We are clothing our daughters in Disadvantage
Pink Princesses and Unicorns 🦄
If a picture is worth a thousand words, brace yourself for a 30,000-worder coming your way, beginning with a thousand well-deserved words about this adorable baby.
The munchkin in this image is wearing the gender-neutral clothing children wore in 19th-century America. All kids dressed alike in white clothing, for the practical reason that white cotton could be bleached when kids inevitably get it dirty. Their first haircut happened when they were 6 or 7-years-old, so all kids sported long locks as seen in the picture.
The munchkin in this image is about 3-years-old.
Also, the munchkin in this image is the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D Roosevelt.
Compare ol' FDR with the following screenshots taken from websites of baby clothing today and see if you can spot a difference.
Clothes make the man, they say.
Well, I am here to tell you that they make the woman as well.
And the clothes we are putting on baby girls today are doing a grave injustice to the women of the future. Here’s how:
Day Zero on the Planet
I recently came across a video of a dad calling out the problems with clothes designed for baby girls. He says that he saw a onesie that said, "Sorry boys, Daddy says no dating".
In a newborn's size.
"I guess I am wondering who they thought is going to date our zero month old daughter", he says.
If you thought Womaning in India was difficult, here is where the difficulties probably begin - when an infant is objectified and sexualized on her first day on the planet.
I spoke to some moms of baby girls to check in on the clothes situation in India, and how they feel about it.
A toddler can spot the difference. Can you?
Sowjanya is the mother of a 9-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. She thinks that there are clear differences in comfort and size between baby clothes designed for girls vs boys.
"The shorts for boys go till their knees. Shorts for girls barely cover their thighs. For shirts, the arm length and size of armhole is much smaller for girls, even though girls and boys are roughly the same size and weight at that age. Even the cloth used for shorts is thicker and more durable for boys, and they have pockets. Girls get flimsy fabrics without pockets."
On her daughter's third birthday, she took her shopping for clothes.
"It was her first time in a mall. I took her to the girls’ section and pointed her to the clothes that were her size and told her to pick any clothes she likes. She picked up a single pair of shorts. And then, she wandered off to the boys’ section and picked almost a dozen clothes of different colours, with different figures on them - animals, trucks, superheroes."
Sowjanya thinks that if a toddler can spot the difference, then we definitely have a problem on our hands.
"My daughter cannot read mall signage yet. She has never shopped before. She doesn't even know that clothes are gendered at all. Yet, she knows comfort and fun designs. When a child with such an unfiltered approach to clothes picks a dozen 'boys' clothes' over 'girls' clothes', it speaks volumes about the kind of choices we are offering our girls."
Sowjanya says that her son used to wear a variety of colours when he was a toddler too. But something changed when he started going to school.
"When he met other kids, he picked up the notion that 'Pink is a girlie colour'. He came home one day and told me that he will only wear blue from now on. I don't know where he learned this, but it made his wardrobe very limited."
How hard can parents fight the Pink/Blue demon?
Most parents are, frankly, exhausted. It is an occupational hazard - comes with the job. We are all too tired to fight the powerful forces of societal norms and capitalism on a daily basis.
But there are those who put up a brave fight anyway.
When Kruti was in kindergarten, her parents got special permission from her school to allow her to wear two different uniforms.
"One was the pinafore which all other girls wore. And the other was the shirt-shorts combination meant for boys. For me, they got special permission to let me alternate between the two uniforms."
It was seriously progressive parenting, even by today's standards, let alone the 90s. But did it work?
"Today, I agree with everything they did. But, back then, I remember telling them that I want to wear the pinafore. Maybe people looked at me differently for being a girl in boys' clothing, maybe it was peer pressure, or maybe just something I picked from the other kids subconsciously. But, it is clear that parents have to make a lot of effort to undo the damage done by society. And even then there is no guarantee of success."
It's only clothes!
Why am I getting my girl clothes tied up in a bunch over this? It's only clothes, after all, right?
Saritha has a two-year-old daughter and begs to differ.
"Clothes are not just clothes for children who are learning about the world around them every minute of every day. When I put clothes on my daughter, I show her the colours, ask her to pick the one she wants to wear today. I talk to her about the characters printed on her clothes, I weave stories around them. And she listens with rapt attention."
Saritha simply buys clothes for her daughter from the boys' section.
