudes toward atypical gender expression in kids found that parents and caregivers were more likely to celebrate gender nonconformity on the part of their young daughters. Boys, on the other hand, did not receive the same level of support when they defied gender norms by showing interest in wearing attire perceived as feminine.
The lack of opportunities for boys to step outside of the gender binary box also reinforces how society forces gender normativity on kids. “Gender neutral” children’s apparel is sold as empowering, revolutionary, and a challenge to stereotypes — and when done right, it can be just that — but if this only means pants, muted tones, and abstract graphics, aren’t brands just repackaging boy’s clothes as clothing for all under the guise of gender neutrality?
Now, I’m in no way denying the value of apparel lines that try to dismantle the gender binary (especially for little girls who face a barrage of sexist messages coming from the fashion industry), but I think it’s an important inclusiveness issue to question what’s deemed “gender neutral.” Ultimately, clothing lines marketed to all genders that don’t include colours and styles traditionally associated with femininity end up reinforcing the idea that to be masculine is to be anti-feminine — a message that’s harmful to everyone.
At YMCA Child Care Centres, we create safe and positive classroom environments based on diversity and social inclusion. Our highly trained child care professionals work with children and their families to support and enable non-binary dress and expression in play.