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I Wish I Didn't Have to Dress My Daughter in Boys' Clothes

Our 4-year-old daughter has a long-sleeved navy top with the phrase "Force of Nature" emblazoned across the front. I love it because it's the perfect description for her: Feisty, determined, unstoppable. What I don't love? That I had to go the boys' department of Old Navy to find it.

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Have you taken a spin through the girls' section of your local big box store lately? It's embarrassing. They basically have shirts proclaiming "CUTE," "All Smiles," "Be Happy, Smile," emblazoned with ice cream cones, bunnies, hearts or peace signs. These are the messages our girls grow up believing they need to personify: "I need to be cute," "I need to act sweetly," "I need to smile."

Photograph on left by: Gap

The boys' section a few feet over? They get to proclaim their athletic prowess ("I Do My Own Stunts"), broadcast their smarts ("Warning: Genius at Work") and issue dares ("Try and Stop Me.")

St Patrick's Day is coming up. Girls can ask, "Who Needs Luck When You're This Cute?" while boys ask, "Who needs luck when you've got skills?" or they can feel free to say "Go Pinch Somebody Else."

Photograph on right by: Gap

Oodles of girl shirts offer "Free HUGS." At Target, boys can buy a Free Hugs shirt, too … but it's a snarky one featuring a cactus.

Photograph by: Target

If you think girls don't internalize these messages, you're wrong. It starts young.

If you think girls don't internalize these messages, you're wrong. It starts young; they soak this stuff in. The 5-year-old whose wardrobe is filled with shirts that say, "Sweetheart" or "I give great hugs" is more likely to grow up trying to fit into the Good Girl archetype—not because she is staring at her shirt all day (she might not even be old enough to read), but because the parents choosing her clothes are perhaps delivering similar messages in other areas of her life (e.g. forcing her to hug someone even though she doesn't want to.) Plus she has society driving home the same memos in the way it portrays and treats women. For example, studies show that parents are more likely to let their sons engage in risky playground activities than they are their daughters. (Young girls hear "Be careful!" far more often than their male counterparts.) Women hold embarrassingly few high-stakes positions in Congress, at the helm of Fortune 500 companies ... and even when we do, we underearn by an embarrassing percentage compared to a man at the same job. When budgets are cut, women feel it first—whether it's a high school athletic program or government programs that primarily impact women.

Before you know it, our 4-year-olds in "I'm a cutie pie!" shirts will be teenagers asking for our credit card so they can go to the mall with their friends and buy underwear that says something like, "Look But Don't Touch," or they'll be wearing "Everyone Loves a Drunk Girl" tees to college parties. I know because I made those kinds of choices, too—and I had parents who instilled in me very strong messages about being capable and powerful, who promoted gender equality in many ways, who focused more on my brains than my looks.

All of this said, I'm far from perfect. I fall for this stuff, too. Our daughter has a sweatshirt that says, "HAPPY." Her younger sister has owl pajamas that read, "Hoot Hoot, I'm Cute." Girls' clothes can just be so … adorable … and when you're standing in a sea of glitter and ruffles, sometimes a primal urge takes over and you just start grabbing things that scream GIRL! as if you're on autopilot. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite. But I'm learning as I go, and I'm trying to make wiser choices.

It's been hard to find (my daughter) a shirt, though, that isn't pink and purple. You have to go to the boys' department to find the right one.

Her fourth birthday party was last week. The theme that she chose? Batman. Not "Frozen." Not even Batgirl. Batman. I cannot tell you how much I love this. She likes what she likes, and her current (well, for the past two years) infatuation has been Batman. It's been hard to find her a shirt, though, that isn't pink and purple instead of the traditional black and yellow. You have to go to the boys' department to find the right one.

But she mixes it up: On most days, you can find her rocking her "Batman" costume, which consists of a vinyl dress, cape and arm bands. Just this morning, she helped me pick out a new pair of pajamas, specifically asking for "something with scary sharks on them." But she also looooves her kitty cat pjs, her rose-print tunic, her Tiana dolls and her glimmering hair bows. Last year, her birthday party had an Ariel theme. Who knows what it will be next year?

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Thankfully, things are changing, bit by bit. While conducting researching for this blog, I found some surprises. The Gap has a shirt that reads, "Girls With Dreams Become Women With Vision." Target offers an "I'd Rather Be Watching Cat Videos" shirt in the boys' section, as well as one that says, "Bad Hair Day" for those with unruly cowlicks. But for the most part, the most empowering female-specific ones you can find say things like GRL PWR—messages that still need to be delivered so softly that we can't even fully spell them out.

Don't get me wrong: I don't need our toddler to be wearing a onesie declaring, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" with matching pants covered in Gloria Steinem cartoons. But I also don't want her in a shirt that says, "I've got my daddy wrapped around my little finger" or "Don't Sweat … Shimmer." Because that's bullshit. Go out and sweat, girl.

Feature photograph by: Twenty20

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