"I want to tell her that she can be anything she wants in life. She can be an astronaut, she can work with animals, she can drive cars, she can be a superhero - she can be anything! I want clothes for her that expose her to all these options, and more. If I bought only the clothes sold to us as 'girls' clothes', her dreams and aspirations would be to limited to becoming a princess or riding a unicorn."
Saritha wishes that marketers of baby clothes would stop selling us the same old tropes that do more damage than good.
"If you tell girls they can wear only pink, and you tell boys they can wear only blue, you are limiting their imagination. Kids should be exposed to a variety of colours and designs. I buy clothes in all colours and let my daughter pick the one she wants to wear on any given day. She keeps asking me which colour is this, which colour is that. She is open to all colours and, as a parent, I want her to have all the options I can possibly give her. I don't want to restrict my daughter and give her any kind of bias or conditioning at any age - and definitely not this early in her life. Society will throw enough of that her way."
"At least at home, and at least in her own clothes, she has to have the freedom to be her own person."
Caution: Princesses at Play
Echoing Saritha's sentiments, Richa thinks that dresses also have an impact on the personalities of children.
"Having frills, delicate fabrics, even heels in shoes makes little girls carry their dresses delicately. They get wary of going out to the playground and playing sports. I call this the 'Princess Effect'. It makes these little girls - who were otherwise beaming with childlike energy - become very conscious of the way they carry their bodies."
Richa describes some telling scenes from adult social gatherings where children are in attendance, dressed up by parents in their finest.
"When you see boys and girls playing together, you’ll find mothers setting or fixing their daughter's dresses constantly. A skirt is going up, a shoulder is going down, a hairband is falling - and we are always rushing to set things right. So these girls are constantly aware of what not to do with their bodies. I have seen even baby girls coming up to their mothers to hand them things like fragile buttons, ribbons, pearls on their dresses that get broken as soon as the child starts playing."
"Boys, on the other hand, are not bothered and play with complete abandon, not wasting a single thought in the direction of their clothes. As all kids should play."
And why get so serious? (Sorry, wrong comic universe.)
Smriti is a die-hard Marvel Comic Universe fan. The kind who has to watch every Avengers movie - first day, first show, in 3D.
"When my daughter was born, I couldn’t wait to share my passion for MCU with her. Since she is too young for screens, I thought the best way to begin would be to get some Avengers gear for my girl."
Smriti shared with me the screenshots of what she got when she tried to search for clothes with her favourite brand franchise for girls.
"It is ridiculous - the number of franchise clothes that are limited to boys.
All Marvel and DC superheroes.
All Warner Bros Looney Tunes.
Even Disney characters are limited to boys, except for the princesses.
This speaks volumes about how limited clothes manufacturing companies think girls' imaginations and range of interests are. Or should be."
Where did we come from, where will we go?
According to Peggy Orenstein, the author of the book 'Cinderella Ate My Daughter', Disney Consumer Products started the Princess craze in 2001, when their sales were $300 million. As of 2018, this figure had risen to $4.65 billion.
Clearly, poisoning our children’s minds with toxic stereotypes is very good for business.
There are more than 25,000 princess items in the market today by Disney alone.
Princess tiffin boxes
Princess phone covers
And after the pandemic, even Princess face masks.
Lyn Mikel Brown, a Professor and co-author of the book 'Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes' says:
“When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
Baby FDR’s picture is testimony that this pink-blue culture was not always the norm.
At some point in the mid-1900s, America decided that pink was for girls and blue was for boys. (Fun fact: Till the 1920s, it was pink for the boys, and blue for the girls because “pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl”.)
And since we are so keen to ape American culture, let America also foreshadow what we can expect if we keep following in their footsteps.
According to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S., school-going girls are more likely than boys to say they face a lot of pressure to look good. And a larger share of girls than boys say they often feel tense or nervous about their day, every day or almost every day.
There are no easy answers to raising children in an environment that is so hell-bent on drilling this toxicity in their heads. But it definitely makes a difference when parents just start seeing this conditioning for what it is - even when it takes seemingly innocuous forms like baby onesies.
That is definitely Step 1.
And don't forget to tag the company. It is time to give them a taste of some real Princess Power.
If you like the work I am doing with this newsletter, you can now show me your love by clicking the button below to buy me a coffee.