There has been a shift in our society to empower girls to be smart and strong and for boys to be kind and sensitive. Parents—and kids—asked for and have been given more options for kids’ clothing that resemble these sentiments. But beyond the “girl power” and “boys will be good humans” t-shirts is a push to provide gender-neutral clothing too.
Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, along with other mainstream brands, now have gender-neutral clothing options for kids. Celine Dion is the latest celebrity to put her name on a gender-neutral clothing line for children. She has partnered with the brand Nununu to create Celinununu, a 70-product line for infants to kids age 14.
I appreciate the non-conforming sentiment she relayed in an interview with Refinery29 when speaking about Celinununu: “I think that every child needs to have their own identity, to express themselves freely, and [to] not feel like they have to be like someone else.”
But her next statement really highlighted society’s problem with how we view gender. Dion said, “It’s not that we’re hoping to shift gender norms with Celinununu. It’s more about offering [a] choice and giving children a chance to feel free to find their own individuality, their own true essence without being tied to stereotypes.”
Here’s the problem: Shifting gender norms is exactly what we need to do.
There is a rub between people saying we shouldn’t raise gender neutral kids (I agree actually—because living as your true gender is very validating, especially for transgender and nonbinary folks) and people who want kids to live outside of the gender stereotypes by making things neutral or “equal.”
The rub is that those two groups start at very different points, but often end at the same place. There are still people who buy into the notion that girls should be the perpetuated myth of submissive, soft, and overtly feminine; and boys should be the tough, emotionless protectors bursting with testosterone-driven instincts to defend and fight. I realize these are barbaric thoughts, but so are religious-based arguments against women and LGBTQ rights, and yet here we are.
But there are other folks who want to raise kids outside of these gendered boxes and stereotypes. We are mindful of the colors and patterns we put on our children—until we lose all control and our children are only interested in wearing a particular style, color, or Batman t-shirt. But the minds of some open-minded parents can only open so much, because when a child dips their toes outside of the gender-neutral zone and into gender nonconforming roles and expression, people panic.
Preferences of clothing, toys, or activities do not determine gender—neither does the opposite—but when a boy reaches for the tutu or Barbie, eyebrows go up. Girls get a bit more wiggle room because it is more acceptable for them to wear the tomboy label than it is for a boy to wear pink or purple. Even the most well-intentioned people pause and wonder if reaching for something outside of the heteronormative idea of what it means to be a boy or girl means a child is reaching for another gender.
Instead of preaching the need of gender neutrality in clothing and toys and praising those who provide it, we need to ask ourselves why we can’t just let kids wear and play with whatever the fuck they want without putting a label on it at all. Why do we even need gender-neutral clothing at all?
Because many still believe there are limits to how boys and girls can express themselves.
Fear, confusion, and discomfort block our ability to accept change. We can’t see or embrace a new normal, because we don’t allow ourselves to let it be normal. That is the problem with gender-neutral clothing — it masks our fear of unlimited gender expression.
Gender expression is simply that: an outward view of our inner selves. Yet we are quick to call something too girly or too masculine when it stretches beyond old ways of thinking and everyday gender representation. We worry that a boy spending too much time in the girls’ clothing section may be gay or transgender. The same is implied of girls, but with less animosity. A boy to be seen as girly is a slap in the face of what it means to be society’s definition of a man, yet a girl resembling the “stronger” or more dominate gender is something to strive for.
If we really want kids to find “their own true essence without being tied to stereotypes,” then we need to change the definition of those stereotypes. We do, in fact, need to change gender norms. We need to raise kids with healthy gender expressions and without shame when they deviate from society’s construct of gender.
I don’t want to see more gender-neutral clothing options; I want to see kids accepted for who they are and not the clothing on their bodies.