Gender Neutral Parenting: Challenging Stereotypes and Irresponsible Retailers Is Just Parenting

cropped-children-silhouette-higher1

What is it with the media love affair with the term gender neutral parenting? It’s gained real traction in its attempt to capture the zeitgeist of campaigners who want a retail landscape based on choice, not stereotypes. As terms go, its a really poor one, and instead of promoting a rainbow of choices, we have this sense that some parents want identikit beige uniforms and the banning of dresses, against those who don’t. The problem isn’t actually parents, and how we choose to parent, but a retail landscape dominated by irresponsible and exploitative stereotypes. Its so pervasive, so ingrained in our culture, you’d be forgiven for not questioning it, and yet question it, we must.                                            12647519_635516766588893_2395756372805386964_n

When my daughter was born, I was perfectly content in the convenience of letting retailers figure out my options for me. I lamented my daughter not having Dinosaur clothes without even acknowledging we both had a choice in this, I just accepted the culture – swallowed it down, like a swig of pink sugary lemonade. By age four I started to see the real damage this was doing to my child, she had accepted what was for her, and what wasn’t – on the basis she was born a girl. I guess you could call that my turning point.

There’s no denying that childhood is now commercialised and targeted by big business in ways we can’t begin to fully appreciate, and it reaches us through well funded, well researched, marketing campaigns. That is what marketing does after all, not necessarily selling you what you want, but convincing you, you want what they sell. Branding is about building trust as well, we can trust them with our kids, but should we?

Responsible Retailing in Childrenswear is something many of the UK retail giants signed up to, with a nod from the government and a hearty handshake from the BRC (British Retail Consortium), but even that makes the assumption we need gender neutral colour choices. Boys will be boys is a slogan routinely making the rounds on the high street, alongside here comes trouble and it wasn’t me, and I can’t think of a worse sentiment to embolden our children with. What, boys shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, like girls are?

BRKTmqMkoFnwgYh-1600x900-noPad

When a Mum questioned why Target was selling a T-Shirt aimed at Boys with “Is my sister done talking yet?“ the complaint was heavily trolled with comments intended to silence the mother – after all, its just a joke? As Dr Rebecca Hains states:

This may seem like a small thing. Some people will read this and say, “It’s just a t-shirt. Learn to take a joke.” But in a culture in which women’s and girls’ voices are devalued, their ideas and interests trivialized as less important than boys’ and men’s, why would any responsible retailer sell this?

The pay gap, rape culture, violence against women – you can take action on these and still question why “it wasn’t me“ is suitable for boys and “happy is prettiest” for girls. Its the big picture, and its all connected.

boys trouble t-shirts.jpg

There’s a certain amount of irony in an industry that promotes an obsession with gender stereotyping and then interprets unisex or gender neutral as an equal yet opposite partner to this. Instead of labeling all clothes for all children, we see the very literal interpretation of neutral to mean appropriate for both sexes within the same stereotyping parameters. The Lil Londunn unisex range at Marks and Spencer is a great example of this, all grey/black and shapeless. Its telling it looks at home in their boyswear section, with a a careful nod to the idea anything feminine is demeaning to boys, but not the other way around. In fact the only dress in the unisex range is labelled Girls…

I don’t want to see shops stop selling pink, or dresses, or t-shirts with roaring dinosaurs – I want more choice, not less. I want my child to be able to find what clothes and toys she wants without being confronted by signs, labels and even shop staff who question her decisions. I don’t want a middle option either, where unisex is used to mean blank. We are individuals, with our own tastes, passions and yes, even favourite colour that can’t be determined by what genitals we have. In challenging what you feel is wrong, you’re just behaving like a normal parent.        

Stereotypes to the core: Interview with a Childrenswear Designer

12249657_613108115496425_5881464682614831168_n

This week we spoke to a former designer for one of the UK’s biggest clothing retailers to find out how big gender stereotypes are in the design of children’s clothing (and how big a leap it is for retailers to change their ways…)

 

