gender schmender: babies and gendered clothing

“Is it a boy or a girl?” It’s a question I am asked a hundred times a day when I leave home with Baby Pickles. At first I wondered why gender was so important to strangers, but then I realized that really, if you want to interact with a parent and baby there really are only a few not-super-personal questions open to you.  It’s a perspective that makes the constant chorus of “boy or girl?” a little less irritating.

Still, babies’ gender is inordinately important to a lot of people, many of them parents.  I’ve seen people at the flea market   look at a jacket, ask “Is this for a boy or a girl?”, and then, when the item turns out to be “for a a boy” when they are shopping for a girl and vice versa, they say “Oh no, never mind,” and walk away. But, wait. Couldn’t they have decided if the little girl or boy in question (or that child’s parents) would have liked the jacket, just by looking at it?  And jesus shit, baby boys can wear pink!  Baby boys can wear dresses!  Baby girls can wear blue!  You know why?  Because a baby’s gender is irrelevant.  (And can’t we get past this whole rigidly gendered clothing thing anyway?)  Unless you’re a doctor, or the person who has to figure out how to keep all her nether parts clean, then whether that little pickle is a boy or a girl, is in red green blue pink orange biege or purple just doesn’t fucking matter.

Left: “Mädchen Stinken,” or “Girls Stink.” Though I suspect this shirt was intended for boys, I think it’s absolutely hilarious on girl babies particularly. Because even though babies mostly smell like caramel and amazing, they poop their pants and get spit-up milk stuck in their cavernous neck creases. Girls stink, indeed. A fifty-cent flea market find, by the way.  And while we’re on the subject, I’ve actually had someone tell me “You can’t put a baby in black!”  To which I replied, “I like black.  And I’m the one who has to look at her all day.  She doesn’t care what she has on.”  And when looking back on it, I still can’t figure out why they even cared.

If you are interested in topics of gender, particularly when it comes to children, then you probably have already heard this, but for the rest of you, guess what?! Apparently, it was in the 1940s that pink first became a “girl” color. Before that, it was considered a “boy” color. Fun facts that make the whole hullabulloo about gendered colors in children’s clothing seem even more insane. At the very beginning of their lives, babies can’t see much color anyway. They can pick out contrasts, like black on white, but little else. So what the fucking fuck? How did this happen? Why do so many people care so much?

Historian Jo B. Paoletti, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America has this to say in an article on “It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing. What was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted.” And of course at the end of the day it mostly comes down to marketing. “The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell,” says Paoletti.

Right: The shirt reads, “I am the King,” another one that I’m pretty sure was intended for boys, and a flea market find and present from Frau Doktor. I think it’s cute on either sex. Lions and stripes! Awesome!  And blue looks great on babies with blue eyes, regardless of what they’ve got in their pants.

Also important to remember, when trying not to get swept away by the flood of gender-specific baby marketing, is that not only should a babies’ gender not matter to you, but that it doesn’t even matter to them. “According to child development experts,” continues the article, “children are just becoming conscious of their gender between ages 3 and 4, and they do not realize it’s permanent until age 6 or 7.” So tell me again why we’re worrying about this?  As far as I can tell, the only time when the gender of one adult should matter to another adult is when said adults are contemplating sleeping together.  Which pretty much rules babies out of the equation.

Left: Baby Pickles loves wearing dresses when it’s warm.  Mostly because dresses mean that there is a bunch of free fabric for her to grab onto and jam into her mouth.  Though I have to admit, she almost looks weird to me in such obviously gendered clothing.  Another fifty cent flea market find.

A few weeks ago I was on a bus in Mannheim, Germany. We were on the way to a concert, and Pickles was sitting on my lap. A woman with two children of her own struck up a conversation. When she asked, and I told her, that Pickles was a girl, she replied, “Well she doesn’t look like a girl.” Well shit. Must have been the blue cap. Or was it the red striped pants? Or, wait, the white top with the purple and yellow flowers on it, that must have been it. When she’s wearing a cap, people almost always think she’s a boy. And yet, adult girls wear caps all the time, so there really is no reason to view this little scrap of clothing as gender specific. And yet. And yet! *Rips out hair.*

0 Comments on “gender schmender: babies and gendered clothing

  1. Also… it’s a strange idea that we think there are only two genders… there are many in between “ultimate masculine” and “ultimate feminine” … people are usually a small or big bit of both, and that makes for real individual people.

