Updated: Jul 17, 2019
Until I became a parent eight years ago, I didn't give gendered clothing much thought and bought my daughter clothes from across the boys and girls sections; even selecting the pink options unquestioning as to whether she wanted that colour or not. I could ignore the FOR GIRLS or FOR BOYS signs, but started to notice other people couldn't - including my daughter.
Before she could read, my child had a strong sense of gender based on the same stereotypes we encountered on the high street, from clothing and toys, to cards and pull-ups. Whatever stereotypes our society is guilty of, they are reinforced exponentially by a consumer culture that puts all its faith in gender marketing.
Check out any childrenswear retailer and you'll see the same format; a dichotomy of bright colours facing a wall of blue and grey, princesses versus superheroes, slogans that read "happiest is the prettiest" and "I get my looks from my Mummy" juxtaposed with "here comes trouble" and "strong like Daddy."Even the marketing language is indicative of the insidious nature of using sexism to sell. Here's how Halfords sold bike helmets in 2015: "lovely girls will look pretty in a helmet that protects their lovely heads" opposite "sporty and cool, designed for safety and boys who are ready for action!"
The self-esteem and aspirations of girls is being eroded by messages that suggest girls are caring and shy, opposite boys who are strong and brave, according to the latest Girl Guiding Attitudes Survey. What is equally clear is that we fail boys by diminishing the importance of empathy and kindness when we accept stereotypes that brazenly shout Troublemaker across t-shirts. It is an indictment of how our society devalues femininity when retailers fail to acknowledge boys are also capable of liking flowers and butterflies, dresses and skirts, love Frozen and idolise female characters like Princess Leia.
With support from Let Toys Be Toys and Pinkstinks, Let Clothes Be Clothes was founded at the end of 2014 and has grown to a base of over 10'000 vocal supporters, with positive nods from the Women's Equality Party and Fawcett Society, to MP's from across the political spectrum.
Our #dinosaursforall campaign last year drew attention to the boys only Natural History Museum range of T-Shirts at M&S, and our calls to #makeitunisex were well covered in the national press. Both stated they would ensure girls were included in any future partnership, but to be fair on M&S I knew they'd created a difficult task for themselves against a backdrop of over 40 items of STEM themed clothing in boyswear - and not one in their girls range. "They look quite boyish" said a store manager in Edinburgh when we questioned why new girls designs had still ended up in the boys section.
With help from our friends at Climbing Tree's Kids we've met with major retailers from John Lewis to Mothercare, and its clear there is a reluctance to abandon the safe ground of stereotyping children for fear of disorientating customers. Could parents not handle displays based on type, size, colour or theme instead of boys and girls? Is it so radical to put dresses and skirts in the same section boys browse? After all, we don't want less choice - just choice to begin with.
The Bailey Review in 2011 praised retailers for listening to parents fears about sexualisation and stereotyping, and yet many of the retailers who signed up to the resulting Childrenswear code of conduct are still guilty of both. John Lewis agreed to a new "girls.boys" brand and introduced a unisex Man on the Moon range at Christmas, yet still insist on putting the unisex Donna Wilson range through the gender stereotype ringer. In the past 6 months retailers have embraced the notion boys AND girls love dinosaurs but you'd be hard pressed to find a Stegosaurus in the girls range that isn't pink and covered in flowers. Same interests, tick! but what about fit? Girls and boys are the same shape until puberty, yet girls (as young as 5) are frequently offered fitted and cropped clothing, as if being comfortable and warm is only a fleeting concern to what one M&S designer described as "the fashion conscious child."
Ultimately stereotyping girls and boys encourages bullying, limits choice and harms aspirations, and in my 8 years as a parent I have witnessed all 3. This week I tried to purchase a Star Wars figure for my daughter, only for the shop owner to ask me if I intended to buy anything since "women only collect bags and shoes." Stereotypes are not just lazy and outdated, they are also deeply offensive - and urgently need to be removed from childhood.