(This designer still works in the industry and has asked to remain anonymous, images have been added for examples from across the retail landscape and do not represent the work of this person or the store in question.)
12249657_613108115496425_5881464682614831168_n
Example of for boys, or for girls at George, Asda
 If I was in charge I’d want to see more choice for both genders. Boys want Elsa t-shirts too, girls want Darth Vader! The more common it becomes in our high street the less bullying there will be. Even if it just started off with breaking down the colour divide.”:
Can you tell us about your role at *Major UK Retailer*?
I was a designer for the Boyswear team. I’d illustrate characters and designs for boys clothing age 2- 15 years. I worked there for about a year.
Were you ever told not to put a certain designs on clothing?
You work to trends and “stories”. But I was told some designs couldn’t go on boyswear, just as some couldn’t go on girlswear. For example they didn’t want dinosaurs or cars on girls clothing. My boss said she saw dinosaurs on girlswear at another store and didn’t think it was right, and they wouldn’t sell.
Boyswear had to be bold and mostly shades of blues depending on the trend. If a design was soft it would have to go on baby boys wear. Older Boys would get skulls, skateboards and headphones for example, plus bold darker colours. Designers work was forced into boxes.
pixlr
Example of girls vs boys, Marks and Spencer 2015 range
Was there ever an explanation as to why?
I don’t believe they thought it would sell. They were very adamant towards gendered clothing. We had set words that would go onto boys clothing e.g handsome, cheeky, chappy. My friend was constantly told her style was too girly for boyswear; for example, you couldn’t draw delicate designs or if it pushed on “girly” it went into the baby section.
How are girlswear and boyswear separated, is it different teams and department heads?
Girlswear and Boyswear were on different floors, we didn’t work together and rarely saw their designs until the finished products. We had completely separate teams and bosses.
What do those teams think about feedback from people who ask for more inclusive store layout and choice?
I never heard much talk about inclusive designs for both genders, and only negatives if anything. They know what they’re doing will sell, and I do believe they think it’s still what the market wants. They’re not ready to take a “risk”. I think there is a need for both types of design, but across both genders.
They knew people would still keep buying the “pink girly things” etc. Its been selling for years, so the idea of change scares them. There are still parents who treat clothing as very seperate sadly. I was in the Disney Store recently and saw a boy who wanted a Tinkerbell because she is friends with Peter Pan, and his Dad wasn’t having any of it. It was really sad!
12647519_635516766588893_2395756372805386964_n
In-store signage at Mothercare
What are the positives and negatives about clothing “for girls” or “for boys,” do you agree with the approach?
I think there will always be a need and a market for “girly” clothes and “boyish” clothes, some girls will always want pink! But it’s more accepting (socially) that boys do too! And some girls can want to be astronauts not princesses. I don’t think I’d want to see a shop of neutral colours to try to bridge the gap, more just integrating designs across both genders. I went into the job thinking I could do this, but was shut down.
Can you give us a glimpse of what its like to do your job?
It’s a fast pace environment, you work on designs far ahead so what we’ll see in summer 2017 is already being worked on or finished. Whole trends can be dropped and changed in a day so you’re always designing.
If you were in charge, how would you run things?
 If I was in charge I’d want to see more choice for both genders. Boys want Elsa t-shirts too, girls want Darth Vader! The more common it becomes in our high street the less bullying there will be. Even if it just started off with breaking down the colour divide.

To sign our petition and ask retailers to rethink how they design and sell childrenswear, please click here.

Mothercare: Its 2015, we want choice! #Ditchthegenderlabels

It still amazes me how smart children are from such a young age.

My youngest just turned 2 but is already clued up to what she wants to watch, wear and play with. She expresses emotion, from frustrated “no mama!” to a simple “nup” when she doesn’t want something. This typical chatty 2 year old loves Trains, George Pig, her Pandora Lottie Doll, Cars, Tangled “I hav a dreeeaamm” – you name it. Like all children she’s soaking up everything, mimics our conversations and explores her surroundings (usually by running into or off something.) She is a child, and should not be boxed in by social ideas about gender, based on having been born a girl. So why does Mothercare insist on telling us which specific items of clothing are for her?

20150301_121804     20150301_121808

When we buy clothing for our children we look at all the ranges and make our choices based on what I suspect all other parents do: 1. quality 2. practical 3. comfort 4.fun. A thinner child may benefit from slimmer or fitted styles, but you’d need to check the girls section to get it, yet aren’t all childrenchildren sized until puberty? Mothercare use the same sizing information for both girls and boys up to 7-8 years, but styles vary greatly, the standard being loose and long for boys, short and tight for girls.

What else is affected? Colour’s, characters and themes.

I pull a face at the “Boys” sign over the George Pig PJ’s, but like a lot of parents I buy them anyway because those are the ones she wants – she loves Thomas the Tank Engine too so we pull a pair of socks off the “Boys” rack again, and illicit a grimace to “ah, your little boy will love these!” from shop staff.

