Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Baby Clothing on the Spot

My high-school friend introduced me to her 5-year old son the other day. Apart from the fact that he stood exactly 180 degrees facing the opposite direction and refused to acknowledge my existence, he seemed nice enough. But what was up with the outfit? A John Deere trucker cap and a t-shirt with a monster car kicking up clouds of dirt from under oversized wheels. Was this an Ashton Kutcher starter kit? I’ll pass over the fact that I knew plenty of kids in high school who dressed like this without even thinking about it. Some of them even knew how to drive a John Deere tractor. But neither of us did. So how did her kid wind up this way?

I was a little surprised at my own reaction. What does it matter what a little boy or girl wears? I remember having a pair of cowboy boots with fancy stitching, and a few Evel Knievel t-shirts that I deeply regretted loosing to whoever stole them out of the laundromat in the late 70s.

But I couldn't help myself. "Gimme a break," I thought. "I'd never buy a shirt like that for Spot." Though my wife and I have never really talked about it, most of Spot's onesies are "gender neutral." We like it that way. Thankfully he looks good in pastels, because he's wearing a lot of light orange, green, and yellow these days. He has a few blue outfits, one ridiculously cute sailor suit, and a few novelty pieces. By and large, he's steering clear of the blue-pink dichotomy.

As far as motifs go, his clothes are decorated with quite a few dinosaurs, a good selection of African megafauna, and various amphibian and mammalian species native to temperate Eurasia. Plus, of course, the usual barnyard crew. So Spot is on his way to being somewhat of a naturalist, perhaps even a paleontologist. What is absent from wardrobe is anything powered by an internal combustion engine or resembling a professional athletic jersey.

Putting this wardrobe together was no easy feat. A quick stroll through the children's apparel section in Target makes it clear that there is a "pink side" and a "blue side". Delve deeper into the infant clothing section, and you'll find that the rack of Target and Gerber brands is about evenly divided according to Yin and Yang, with, as a concession to the way of the Tao, a thin strip of gender neutral offerings in the middle. If you want more selection, you have to go to specialty stores elsewhere in the City. My mother has been doing a yeo-woman's job of culling the gender neutral stuff from various discount department stores, but both she and my wife have insisted that it's not easy.

Why go to all the trouble? After pondering over the question, it's become clear to me that what Spot wears is less about him right now than about us as parents and what we communicate to the world through his outfits. My own folks have told me they paid no attention to what I wore as a small child (always nice to hear), and despite the cowboy boots and the Evel Knievel t-shirts, I failed to turn into either a cowboy or a motorcycle-riding stunt man. No, the way we clothe Spot is more about reassuring ourselves of our parenting choices, and signaling these choices to parents and others around us.

"He doesn't HAVE to dress that way," is what we're saying when we dress him. The complex of associations that make up gender identity doesn't necessarily have to include trucks, rockets, earth-moving machinery, and really really fast cars. It can include some of these things, but it can include other things too. It's all a protest, perhaps mostly symbolic, that the package of traits that is conventionally known as "boyhood" can be mixed up and filled with all sorts of things.

But does that include dresses? At coffee one morning with a mom down the street, I saw her 8-month old daughter in a skirt for the first time. "Oh boy," I thought, "once you cross that line, there's no going back." Boys go hither, girls girls go yon. "What about a kilt?" my wife asked. Yes, there are options: the eminently practical Middle Eastern dishdashah, and various central and south Asian tunics, for example, none of which I have ever worn nor am likely to. And while experiments with all this might be fine now, while he is a
tabula rasa, he will have friends one day, and in that Lord of the Flies world he will be forced to choose sides. And he will think we were foolish for not having prepared him.

Or, if we take the trouble to get him comfortable dressing beyond the pink-blue dichotomy, to take him shopping where there really is a range of things to choose from besides frilly blouses and football jerseys, perhaps he will feel comfortable designing a wardrobe that expresses who he is, and not the category in which he must be classified.


Anonymous said...

We dressed our daughter mostly in boys clothes for nearly 2 years, with an occational frilly dress and nightgown, not for any philosophical reasons, but because we were poor and my brother-in-law and his wife had 3 boys at that time, the youngest less than 2 years older. Hand-me-downs are what all our kids lived in as my husband and his sibs have 17 kids/step-kids between them, and as he's youngest ours are in the 2nd half, with 2 between them.
The frilly things were from older relatives and pretty much only for church, birthday parties, going out with the older relatives for brunch, etc.

Amy said...

We've got a related statement to make in our kids' clothes - not so much a gender one but one against commercialism. It gets increasingly harder to avoid shirts, pants, sweatshirts, etc. with logos, commercial characters, or other brand marks on them. Perfectly good shirts ruined with the huge letters G-A-P on the front. Countless offerings with Disney or other figures plastered across them. It's a campaign to avoid our children becoming walking advertisements, and it's a battle.

chicago pop said...

Helen reminds me that I forgot to mention the multiple bags of recycled clothing that we've received from family and friends -- that's another post topic! Not only is this green, sustainable, and economical, but it's a great way to pleasantly surprise and horrify yourself about the clothes that people who are close to you let their kids wear! We've used a lot of it.

RE brand names on clothes, we're with Amy. Is not allowed.

Anonymous said...

I should meantion that many of the clothes my daughter got from her boy cousins went back for their younger brother than back to us again.... The girly stuff went mostly to my sister's daughter or friends.

Matt said...

I agree that, for some people, what their children wear reflects on them as parents. My (4yo and 8yo now) daughters have friends whose mothers (yes, always the mothers) fuss about each child's outfit, and confess to arguing about what to wear in the morning. They used to also dress their children, all the way up to 6 yrs old.

I never really cared, because my girls never cared. I'd pick things that loosely matched. As soon as the kids expressed any interest whatsoever in what was on their bodies (at about 16-18 months), I encouraged them to choose. Then, nothing matched, and the stained shirts were beloved.

But, both were independent, choosing their own clothes and dressing themselves. One mom actually had the gall to ask why one daughter, who at 2 yrs old, was dressed 'that way' (picture knee-high black boots, purple-striped tights, red-green plaid skort, pink striped shirt). When I said that she picked them out and dressed herself without my involvement, it was like a light went on.

As the primary care giver, I'm happy to not be burdened by having to pass on the conditioning that appearance is something to fuss so much about. To me, independence beats a well-dressed kid any day.

chicago pop said...

Kudos to Helen for the multi-stage clothing reuse!

Matt raises an interesting point about what happens when the child can have some input, which I hadn't thought about since we're not there yet. My response is that we probably agree that independence /randomness of clothing is probably better than a sense of "I oughtta being wearing this cuz I'm a boy/girl." I think that's where we're trying to steer things.

So yes, that kind of independence which hopefully entails branching out from what is conventionally expected.

Anonymous said...

My three yr old is a walking advertisement bc she is in love with princesses and that is what she chooses from her hand-me-down colelction and when she ahs money from Grandma to spend at the store. This bothers me not only for the commercial factor, but also for the promoting white as beautiful - Cinderella, Snow White and Belle are the primary focus, sometimes Ariel, but Mulan and Jasmine are included only in the large group photos, as if, hey, look we have some dark-skinned princesses too! HOWEVER, if you can believe it, Jasmine was drawn darker in the movie than she is in some of the books we have her in, as well as any time she is pictured next to the "white" princesses, she is colored lighter than she is in the actual movie. Disgusting. But it would be a disservice to explain these things to my three yr old, who is still completely color-blind.