    AND.. what’s with the freaky bikini tops for toddlers on the market?!

    Hm.. I could go on….

  2. Really enjoyed this post! I am *SO* with you on this!! It always drove me nuts. I have a preference for bright colours, hate pastel pink, and heck it’s my baby so I choose. Hamish when he was small stole a dummy (pacifier) from his friend Nancy and it was bright pink and he’s never looked back. But the comments it caused. Who cares, it’s only a colour! There was no mistaking that he was a boy, and it wouldn’t have bothered me if people did doubt his gender, but I know a LOT of people are very sensitive about having given birth to very masculine looking girls, and feminine looking boys. But I am not sure what really bothers them about it: is it a reflection on them? Kids grow into their looks and usually grow quite quickly to look like their gender.

  3. Not having a child myself, I have not paid purposeful attention to the “boy or girl?” question. I’m sure it’s quite annoying. Sort of like the “Nice to meet you, what do you do?” question that seems ever-pervasive here in the US.

    Thinking back, when I ask the “boy or girl” question, it is mostly so I know which pronouns to apply to him or her so I don’t offend the parent by calling “her” a “him” and vice versa. I see by your post that you wouldn’t care if I got it wrong. But a lot of parents I’ve observed around these parts get pretty damn tied up in their babies.

    Still, perhaps my underlying assumption (of offending) is inaccurate and unwarranted…

  4. I hear ya!

    People used to presume Nookie was a boy all the time when she was little. Unfortunately, because I get most of her clothes now handed-down from relatives, she wears a lot of pink. But I have had to sell some of the overly pink and fluffy dresses, because not only do they look like Disney’s nightmare, they’re also completely impractical for toddlers! I hate seeing little girls dressed in ridiculously flouncy clothing that’s totally impossible to play in without restriction.

    When I actually buy Nookie clothing, I tend to get dungarees and warm, practical stuff. I don’t really care what colour it is so long as it’s practical and reasonably cute.

    Oh and the black thing! My mum went mad when we bought Nookie loads of black stuff when she was still a bump. I knitted black cardigans and booties too. ‘You can’t dress a baby in black’ she’d spout. Why on earth not?! I have a very cute picture of her on the day after being born, in a vest that says ‘goth baby’ on it, complete with knitted black and red booties and mittens. 🙂

  5. While I agree with you that gender doesn’t matter and that a parent can dress her kid in whatever she wants, I think that you too often allow yourself to get offended at others’ ignorance. I think you might be happier if you could look at other peoples comments to you as a desire to connect.

    From reading your blog for the last few months, I feel that tolerance is high on your list of valuable qualities in humans and that you wish to teach this to Pickles. I, for one, would encourage you to display more of it yourself.

    Would it be so hard to just smile and say, “She’s a girl. Thanks for being interested in my wonderful baby.?”

  6. Rima: Excellent point about the more than two genders thing. I should have mentioned that in my post, but crap I’m so entrenched in all this boy or girl, pink or blue crap that I didn’t even think of it! It’s even getting to me! Arg!

    And whoa, baby bikinis freak me out too. Talk about over sexualizing the young.

    Fiona: You know, it’s funny, I’ve never really felt like any babies look particularly boy or girl, like from their faces or whatever. I know I’ve found myself in the same trap, thinking a little boy was actually a girl because he had longer hair, for example. But babies all just look like little round-faced puddings to me. Seems odd to me that some people feel like their babies look masculine or feminine. I need to see some of the babies people are thinking this about to see if they just look like little pudding balls to me too. Heh.

    mark e: I’m sure you’re right, and there are many parents who would be offended, or at least irritated if someone used the wrong pronoun on their kid. And I think most of the time the question “boy or girl?” isn’t coming from some weird gender-obsessed place, as it isn’t from you. (Though the number of times I hear that question has been part of getting me thinking about this issue.) Of course, in an analysis of the whole gendered issue, the fact that using the wrong pronoun could offend someone is also a telling observation.

