I first noticed the problem the week my son was born and clothes began coming in from well-meaning friends and family members. There were onesies with basketballs, footballs, soccer balls and tennis balls. Sometimes, the onesies had all five balls. In lieu of balls, there were monkeys or tigers. But mostly there were monkeys and phrases like, "Mommy's Handsome Guy."
"Paging Dr. Freud" was the best joke I could come up with in those early postpartum days. Now, my son is 3 and we still have the same problem. All clothes either come with penile references, like balls or monkeys, or an array of superheroes. Sometimes we get lucky and just have Mickey Mouse, but even the mouse is usually carrying a ball or a bat.
I'm not opposed to a game of baseball or even Captain America. But after having a daughter, the disparity in fashion between boys and girls is even more evident.
Google "Why are baby boys' clothes so ugly?" and you come up with a wealth of mothers lamenting dinos and trucks and balls, and offering tips on how to avoid dressing your baby like an old man in sweaters and sneakers or like some sort of Freudian kid's cartoon (in sports paraphernalia and declarations of his love for mommy dearest).
Boys can only ever be one thing: a boy ... who wears dinosaurs and balls and trucks.
If baby girls are little dollies to be trussed up in tutus and sparkles, then little boys are almost an afterthought in the world of fashion. After all, no one seems to get up in arms and demand that Target or Old Navy recall little boys' shirts. Why would would we care about the phallic imagery of a bat and ball on onesies? We hand-wring over whether girls' clothes are too fluffy, too glittery or not glittery enough. And under that intense scrutiny, littl- girl fashion has fractured into many pieces.
When my daughter was 6 months old, we received a sleeper that had five different patterns and three kinds of ruffles, as if Liberace had a baby with Lady Gaga and that baby designed some pretty shitty sleepers. The sleeper was the perfect embodiment of everything fashion believes signifies baby girl—and yes, it even had glitter and the word "Diva" embroidered on the chest.
But boys? Well. Here's a shirt declaring your son a "little sport," now shut up and put it on him.
In our hyper-vigilance and over-policing of the clothing of women, even in their baby forms, we teach women to objectify themselves from an early age. Clothes for girls are fashion. For little boys, they are not more than function.
"Oh who cares about his clothes? Just let him play," a well-meaning relative told me when I lamented that I could find no cute shoes for my son for school.
It's a lack of options that is both stifling and freeing. In his lack of clothing choices, my son gets to be more than the ballsy T-shirt that he is wearing. But he also has a limited range of trying on different versions of who he can be. Girls can be tomboys or girly-girls, or something new each day. But boys can only ever be one thing: a boy, and not just a boy, but a Western idea of a boy, who wears dinosaurs and balls and trucks. This limits their potential to see themselves in new ways and also sends a clear message that devalues the things that are more feminine.
A byproduct of limiting the fashion of little boys is that we only ever teach boys to value the masculine. In the clothing section of a major retailer, any little girl can be Wonder Woman or Superman. Girls who dress in boyish clothes are strong little women. But boys can only ever be "a boy." And the result of these confines is that we never push them to identify outside of themselves. No, we insist, that even as a young age, women come to them. Articles where parents defend their decision to let their sons dress as girls often read as defensive; they are parents grappling with the worry and fear that come from allowing their boy to drape himself in female vulnerability. When it comes to clothing, little girls keep striving, while boys stay comfortable.
I don't want to put my son in clothes he doesn't want to wear, but I do wish I could offer him more choices, more options and eventually, one day, a whole new vision of who he could be—a vision that stretches beyond gender and into the heart of whoever it is that he will become.