Baby Boys, Baby Girls

Debbie says:

Does anyone else remember the famous 1970s Doonesbury cartoon in which the arrival of a baby was greeted with cries of “It’s a baby woman!”? The point, of course, was to exaggerate the linguistic shift from “girl” to “woman” to describe adults, which many feminists were arguing for then (and now).

I hadn’t shopped for baby clothes for quite some time before last year, when Body Impolitic’s webmaster and his wife had twin boys. To get the boys a present, I started clicking around the web, and I was horrified by how many sites divide their newborn offerings between clothes for “baby girls” and clothes for “baby boys,” before I could even look at an item of clothing.

Earlier this week, when Laurie and I were doing research for our “blog love” post, I noticed that Rachel at Rachel’s Tavern had been thinking along similar lines in September.

I like the clothes made for boys better than I like the clothes made for girls. It’s not that I don’t like frilly dresses and ruffles. What I like about boys’ clothes is the bright primary colors that are more common in clothes marketed for infant and toddler boys and the themes used in both boy clothing and gender neutral clothing. My favorite themes are usually animal themed clothes, and above all else I like ducks and frogs–probably because yellow and green are my favorite colors. In my view frogs and ducks are generally androgynous, but many animal themed clothes are marketed for boys. For example, dogs, dinosaurs, lizards, bugs, and turtles are often found in boys clothing. I’ve also noticed two other common sets of themes that I like in baby boys clothing–occupational themes and activity themes.

What strikes me about baby boys’ clothes is how much they promote activity and paid labor force work. Even as infants, we start to socialize baby boys into occupations. You rarely find occupation themed clothes for girls. Little girls’ clothes often have flowers, frills, and some animals (i.e. butterflies), but they don’t have occupational themes. They also rarely have activity themes outside of shopping or cheerleading. .

There’s more, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.

Close friends of mine now have infant girl twins. The parents kept the babies’ gender to themselves until birth, and instructed “no pink and blue” for shower presents. Being around the babies makes me very aware of baby clothes when I see them, and a surprising percentage are, in fact pink or blue. (Of course, pink has not always been the “girl color.” I thought it changed after Victorian times, but both Wikipedia and this site say that gendered colors came in in our culture in the 1910s or 1920s and “dress him in masculine pink” was around until the 1940s.)

I did a little research for this post, checking all the top Google sites for baby clothes. A couple of them, generally the upscale, “organic” ones don’t gender at all. A few others have a tiny assortment of ungendered clothes for newborns, or the wonderful three categories, “boys,” “girls” and “unisex.” (I suppose this is a step in the right direction, given how much I would like to see a third category on forms that make me provide my gender.) But on most sites, you still have to make the gender decision before you look at a single piece of clothing. (This was what drove me to buy brown corduroy Carhartt overalls both for our webmaster’s twins and for the new twins. It also makes me think that online shopping for babies of more than one gender would take longer and be more of a pain.)

In the course of the research, I found something that bothers me even more than the things Rachel points out, or the existence of gendered newborn clothing at all, and that is the phenomenon of “X” and “Girl X.” As I was looking at pictures of gendered baby clothes, I found several times a pattern that goes like this: a black or bright-colored onesie says “baby rock star” or “I [heart] my daddy” or something. Right next to it, the identical pattern on a pink onesie says “baby rock star girl” or “I [heart] my daddy” with a caption that says “for girls.”

Katha Pollitt famously said, “For me, to be a feminist is to answer the question ‘Are women human?’ with a ‘Yes.'” Looking at these baby clothes makes me think that the current social answer to “Are girl babies human?” may be “Almost, but … not quite.”

10 thoughts on “Baby Boys, Baby Girls

  1. Too bad we can’t simply declare “baby” a gender and leave it at that.

    Is it even possible to tell, looking at a baby who isn’t buck-naked, whether it’s a boy or a girl? I certainly couldn’t do it, and I don’t even try. In fact, my brain completely leaves a blank space there when faced with a baby. It’s a BABY. I coo at it. I don’t care what type of baby it is, it’s a BABY.

    People who care must, I suppose, try hard to signal to viewers that it is a Boy or a Girl, since you couldn’t tell just looking at it.

    I wonder how much you’d blow people’s minds if, when asked if it were a boy or a girl, you replied, “Oh, it’s much too soon to tell yet.”

  2. Emmy: People who care don’t have to try at all to signal the difference. Girls are marked as such, and any baby not distinctly and clearly marked as feminine is a boy baby. I dressed my baby girls in gender neutral clothing almost all the time (this takes honest to goodness WORK), and whenever they were in unmarked clothes – plain blue jeans, plain strong-coloured top with no logo, pictures, or text – they were assumed to be male.

    What was most interesting – upsetting – about that was that when I said “Oh, her name is [name],” people would respond “But why is she dressed like a boy?” as though I’d done something wrong – either to the baby or to them, or maybe both.

    Also, baby boys’ clothes are often markedly thuggish – from “cheeky monkey” to “little rascal” and “here comes trouble” to actual mini camo combat pants for pre-walking babies.

  3. What drives me crazy is that boys’ clothes are better-made than girls’ clothes. The jeans are sturdier, the shirts are thicker, the stitching holds up longer. I infer the assumption is that boys play, and therefore need clothes that will allow them to do so, but girls sit and are quiet, and can wear any old thing because they won’t be jumping, climbing, running, falling, tumbling, or wrestling.

