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Removing Gender Labels Does Not Remove Gender, Just Harmful Stereotypes

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California recently passed a law that requires large department stores with at least 500 employees to display a “reasonable selection” of children’s products with gender-neutral signage. Toys, hygiene products, and baby items should be easily accessible without gender labels even if they have been traditionally marketed for either boys or girls. The law does not apply to clothing nor does it outlaw “boys” and “girls” sections in stores. The goal is to reduce stigma around choices that deviate from gender expectations and to mitigate harm that comes from gender stereotypes.

California is the first state to pass this law, but more brands and businesses are starting to recognize the importance of offering products without gender labels and gender-neutral choices. And whether it’s for the bottom line or to support company values, brands are also modifying their ad campaigns to market their products to all genders. This doesn’t lessen one’s identity or cause confusion in children; it adds inclusivity and shifts the conversation toward a more accurate portrayal of today’s diverse gender identities and expressions of gender. Companies that don’t keep up may lose customers who are eager to put their money outside of gender boxes.

Many people were not happy when Target announced in 2015 that they were removing gender labels from their in-store products. They claimed they wouldn’t be able to find what they were looking for if the words “girls” and “boys” were taken off of toy or bedding aisles. Target has the means to do more, and there are concrete steps they could potentially take.

Removing all gendered language from their search engines on their website would enforce their commitment to fighting gender bias. People could simply search for leggings, jeans, or shoes to get all store options. Colors, sizes, and characters or themes could easily be searched for to help parents get to the item they needed without the stigma of stereotypes.

What people who opposed this were—and still are—saying is that they wouldn’t be able to find the items they think they’re supposed to buy based on the gender a child was assigned at birth and the accompanying stereotypes they have been buying into since the gender reveal party.

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People who get upset over brands and stores that offer gender-neutral options complain that they don’t like being told what to do or how to shop for their kids. (Yes, I see the irony too.) But the tantrums are also rooted in gender expectations; anything that deviates from what they know intimidates them and forces them to question their own relationship with gender. If what someone thinks makes them a certain gender is now for all genders, then what does that make them? It doesn’t change who they are but it forces them to shift their perspective. This is uncomfortable for many people so they cling to outdated beliefs because it’s what they grew up with and continue to be bombarded by in our heteronormative society.

When people don’t take a step back and question why products are being offered without gender labels, they dig into binary gender myths. This way of thinking feeds into ignorance about and fear of transgender people. Folks who throw their hands in the air and shout about snowflakes and science when the shampoo isn’t divided by gender labels are insensitive to the fact that transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary kids deserve and need safe places to shop for products that affirm them.

Gender-specific labels on toys and products they use can hurt all children’s emotional and psychological growth. Judith Elaine Blakemore, a professor of psychology and associate dean of Arts and Sciences for Faculty Development at Indiana University−Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana says, “If you want to develop children’s physical, cognitive, academic, musical and artistic skills, toys that are not strongly gender-typed are more likely to do this.”

LEGO announced that it will get rid of gender bias from its products after a survey they commissioned from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found vast differences still exist in toys parents expect their kids to play with based on male or female genders. These biases also played into what careers they encouraged their children to explore.

Julia Goldin, chief product and marketing officer at the LEGO Group says, “We’re testing everything on boys and girls, and including more female role models. Our job now is to encourage boys and girls who want to play with sets that may have traditionally been seen as ‘not for them.’” Since LEGO is the largest toymaker in the world this could play a huge role in the industry, and I hope they challenge other companies to make similar changes.

Proctor & Gamble removed the Venus symbol from their Always period products to show solidarity for transgender and nonbinary people. Google announced that its image recognition Artificial Intelligence will no longer identify people as male or female based on their gender expression, noting that you can’t tell one’s gender by their appearance. Old Navy, Nordstrom, and Abercrombie & Fitch offer gender-neutral clothes. The goal for all of these companies was to reduce gender bias.

A truck, doll, skirt, or color does not define your kid’s gender, but giving them access to what makes them happy without judgement defines their level of trust and respect of you. Breaking gender stereotypes allows all identities to take up space and fill all roles; removing labels doesn’t diminish one’s identity, it simply makes it easier to be any gender.

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