Anyone who buys clothes for their daughter may get the impression that there is a conspiracy in the clothing industry. Wherever you shop – Hema, H&M, Zara, C&A, etc. – it’s the same everywhere. Then it’s not so much that clothing manufacturers are obsessed with pink, as if they want to turn girls into oversized shrimp. And not because of the cliched distinction between pretty girls and aggressive boys, which is manifested in the prints of bunnies scurrying around in flower beds, and kittens on girls’ shirts, versus roaring tigers and tyrannosaurs on boys’ shirts.
The difference in texts on boys’ and girls’ clothing is particularly striking. The common denominator is that boys’ clothing associates the wearer with intelligence (science), heroism and ambition (leadership), and girls’ clothing pays special tribute to the wearer’s appearance and supposedly playful and sweet personality. The H&M set includes a boys’ T-shirt with a rocket and the text “Mission to Mars,” complete with interesting facts about the Red Planet. The dress reads that the gravity on Mars is 3,711 Newtons, that its moons are called Phobos and Deimos and that a day lasts about 40 minutes longer than Earth. A T-shirt that paves the way for the study of astronomy, but is designed expressly for boys.
Girls’ t-shirts are also nowhere to be found. Much smarter than “You’re beautiful!” or “beautiful” or “awesome!” it will not be. When boys’ t-shirts are filled with loud phrases like “Travel and never stop exploring” or “Fear is a reaction, courage is a decision,” the most inspiring message for girls is that life is better when you smile and that it’s great to be beautiful to be. While the boy is a “rock star” in the eyes of the Hema, the girls are a “princess”.
This dress code is not a Dutch phenomenon, but it is ubiquitous. In the UK, for example, department store chain Morrisons has been criticized for its “little guy, big ideas” slogans on T-shirts for boys and “little girl, big smiles” for girls. The competition featured Asda with “Future Scientist” for boys and “Hey Cutie” for girls. American fashion label Gap labeled girls as “social butterflies” and boys as “junior scientists” in an ad campaign.
Why this sharp distinction? Because customers want this distinction is the answer from the apparel industry. The truth is that there are simply differences between what boys and girls find beautiful. The C&A, for example, says the same goes for adults.
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When do girls begin to lose faith in their intellectual abilities? At six, at the same time changing baby teeth.
Joe Pauletti, author of Pink and Blue – Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, doesn’t think this makes sense. She believes that the retail sector has a commercial drive to emphasize gender differences in children’s clothing. The significant difference between boys’ and girls’ clothes is a relatively small phenomenon – this also applies to the so-called “traditional” pink for girls and blue for boys. Especially in Roman Catholic countries, blue was a girl’s color, because the Virgin Mary always wore blue in Christian images. And when Princess Astrid, later Queen of Belgium, became pregnant with her first child in 1927, she painted the nursery pink. With this she was hoping to increase the chance of – yes – a male heir to the throne, says Pauletti.
Inflating gender differences was not until the mid-1980s a marketing strategy, as the clothing industry used pink and blue as a weapon to increase sales. This focus on soft pink and baby blues, says Pauletti, was a kind of “stylistic wound” after the gender-neutral fashion of the ’60s and ’70s. But department stores and clothing manufacturers had another reason to promote pink and blue: low birth rates. Because how do you sell more children’s clothing at a time when people are having fewer children? The answer from clothing manufacturers: by maximizing the differences between boys and girls. “If you make children’s fashion too gendered, parents can no longer pass on their daughter’s clothes to their youngest son, and vice versa,” says Pauletti.
Criticism of stereotypical children’s clothing is sometimes mocked with the argument: What worries you? Are there no greater problems in the world? But “stupid” children’s clothing for girls is not just a matter of taste.
One shirt with sexist text on it is no problem, at most a waste of cotton and polyester, notes American writer Mike Adamick. Adamick has been writing for years about what he sees as “sexual” texts on girls’ clothes. “But look at the clothes of all these boys and girls together and then say again that they are not spreading a structural message so omnipresent, one so powerful that we often overlook it or laugh at it as being completely normal.”
Test question: When do girls begin to lose faith in their intellectual abilities? At six, at the same time changing baby teeth. From that age, girls think boys are smarter, according to research published earlier this year in the journal Science.
Not that boys are really smarter than girls: men and women are equal in intelligence on average, study after study has shown. Israeli neuroscientist Dafna Joel proved that there is no such thing as a male or female brain, two years ago. Each individual’s loft is a unique mosaic of feminine and masculine characteristics, according to Joel. However, brains are flexible and one of the most important tools for kneading stereotypes. “If we keep asserting that boys are smart and strong and girls are cute and beautiful, it will have a huge impact on how children develop,” says Joel.
“Girls are taught from childhood that it is better to be a boy,” says Pauletti. And being beautiful, sweet and smiling are the most important things for girls. It’s time to ask ourselves: Is this really the message we want to pass on to our children?
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