Three years ago, when my son Liam was just beginning to toddle, all of his clothes were cute. Tiny trains made their way across the front of his overalls. Smiling lions peeked out from pockets. Some of his hats even had ears. A friend of mine has a girl, Tyra, about the same age, and her baby clothes were darling as well. Fuzzy kittens, ladybugs, the whole bit. When Liam turned three, though, something changed. While Tyra's clothes continued to sprout animals with big eyes and goofy grins, Liam's became more subdued. Tyra had bumblebees, elephants and Elmo. Liam had flannel shirts and jeans.
Shopping for a gift in the little girls' department, I found it bursting whimsical patterns and bright colors. The boys' department, on the other hand, was determined to stay serious, concentrating instead on forest green and all things sports. I was annoyed.
It wasn't that I wanted my son to wear daisies and frills or to be any less masculine. The child exited the womb knowing how to make car sounds, and could hit solid grounders before he was out of diapers. I was fine with that. It was just that when I described him as a little boy, "little" was the operative word, and I wanted his clothing to reflect this. At age three, he had more in common with the drooling baby a few doors down than he did with the preteen boys in their low-riding jeans who skateboarded on our street. And I knew that there was precious little time this would be true.
After looking at one too many rugby shirts one day while folding laundry, I decided to beat the system. Armed with my charge card, I strode into the local department store and headed for the pink sign that said Girls. After flipping through a few racks of shirts that were too flowery, too frilly, or too pink, I found what I was looking for: a striped blue and white sweater, size four. There were no flowers, no bows, no ruffles. On the front though, was sewn an adorable fuzzy brown bear. The ears stuck out, and the bear smiled at me shyly as I looked at it. It was the perfect sweater for a three-year-old boy.
Liam loved the sweater, and so did his buddies on our block. I was hooked. When I wanted a new outfit for him to wear for his first day of pre-school, I did only a cursory check of the boys' department, then went to the girls' section and found a navy sweater vest stitched with primary colored ABC's, crayons and pencils. He wore it with a crisp white t-shirt and khaki pants.
When I told my friends about my exciting discovery, showing them my newest find, a red Winnie-the-Pooh sweatshirt, they seemed confused. They wondered why I cared what he wore. I paused at their questions. Why did I care so much? I’m a woman who doesn’t know the current fashion trend until it makes its way to the clearance rack. In my free time, I read Newsweek, not Vogue. Why was I suddenly so concerned about the wardrobe possibilities for young boys?
Upon reflection, I discovered my concerns went deeper than the clothes themselves. What bothers me is the message implicit in the difference between boys' and girls' clothes. The fact that my husband could safely wear a larger size of just about anything in the boys' department, but I'd look ridiculous in adult versions of the little girl clothes tells me that it’s okay for girls to be small and cute, but boys are expected to be little men. While strides have been made in the last generation, it's still true that girls can cry when their feelings are hurt, but boys are expected to hold back their tears. Middle school girls take stuffed animals to slumber parties; boys leave theirs in the darkness of their own bedrooms. Studies show that parents tend to hug and touch their little girls more than their boys. And a baby boy might be referred to as a "tough" little guy, but few would use the same adjective for a baby girl. There is something unsettling about these things. All children have the right to be children; to be small and protected, to be vulnerable and un-tough. They need to be able to cry and be held. They need permission to be kids in a world which seems intent on selling adulthood to children.
The flip side of my problem with little boys’ clothes, my friends with girls tell me, is that once their girls outgrow size 7, the stores offer them slinky, midriff-baring, Brittany-inspired outfits that would be more appropriate on a rock stage than a playground. Should these moms visit the boys’ department for some nice solid-colored turtlenecks to wear under those outfits? Yikes.
As far as four-year-old Liam is concerned, though, Girls 4-7 continues to offer strong possibilities occasionally. While I know that bright colors and ABC's won't change everything, a fuzzy bear on the front Liam's sweater might remind me how young he really is; it might make me bend down and touch his chubby cheeks. Though I may not even be conscious of it, that bear might earn my son an extra hug. And I'll shop for extra hugs in whatever department sells them.
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