Gender Neutral Clothing and Childhood Expression

Photo taken from the Gender Free World website by Colette Greif: Section from Gender Free World’s Instagram as shown from the company’s website. It shows many pictures of customers and workers wearing gender neutral clothes from the company’s brand.

Gender neutral clothing is a style of fashion directed at neither men or women and can be worn by either. With the growing visibility of feminism and the LGBTQ community, it makes sense that young people are boosting the more “neutral” style to fit their gender identity or to send a message. Could this fashion line be a trend, a style choice, or is it trying to break the mold of gender stereotypes?

It should always be encouraged for people to wear clothes that they feel comfortable and good in. No matter where they are or where they go, fashion is how a person chooses to express themselves on the outside. That includes those who prefer to dress more androgynous, a look that incorporates a mixture of male and female styles, because they want to explore themselves, it matches how they identify, or they just like the look!

But how about non-gender specific clothing targeted at kids and infants? Throughout the decades, it seemed that children were dressed up wearing clothes that respond with their gender. For centuries, society was firm in pressuring femininity on girls and masculinity on boys because in a sophisticated world, that was the way things were. LGBTQ individuals and cross-dressers were treated with great hostility. This proceeded all the way into the middle of the 1950’s, when it became for tolerable for girls to wear pants. But even still, people have been conditioned to surround girls with pink and dolls and princesses, and boys with blue and trains and cars. After all, this is what is marketed in the girl and boy sections of clothing and toy stores. Some argue that it seems to tie into the roles men and women are supposed to play in the world. For example, men are stereotypically raised to believe they aren’t supposed to cry and they have to “suck it up” and “be a man.” Meanwhile, girls are shown images of the ideal beautiful women that society wants them to live up to that they could never achieve, making them feel insecure about their own bodies. How does this relate to clothing? Famous singer Celine Dion, who sang the theme song “My Heart Will Go On” from James Cameron’s nominated motion picture, Titanic, has created a fashion line in collaboration with a clothing company called “Nununu,” promoting non-gender specific clothing directed at children and infants. According to Dion, she created the line as a way to help parents encourage their kids to be themselves and fight stereotypes. “Every child needs to have their own identity,” she said in an interview on an article by INDEPENDENT, where she explained her inspiration for the clothing line, which garnered much praise on Twitter. However, a Catholic Priest and exorcist from Scranton, Pennsylvania by the name John Esseff claimed it to be “satanic” and “demonic” in a tweet because of how it contrasted against gender norms and believed it to be brainwashing kids into losing touch with their gender. But they’re just clothes. They can’t actually do harm. Right?

Most people have adopted a mindset, either intentionally or by accident, that boys are to be treated one way and girls another. Traditional baby boy clothes often say things such as “I’m a Superhero,” which symbolizes strength and capability, while girl clothes have phrases like “I’m a Princess,” which symbolizes kindness and beauty. These are generalized examples, but there is truth behind them. Though these stereotypes are somewhat biologically correct, these differences lead to unequal treatment towards individuals based on their gender.

A rigid mindset is what causes some men to develop hypermasculinity or commit suicide due to being taught to repress their emotions and women to overvalue their looks or put their health on the line to achieve a certain standard of beauty. That being said, if a women doesn’t want to be “feminine” or a man doesn’t feel “masculine,” then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t dress how they want to. This is why a small online clothing company called Gender Free World exists. Originating in England in 2015, it is meant to advertise to people who want to wear clothes that fit their bodies and not their gender. This opens a broader selection of clothing items for customers who want to dress more unisex rather than being restricted to shopping in only the men’s or women’s department. If someone wants to dress a certain way that has nothing to do with their gender, that’s their choice and they should have every right to do so. “Gender free world doubled in size last year and we would hope to continue to grow at 40-50% per year for the next few years,” says Lisa Hoffman, director of Gender Free World. According to the website’s “most commonly asked questions,” Hoffman started the clothing line after she was dissatisfied with the options in the men’s and women’s sections in stores. The men’s shirts were too big and the women’s shirts were too frilly for her liking. “Yes, I think the market for gender free clothing will continue, especially as some major retailers have jumped on the bandwagon and offer gender neutral ranges.”

But does this mean parents should be more careful about influencing gender stereotypes on their kids? Is gender marketing to blame? Not really. Because in themselves, there is nothing wrong with “feminine” or “masculine” items, as long as there is a balance that neutralizes feminine and masculine traits rather than categorizing them to males and females. For example, maybe representing a girl playing with race cars and a boy dressing up a teddy bear. However, the larger responsibility is on the parents: whether they are open-minded and accepting to allow their children to explore what catches their interests, whether it is within gender norms or not.

But it is also important to be careful not to give them too much free-range to the point where they have complete control of their identity, because it could end up confusing or even damaging them later in life. Some parents even refuse to assign their children a gender, believing pronouns might repress their true identity. It’s one thing to be open about your child’s gender, but it’s unjust to deny them of having one because some parents are afraid of how the social construct of gender will harm their kids. But dressing children in gender neutral clothing is perfectly fine, even encouraged because it does have the potential of helping boys and girls recognize each other as children rather than opposites. Not to mention it’s super easy to do! “As girl or boy children do not have particularly different body shapes before puberty, there is really no reason to separate clothes by gender,” says Hoffman. “We have a physical shop in Brighton and all sorts of people walk through the door, including those who you may think hold traditional views. When we explain we design for body shapes and gender is irrelevant, they do get it. A shirt doesn’t have a gender.”

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