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  • Writer's pictureDamian Kerlin

How our children perceive gender

“Pink is a girl’s colour!”

My six-year old exclaimed at his Dad whose fluorescent pink t-shirt laid on the kitchen table. The chosen colour of his sports day team organised by the Cardiff Lions; an inclusive Cardiff based rugby team for which he plays.

Naturally, we explained to him, in layman’s terms, that colour is not exclusive to gender and despite having same sex parents and living in a household which doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes, the reality to him is, it is.

When children are young, they ask a myriad of questions, as they try and make sense of the world and their place in it. A few years ago, if I had told my son pink is a girl’s colour, he would have asked, “but why?” Yet now, society has educated perceived gender stereotypes, commonly portrayed through children’s TV, film, literacy and, in this case, clothing.

Why in 2021 are children’s brands churning this out as mainstream ideology and when did somewhere along the way, as we grew up, we decided to listen to whoever got fed up with our seemingly endless stream of questions and settle for the response “that’s just the way things are”. Somewhere along the way, we exhausted our last “but why?”

When the discussion of heteronormative culture is broached by the public, it’s often done through the lens of adulthood. We defend the right to transition, the right for anyone to love another person regardless of sex, the rejection of forced masculine/feminine behaviour and clothing.

It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realised the conversation needs to start much earlier. We shouldn’t just be talking about how to defend the existing injustices, but how to prevent them in the first place and for that we need a shift in perception and a change in culture.

It is unclear as to whether unisex lines are what’s actually going to shift our perceptions of what men and women can wear. As Nicoline Larsen quoted in her article for Vice, I Tried on 'Genderless' Clothes and Was Extremely Disappointed -

We need to move beyond these dubious unisex collections and instead focus more on inclusion in a more general sense,” she says. She mentions how several brands have begun removing the small "boy" and "girl" labels on children’s clothing, leaving it up to the consumer to decide. Another method is the one where gender isn't specified by an in-store department, leaving things up for interpretation. "It’s a much more powerful approach, because you’re slowly pushing things forward without driving customers away.

In the UK there are some incredible brands which are working hard to challenge the stereotype and stray from the norm. Wonderwalls, best newcomer nominee The Independent Awards 2020, whose latest children’s t-shirt collection ‘Stick that in your Stereotype’ plays on words and colours creating bold statements and Tobias and the Bear, launched in 2013, which has become known for is stand out illustrations and items which are meant to be passed down regardless of gender.

More advocacy for changes in children’s apparel, toys, and accessories is sorely needed. Instead of having a doll section and an action figure section, I suggest that stores move towards inclusive categories like “musical toys,” “figures/dolls,” “pretend play.” Each child can peruse the shelves and pick which item speaks to them, without having to cross gender lines.

On a personal level, providing a child with a range of clothing options from sparkly tutus to blue overalls, to pink shirts gives them the OK to explore with colours they like, without learning to label clothing as “boy” or “girl” based on what they see in their own wardrobe.

We must continue to question everything but most of all, it’s important that the conversation is had at all.

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