It's that time again--millions of people have already begun their annual "back-to-school" shopping trip. I just finished up ours with my nine-year-old daughter. We headed to one of those massive outlet malls and ventured into the usual major retail outlets and, true to form, my girl wasn't having any of the typical girl fare. Old Navy was one of our first stops. As I flipped through jean options--in the girl's department which was mobbed with girls of varying ages and their mothers--Gabi was already over at the boys' section. Here's what she picked out:
Of course, none of these kinds of tees were in the girls' section. I've noticed these in other stores as well...always separated by gender. My daughter is an athlete--and a damn good one--so she loves these. But is she the only girl who would? Are these messages only for boys? Plenty of girls play sports who I believe would love a tee that says, "I MAKE THIS LOOK EASY." There were other cool t-shirts for boys as well--like this one:
Now, as a family that has three dachshunds, this tee was a must-have! But, again, why designs like this only in the boys' department? Does this hilarious design only appeal to boys? When I got home, I just happened to notice this dog tee in the Lands End catalog:
The copy reads: "Simply adorable! This soft, all-cotton knit tee is finished with the details girls love." Yes, because all girls love pink, a tiara and a tutu--especially on a dog. This is the dog that girls get. Forget the skateboard and punny humor--for boys only.
To give Lands End some credit they did just recently add a couple of "science-y" tees to their girl collection after a mother wrote a letter asking why there were tees with things like planets for boys only. [I had actually tweeted to Lands End about a week before asking why the sharp contrast bewteen boy and girl tees.] Lands End responded pretty quickly to design TWO new "science" tees for girls which are sandwiched between all the still very girly choices. Desparate for better options, people went crazy commenting that they were going to purchase a tee for their daughter and hoped for more. While I think it's great that a big company like Lands End listened and actually did something--it's still not enough. I REPEAT--IT'S NOT ENOUGH. Boys and girls don't need companies to tell them who they are, what "details" they like, and which aisle to shop in. We are putting blinders on children by not allowing them to see past an invisible line in a store and perpetuating gender stereotypes in the process.
As one mom who has attempted to offer other more diverse, options for girls, I have been trying to bridge this gap for five years and am about to launch a new website (end of August) and brand called Be Free Zone that will, hopefully, offer a way for girls and boys to join each other virtually in the same aisle. I am calling it "gender-equal' (an updated term to replace "gender neutral" or "unisex") apparel and gear which I think conveys a more positive message that moves us forward in terms of how we market to kids. Imagine that: girls and boys equally can simply choose what they like without being corralled like cattle into "separate but equal" paths. Here are some of my new designs which will not be categorized by gender and have a variety of color options:
But of course, I'm just one mom trying to make a dent in an already highly corporatized, gender-situated world. I know some will say--"If your child likes boy (or girl) things--then what's the problem with shopping in those sections?" But when Gabi and I were in the boys section of Old Navy--there was not a single other girl there. Not one (of course, no boys in the girls' department, God forbid). And I honestly don't think that's because my daughter is the only girl who would enjoy these tees. Let's face it--it's not a matter of simply letting kids shop in those sections--because most kids will never be able to cross over into a section that they have been taught is not for them. In addition, there is a level of discomfort a child/parent has to experience to make that jump. Meanwhile, I've heard parents expressly tell a child who wandered into the "other" aisle: "Come back here--that's not for you." That's how girls learn that they are not allowed to own a tee that says, "GAME CHANGER," or a boy learns that he cannot, under any circumstances, wear pink.
This is not going to change by throwing a couple of science designs into the girls' section or providing one pink option for boys. It's only going to change when we remove the very real boundaries that exist between pink and blue, princesses and super heroes, cupcakes and soccer balls. It's about finding the common threads that exist between girls and boys so they do not grow up alien to each other. It's about raising children to know they are inherently equal human beings with equal opportunities. I fully believe that the trend is moving in that direction, but we still have a long way to go.