I have massive issues with the vast majority of marketing aimed at parents today. Any parent who has tried to find something remotely gender neutral in a typical high street store will surely understand my concern. If you have a boy, then expect him to be dressed in blue, grey or brown garments adorned with dinosaurs or digger trucks. He will play with toy cars or trains, and if he goes against the grain and displays imagination, you can provide him with a toy tool kit.
At the other end of the spectrum, a girl will be typically be dressed in pink or lilac. If other colours are included, then it will probably have some kind of lovely animal or bird on it. Nothing with sharp teeth. Her toys will be dolls, cooking equipment or creative materials involving glitter. If, heaven forbid she picks up something blue or resembling a mode of transport, expect the question – ‘Oh, is she a Tomboy?’ As if choosing something not marketed towards girls somehow renders her masculine.
Whilst this may be a very extreme portrayal of the mass market, I don’t believe it’s far off the mark. Unless you are fortunate to have the budget to shop at more independent stores, the majority of shops available to most people really are that squewered.
Katie, like all children (of both genders), enjoys a wide array of toys and activities. Whilst she has a great love of trains, she also spends a lot of time playing with her dolls. Above anything else though, she would chose to be outside finding sticks to become magic wands or trees to climb. Does this make her a Tomboy? On the contrary, I see her as a strong-willed little girl.
I am not someone who believes that children should be ‘gender-less’: on the contrary I believe it’s very important that children are able to understand their identity and I think we have to acknowledge they have to survive in an environment that is male/female orientated. I personally, don’t want her to think that she is a boy at any point. But equally, I don’t want her to think that because she is a girl that she is unable to do anything that a boy can do.
When Katie was about 18 months, she developed a real love of Thomas the Tank Engine. (No, that is not why I named my baby Thomas!) I can remember a particularly frustrating shopping trip when I had agreed to buy her a Thomas rucksack – the girl at the checkout asked ‘is that for your brother then?’ I had thought that Edinburgh would be more open than this and that there would be enough people rejecting the notion of gender stereotypes to make this type of comment rare or even unheard of. But this certainly was not a one-off event, and experience dictates that adults really do gender-classify children by their dress. Interestingly, I have yet to encounter another child who has gotten Katie’s gender wrong.
At the height of her Tank Engine fanaticism, I decided to try to combat these issues by making her a skirt in a fabric covered in trains. Whilst we received a great number of complements at the time and enquiries about where to buy one, I haven’t felt that I would want to repeat the exercise. I guess I was trying to prove that girls are able to have boy things in a girly way. But I couldn’t get away from the fact that people took it to mean that she liked something intended for boys. Adults still took gender cues from the theme of the clothing. To truly be gender-neutral, I think you need to get away from this imagery entirely.
Definitely suspect clothing
I hope that I will feel equally as passionate about Thomas’ freedoms as he grows. I definitely will not be dressing him head to toe in pink and glitter in some attempt to rage at society, but equally, if his heart’s desire is to wear a pink fluffy onesie then my track record would dictate that I would let him. Although I cannot see myself making a pair of ‘Frozen’ combat trousers even if he does develop a great love for Elsa!
I had a great chat about these issues with Julia Murray, of the boutique online shop, Bunny Hop. As a fellow mum of an adventurous (bunny-loving) little girl, we were talking about finding clothes that are feminine, comfortable and yet suitable for the mayhem our children provide.
As I wrote about last week, if I’m being perfectly honest, I want Katie to look nice. But I hope I also conveyed that I want her to be comfortable and to be in practical clothing. Seeking out clothes that allow for all of those things is a very happy mission to be engaged in – and I can’t wait to tell you more about Bunny Hop on Friday!