    Bacon is female, but I tend to dress her in a lot of boys’ clothes, especially now that she’s out of toddler sizes. The clothing for little girls is appallingly sexualized, rigidly gendered, and completely inappropriate nine times out of ten (and that tenth time? It’s in some chi-chi high-end boutique where a shirt she’ll grow out of in a month costs more than an entire outfit of mine.). It’s ridiculous, and I refuse to think it’s imperative that she be “all girl”.

  4. Amen! Being a new parent (the boys turn one on Halloween!) is an appalling experience when it comes to clothes and toys. Walk into any mainstream baby store or department and you’re assaulted by pink and blue with no alternatives, like some sick surrealistic cartoon made real. I find it blindingly stupid that so many people set about pseudo-genderizing their kids literally from day one without giving the little buggers a chance in hell of finding out who they might be for themselves. Fortunately for those of us without the time to re-learn how to sew there are a few amazing manufacturers such as Kate Quinn Organics who do it right, but most of what you can find out there is shite.

    I say “pseudo-genderizing” because of course the gender-color correlation is totally bogus and is all about pigeonholes and fake roles and nothing about true gender. The fact that I even have to say that out loud makes me want to run outside screaming and bludgeon a cute little pink pony or something.

    If you spend time with enough little girls and little boys from infancy on up there do indeed appear to be behavioral gender differences in the very young in re: toy choices and activity tendencies, no doubt influenced by their hormone levels, but at the same time where exactly are you going to find those telling control cases for testing nurture vs. nature? Nowhere, that’s where. (At least not until 2134 when those ten thousand babies were raised in isolation by robots — you remember, by that cabal of renegade behavioralists for whom we reinvented corporal punishment.)

    And yes, thank you, Debbie and Laurie, the brown denim overalls are great! The boys have finally grown into them; will send pix.

  5. I can really relate to what everyone has said. When my younger daughter was little she wore mostly jeans and tee shirts and as a “generic” child was frequently perceived as a boy.

    And often, she was treated far more respectfully by adults, particularly men, if they thought they were talking to a boy not a girl. It’s not good for 6-year-olds to realize that they’re being treated better until people find out who they really are. And that gave us yet another piece of the ongoing conversation about dealing with sexism that went on throughout her childhood and adolescence.

  6. This reminds me of an experience that relates to both infant clothing and the sexualization of children discussed in a recent post. A few years ago I edited a transcript of a sales conference for children’s clothing held by a company (which shall remain unnamed) that manufactures denim clothing. During the oohing and ahhing while they held up tiny denim garments, one in particular really bothered me. It was a denim dress with a “feminine nipped in waist” for infant girls. These poor kids can’t even walk yet and already there’s not only an expression of gender, but also a disturbing hint of sexuality and even a sense that a baby girl “should” have a waist.

  7. Clothing quality: Little boys’ vests (undershirts) and underpants are made of heavier fabric and have firmer seams.

    I Kid You Not.

    This difference starts in the 18-24 months ranges, here in the UK.

  8. When I was pregnant and discovered I was having a girl I had a strict no pink policy. After her birth I do tend to dress her in pink, purple, butterflies and the like. I don’t have much of an issue with the clothing as I am changing it every other time she eats anyhow. Obviously too much emphasis is placed on pink for girls and blue for boys. This of course is to assist an adult human who is unable to identify the child as one gender or another without an apparent indicator. The downfall is that it allows that same adult to project their stereotypes of that particular gender onto an infant child.

    I am proud of my daughter in all her two month glory. At this point she’s no different from a two month old boy. What she wears or doesn’t wear really doesn’t matter to me. But it is important that the person in the grocery story understands that I am extremely proud of my two month old daughter.

  9. Why does it matter to us what gender our babies are? When does it begin to matter to us?

    Our fraternal twins look as different as any two siblings. Often strangers tend to assume that one of them is a girl and the other a boy. On those occasions when I don’t correct them I feel a frisson in letting them assume incorrectly as though I were withholding some critical information. It seems to be really important to most of us to know whether babies and young children are girls or boys. Surely this isn’t all because the English language lacks an established pronoun of indeterminate gender. I assume it’s mostly because we have such different expectations of everyone based on their gender. I feel troubled by the fact that it matters in a child of less than a year.

    Why and under what circumstances does gender matter before puberty? I know that children often self-segregate by gender well before puberty, and while I’m certainly open to the idea of innate gender differences you can’t persuade me that this isn’t partly or largely learned behavior. Are our children’s genders important only because of our own projections on them?

  10. I think one of the motivations for aggressively gendered baby clothes is that babies *aren’t* gendered. The only way to tell this oh-so-important difference is by clothes and accessories. It takes money and work to find clothes that are neutral, and who has money and the time to do that work? So, as you suggest, it becomes a class issue as well.

    What fascinates me now that my daughter is a little older (3 in December) is how she perceives gender — which is in a very fluid and haphazard way. She wants to wear dresses, but she wants to wear her shark shoes with them. She’s more comfortable changing species or even phylum than gender: “I’m a little girl fruit bat…..” “Now I’m a little girl caterpillar!” But she loves nature videos, so she’s getting the idea that males have brilliant plumage and often sing and perform special dances to attract a female. She may be very disappointed in a few years…. A couple of months ago she announced to me a that her bottom was different from Jason’s bottom, but I doubt she’s made a connection between this difference and the gendered binary oppositions that are more important to her on a daily basis.

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.