Why labels matter

I regularly see discussions on parenting forums with people bemoaning the gender stereotyping in children clothes. Either they’re struggling to find bright clothes for their sons or they want dinosaur or science clothes for their daughters that haven’t been ‘pinkified’. The general complaint is normally around the lack of variety for each and the categorisation of interests and animals. (Have you noticed – predator-type animals are always on clothes aimed at boys, while girls clothes feature cute, prey-type animals and there’s very little cross-over?)

The thread normally goes with loads of people jumping on saying that they had the same experience, or something similar with their child, or sharing that it gets harder as they get beyond toddler age, or that they hate the clothes with gendered slogans. Or people making recommendations for alternative places to buy (including recommending us - yay! Thank you.). 

But, I can guarantee it won’t be long before someone pipes up with something along the lines of ‘You’re creating a problem where it doesn’t exist, stop complaining and just buy from whatever section you want. There are bigger problems in the world.’ Swiftly followed by people piling on to reply that they’re wrong and a huge debate ensues.

They’re right, of course, you can buy clothes from any section, there’s no law stopping you. So why does it matter?

Well, research has shown that children are aware of gender and gender stereotypes by an early age. They also clearly learn what is ‘for them’ and ‘not for them’. So if you’re a parent who shops for their child without them there – great, you can buy what you want without your child necessarily knowing what section the clothes came from.

But many children like to choose their own clothes, and why shouldn’t they? It’s an important part of understanding their own self-identity and what they like and dislike. They can also see how their peers dress.

And I think we also need to consider how pervasive stereotypes are – so one small item of clothing on its own probably won’t make a difference, but when gender stereotypes are everywhere – and they are – it all starts to add up.

Our children are consistently – through clothes, toys, TV programmes – told that dinosaurs, science, being brave and strong are for boys, and that being cute, pretty, smiling and pink are for girls.

And again, research suggests that by school age, children are aware of these stereotypes and that they start to mould their opinions. (If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend you watch No More Boys and Girls with the fabulous Dr Javid Abelmoneim). And they care what their peer group thinks, so most children don’t want to stand out from the crowd or be different or picked on.

Whilst a childhood preference for animals or colours may not seem terribly important or significant, we know that gender stereotypes persist into adulthood and therefore affect subject choices at school, perception of their own ability, career choices and, ultimately, earning abilities.

And this is why labels matter. Children are like sponges – they observe the world around them and notice the things we, as adults, have become accustomed to. So they see and understand what is aimed at them and what is clearly not aimed at them, and this perception influences their entire life.

1 comment

Yes! Totally agree! There’s nothing more depressing than going into the kids clothing section and seeing a sea of pink, purple, unicorns and fairies on one side and on the other side blue, camo, khaki and a multitude of superheroes. It’s not good for girls or boys! And toy shops are even worse! 🙅🏻

Ang M June 26, 2021

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