    Sarah: I thought I made clear in the first paragraph that I am not annoyed by the question “boy or girl?” when I think of it exactly that way. Well, if it wasn’t clear, that’s what I was saying there in that first paragraph. I am not rude to any of these people. I do smile and answer without any sort of further comment. But then I come home and like to analyze the situation on my blog. And here we are.

    Comments like “well she looks like a boy” are irritating though (and luckily come FAR less often) particularly because those comments are yet to come with a smile and kindness from the speaker. Imagine saying something like that to an adult! I think it would be considered pretty insulting. Particularly if it was said to someone who defines their sexuality in a way unfamiliar to the commenter. But I’m not rude to the people who say this either. I just smile and nod. I don’t see any point in having involved arguments about gender stereotypes on the bus. Most people mean well, and some of them don’t. These experiences do make me question WHY people are particularly concerned with this issue. And as you have probably also noticed, critically looking at all of the things that our culture does is high up there on the important list as well.

    At the same time as I am polite to all of these people, sometimes I wonder if that is really the right move. If, for example, someone said something racist on the bus, I would most certainly not politely nod and smile and be “tolerant” of their ignorance. And though what people say about my baby’s gender on the bus is not on the same level at all, it is the kind of thinking that leads to fucked up gender comments aimed at adults later that would also not inspire silence from me. What do you think? Where should tolerance end and responsible (and more diplomatically phrased) “fuck your racist/sexist/etc shit” begin? I think that’s a difficult question, and I am definately unsure of my own answer to it.

  7. I haven’t read all the other comments, but I imagine they also ask boy or girl so they can follow up with some gender stereotyped answers like, “oh, boys cry more than girls” or “girls sleep better” or who knows what else. Boys poop more than girls or something. You know, all that bland stereotype perpetuating stuff people come up with.

  8. I agree with fishinthewater, that often this question is followed by a generality based on the persons experience and the gender of your baby. I always got the “Boy or girl” question before the “does she sleep through the night yet” wherein I usually got a response about how girls are easier in some way. I still get it and she is almost 2 (“girls are so much easier to potty train” is a favorite of strangers since she has been potty trained during the day for 7 months). I usually follow it up with a quick parenting remark (“well, we started putting her over the potty at 4 months” is my favorite response since it shows that it is a choice, not a gender based decision).

    I also tried really hard to keep her baby clothes gender neutral and when Imentioned it to my family they thought I was crazy and making her not wear pink or frills because I didn’t like them personally, instead of making it a decision on my part to allow her to choose her favorite clothing and colors as well as to be comfortable. I’m more ‘lax’ on it now because it is up to her to choose her clothing and she prefers simple dresses since she hates pants.

  9. My son is 7 years old. He has curly hair which is long in the back–like his dad’s. Last Saturday when we were having a yard sale, he was wearing a plain white T-shirt, an orange bead necklace he made, blue and green striped pants, and green flip-flops with soccer motif. An older lady shopping at the sale referred to him as “she”. I think that’s understandable based on his hairstyle. But as she continued to fawn over him, “Aren’t you a sweet little salesgirl! Where do you go to school honey? I’ll bet you’re the prettiest girl in your class!” etc. he became uncomfortable and finally told her he’s actually a boy. After a brief expression of surprise and apology, she stopped talking to him and began railing at me: “He’s too pretty to be a boy! It’s just wasted on him! He looks like YOU!!” I tried to be polite, but it was really ridiculous. Yes, he does look a lot like me. Did she mean to make a roundabout compliment on my own prettiness, or was she saying (as her inflection implied) that it’s somehow wrong for me to have given birth to a child of the other gender who resembles me?! Very weird. Luckily, my son was all like, “Daddy, you missed the crazy customer! Guess what she said!” rather than hurt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.