20150301_122226

I’m an adult, I’ve educated myself on gender marketing – but my daughter is still only 2 and thinks pouring juice over the sofa is hilarious. Fast forward to age 7 (and our oldest daughter) and she does know about gender marketing, and yet cannot escape it. Here’s a snippet:

“You’re weird, girls can’t play football. That’s why they don’t sell pink football kits”

“You want the monster sticker? Not the princess one? Ooookkkaaayyy”

“Why have you got a dinosaur lunch box? Scarlett is a boy!! Scarlett is a boy!! ”

“Ah, you need the F-R-I-E-N-D-S Lego, not Star Wars, come with me…”

Its a constant battle, and one as parents we’re already losing. “Mum, I don’t want to look like I’m wearing boys things at school…”

In a few years my 2 year old will not only be able to read the signs and labels that tell her this is for boys, but really feel – this isn’t meant for me. It’s a really strong message – quite literally spelled out – that interacts with every element of your life, the choices that you make, how others interact with you and the aspirations that you hold.

Take the fact that many of the clothing themes offered to boys (including those from Marks & Spencer below) are Science based, but at what age do we start promoting the Sciences to girls too? Why is it important to market “Genius” to boys only and on the other side of the store  decorative flowers, butterflies and kittens. Girl characters to girls and boy characters to boys. What, are they alien species?

Science Marks and Spencer collage 2015      girlswear marks and spencer 2015 collage

I actually don’t like the phrase gender neutral, because it not only suggests something beige or devoid of life, but also lends power to what is deemed gendered. Ie, Pink is gendered, white is gender neutral, according to a recent yougov pole. Unisex on the other hand means shared or open to both (all) sexes – and what a great way of looking at the world! The freedom to choose for yourself, rather than following what complete strangers have deemed your gender identity based on the sex you were born. Its really quite amazing how much power these companies have, with a spending power of billions per year to enter your home, mind and life. That is the power of marketing, and that marketing is creating a product for a specific market – the boy market or the girl market, simply to sell more, more, more.

20150301_122704  20150301_122708

According to Next unisex means predominantly white, but they don’t mean unisex – they mean gender-neutral based on their “Boy Blues” and “Perfect Pinks.” The opposite is actually true, because by unisex we mean open to all – minus the gender stereotypes.

Tell me, have you ever seen a boring selection of clothing from a true purveyor of unisex clothing? Check out Love it Love it Love it, Yellow Lolly, Tootsa Macginty, Ava & Luc and Donna Wilson (before John Lewis decided to pull her collection apart) Marvel at their colourful equality! I challenge you to find anything dull and lifeless. Remove the limitations of gender stereotypes and what do you have? Choice, the true partner of unisex.

little bird

A round of applause then for the Jools Oliver Little Bird range at Mothercare, included their stunningly forward thinking (and I genuinely applaud them) “unisex” category on their website. In this respect Mothercare are light years ahead of all the other big retailers, and we love it. Yet, you’ll still find the mix of gender neutral whites (regrettably signifying their broader belief in gender stereotypes) and their stand out actual unisex range, quite confusing. Well, more of the latter please. Get yourself some more Jools Oliver’s quick.

Choice doesn’t necessarily have to start with targeting design, but with how clothes are divided on the shop floor and online. Apart from a single standalone rail unit we could find no evidence that unisex is being offered in-store at Mothercare. In actual fact we found really large “Girls Clothing… and pink of course” wall signs, rail top gender signs, pink/blue gender labels with Girl and Boy text (to make absolutely certain you know what you’re buying) AND to top it off “boys” or “girls” on our receipts.

Mothercare, please – remove the gender signs and labels, and lets put an end to this artificial wall between girls and boys.

Retailers! Be creative with your displays and websites, help customers by presenting clothing by type, size, colour or theme. Create an “all items” link on your websites so parents don’t have to run two lots of searches. Train your staff to actually offer parents what they want, not based on studying their child for gender clues and heading over to find the pink or blue options.

It may take generations for the unisex effect to take place, for social constructs on children’s clothing and gender stereotypes to reset, but lets make a start! We ask #letchildrenbechildren and #ditchthegenderlabels.

 

 

 

?

If you’d like to get involved with our #ditchthegenderlabels campaign, please email letclothesbeclothes@gmail.com or feel free to contact Mothercare direct by using the information below.

Mothercare website 

Mothercare Facebook

Mothercare Twitter

Jools Oliver Twitter