No Tutus, Please
By Liz Pond
When I became pregnant with my daughter, I had one request when it came to buying her clothes: No tutus, please.
I have nothing against tutus. In fact, my daughter bought one recently and told me she loves wearing it because it makes her feel “bouncy”. But in those early days, it was important to me not to perpetuate the stereotype that because she was a girl, she would wear things that were pink, frilly, and often uncomfortable.
When my son was born, I took the same approach and bought him colorful items rather than sticking to the usual blues, browns, and grays that boys are “supposed to” wear. He also spent a lot of his time in preloved clothes passed on by friends and his big sister, and how I dressed him was more about what was clean and comfortable and less about whether the gender it was designed for matched his own.
As my kids have grown, they’ve taken their style into their own hands. My daughter is currently into activewear and my son loves anything embellished with Super Mario, but they enjoyed dressing like both Spider-Man and a Disney Princess at one point.
Dressing your child in clothing that subverts gender stereotypes isn’t the easiest thing to do as a parent, especially when raising them in a community where these stereotypes continue to thrive. But there are so many reasons to reject what’s expected in kids’ fashion.
In the 1950s, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson developed the theory that our personalities develop in stages, and the outcome of each stage is influenced by our experience within society (1). What this means is that whether intended or not, what we do plays an important role in shaping our child’s identity.
According to Erikson, we begin to develop our sense of autonomy during toddlerhood (2). If you’ve parented a toddler who loves to (try to) dress themselves, you’ll be familiar with this! At this stage, our little ones love to make their own decisions and take action for themselves, so the chance to choose what they wear and how they wear it supports them as they develop this essential sense of independence. Telling a child they can’t wear something because “it’s for girls / boys” is dismissive of their choices and instills shame and doubt.
The same idea applies to colors within fashion design. If a boy loves all things purple but none of the clothes available to him are purple, what does that teach him about his likes and dislikes?
A fun way to encourage a sense of autonomy is by adding a dress-up box to your arsenal of toys. As well as giving your child the opportunity to be independent, costumes encourage imaginative play, which is incredibly beneficial to their development (3). The key though lies in offering a range of costumes and clothes for your child to experiment with—regardless of what’s expected of their gender. When we’re swayed by stereotypes and stick to princess outfits for girls and superheroes for boys, we’re in essence saying “Hey, you can be creative, but only within these limits”.
Another psychology-related reason to shun gender stereotypes is “enclothed cognition.” In simple terms, this is the idea that the clothes we wear have the power to change the way we feel and behave, and how we perceive the world around us. In a 2012 study, researchers found that participants who wore what they were told was a doctor’s lab coat performed better on attention-related tasks than participants who wore either no lab coat or what they were told was a painter’s coat (4).
So what might this mean for our kids? To me, it says that clothing design matters. The next time you go to a kids’ clothing store, take a wander through both the girls’ and boys’ departments and look for a pair of shorts in each. Which pair is a longer and wider cut? Is one pair made from thicker fabric than the other? And which is more aesthetically pleasing?
When I did this experiment, I discovered that the shorts designed for boys always looked more comfortable and durable, while those designed for girls were pretty but made of thinner, less flexible fabric. To me, what that essentially meant was that comfort is the top priority for a boy, and looking cute is crucial for a girl.
If the clothes we wear affect how we feel and behave, then these designs are sending detrimental messages to our kids about who they can and can’t be. They’re inadvertently telling my daughter that trampolining, cartwheels, and all the ways she loves to be physical aren’t for her. They’re showing my son that if he likes to wear pink, he must be like a girl, even if he doesn’t feel like one. And I’m not OK with that.
How our kids perceive themselves when dressed a certain way isn’t the only perception to be aware of. The BBC2 documentary No More Boys and Girls: Can Kids Go Gender Free? showed volunteers in an experiment treating children differently depending on their gender. When they thought they were playing with a girl, they offered the child soft toys and dolls, but when they thought they were playing with a boy, they encouraged the child to play with toys that helped develop spatial awareness (5). Expectations based on gender are causing our kids to miss out on the growth opportunities they deserve.
So, in a world where we’re judged for deviating from what’s considered “normal” when it comes to clothing and gender, how do we deal with comments and expectations? The best advice I’ve heard to deal with anything that makes us uncomfortable comes from a clinical psychologist, Dr. Becky Kennedy, who says to “choose truth over comfort” (6). The truth is that by not fitting in with others’ expectations, my child gets the chance to develop and grow a strong sense of identity and selfworth and a whole range of skills that should never have been assigned to a specific gender in the first place.
To celebrate his last day of nursery in June, my son proudly wore his favorite costume—a Spider-Girl dress. When I picked him up that day, a few kids and their uncomfortable-looking parents asked “Why is he wearing a dress?”. My answer was the simple truth: “Because he likes it.”
Photos from Canva.
(1) Cherry, K. (2022) Erikson’s Stages of Development: A Closer Look at the Eight Psychosocial Stages. Verywell Mind. verywellmind.com/erik-eriksons-stages-ofpsychosocial-development-2795740
(2) See ref. 1
(3) Ellis, T. (2023) The benefits of imaginative play. Therapy Focus. therapyfocus.org.au/ on-the-blog/the-benefits-of-imaginativeplay/
(4) Adam, H. & Galinsky, AD. (2012) Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4):918–925. doi. org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.008
(5) BBC (2017) Girl toys vs boy toys: The experiment. (Video) bbc.com/news/av/ magazine-40936719
(6) Kennedy, R. (n.d.) When Talking To Kids About Hard Things, Choose Truth Over Comfort. Good Inside. goodinside.com/ podcast/5476/when-talking-to-kids-abouthard-things-choose-truth-over-comfort/
About the Author
Liz is a professional editor and mom of two based in Australia. She’s also an enthusiastic reader, a newbie home gardener, and a lover of karaoke. To learn how she helps authors and small businesses connect meaningfully with their audiences, visit LJPondProofreader.com.