A BLOG BY SHANNON FISHER
Girls and boys are inundated with society’s not-so-subtle gender expectations from the time an obstetrician smacks their tucchus in the delivery room. They have been told, or it has been demonstrated, that boys have certain interests, and girls have others, and that it is inappropriate for them to pursue interests reserved for the opposite sex. Thankfully, society seems to be evolving.
In this millennium, traditional gender roles – which are still very much in place in some areas – are starting to become obsolete. Women (especially Western women) are often the family breadwinners; it is common to have a male nurse; girls are pitching in the Little League Baseball World Series; and young men are sporting the “man bun.” While gender roles are evolving, gender expectations seem to have remained largely the same.
The twentieth century is over, and since most of the Western world seems to be accepting a shift in gender roles (even if some of the more traditional communities are kicking and screaming as it happens) – why don’t we also begin to hoist and chuck the time-honored, clichéd gender messages we send to our children? Let’s allow them to determine their own interests and aesthetic.
If we don’t tell little boys to play with toy trucks, and we don’t tell little girls to play with dollhouses – and we expose them both to an array of toys and colors, giving them space to enjoy whatever grabs their attention – would it be so bad if some of the girls played with tractors and some of the boys fed their stuffed animals faux tea and crumpets? Something tells me it wouldn’t be the end of the world. No, I mean it. It would seriously not be the end of the world.
I realize this would make some parents extremely uncomfortable. All we know is what we’ve seen or been taught. If people haven’t been exposed to anything other than the choice between Option A and Option B, and the options were pre-assigned to them, they might not realize they have the wonderful opportunity to teach their children something different.
DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY
One person doing things differently is Jaya Iyer, the founder of Svaha, a line of gender-neutral clothing for boys and girls. Svaha’s clothing encourages children to explore subjects that are typically attributed to the opposite gender by mixing and matching colors and themes. In order to dispel the idea that girls must dress or act one way and boys another. Svaha’s clothing completely ignores the tired, gender-specific formulas for children’s clothing.
A good example of this is their series of T-shirts, for both boys and girls, with STEM-inspired motifs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The shirt designs combine what would stereotypically be considered gender-conflicting items to increase their appeal to any gender. One shirt in the series has laboratory test tubes on it with a flower coming out of each test tube, creating a unisex theme and sending the message, “It’s okay for boys to like flowers and girls to like science – and it’s also perfectly acceptable to be interested in what has historically been attributed to your assigned gender.”
Jaya realized, through her daughter, that children don’t need outside input to develop personal interests. She tells this story in a recent article in Bloomberg Business, The End of Boys and Girls: These Companies Are Going to Change How Your Kids Dress:
Ever since Jaya Iyer’s daughter was a toddler, she had been fascinated by Saturn and its icy rings. When Swaha turned three, she had a space-themed birthday party. But when her mom went to find clothes with space images for Swaha, she couldn’t find any. They were all in the boys section.
So the 41-year-old mother of two, who has a doctorate in fashion merchandising, started her own business called Svaha (which is how her daughter’s name is pronounced) to sell clothes that upend gender stereotypes. One shirt features a grinning green stegosaurus, the plates on its back adorned with polka dots. A second comes in a blazing pink hue, with an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon. That one should satisfy her daughter. “She was very upset with me for not ever buying her anything with astronauts on it,” Iyer says. “Then she started telling me: ‘I want a ninja on my shirt.'”
Clothing options like these, or the option of non-traditional toys or room decor, create space for a child to take a positive step in the direction of his or her own self-discovery. Far too many self-esteem issues are sparked when children find themselves drawn to that which they are told to avoid, and they are shamed or ridiculed for it. There is a reason Caitlyn Jenner did not feel comfortable coming out as herself until she was 65 years old! (Please note: I am not addressing gender identity in this piece; I’m focusing solely on gender expectations.)
Starting with pink and blue onesies given at baby showers, we are all conditioned to expect and cultivate different qualities in little girls and little boys. But that’s us. What if our kids and grandkids never knew that society attributes certain personality characteristics to each gender? What if we exposed these children to an array of experiences and let them determine their own interests? Most importantly, what if we nurtured and celebrated our children’s own interests regardless of whether they conform to society’s preconceived gender expectations? Society evolves. Let’s help it along.
Written by Shannon Fisher
P.S. I was introduced to Svaha earlier this year when one of the founders, Eva Everett, interviewed me for their website. They named me a “Woman who Inspires” for my work on gender issues. You can find the interview here.