“There’s nothing hardwired in our brains that says pink is for girls and blue is for boys,” says Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Frank University and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It. It’s purely a cultural phenomenon. By the time children are toddlers, Eliot says, boys start rejecting pink because they realize it may diverge from what’s expected.
These apparel choices can have enduring repercussions by affecting kids’ interests and long-term goals. For instance, since most female clothes are more fitted, they often double as restraints, Eliot says, pushing girls away from physical activities. Kids’ play habits matter, because they affect development and ultimately, even what career they end up embracing. If a girl is tugged away from liking outer space by societal pressures, she probably won’t veer toward an aerospace profession later in life. If a boy is discouraged from playing with dolls and wearing bold clothes, they may not want to get into fashion design one day. “They see it’s the boys with the rocket ships and the girls with the pretty flowers,” adds Eliot.
At major retail outlets such as Children’s Place and Gymboree, there are few, if any, options for the girl who loves dinosaurs or football. Same goes for the boy who loves unicorns and hearts. Much of the merchandise is as stereotyped as can be: a T-Rex playing football in the boys section; a shirt that reads “I ❤ My B.F.F. More Than Shoes” in the girls section. A representative for Children’s Place declined to comment on how it decides what designs and colors to sell boys and girls, and representatives for Gymboree did not respond to a request for comment.
Big retailers are typically focused on quantity, so until enough shoppers demand clothes that don’t fall along traditional lines, not much will change, says Patty Leto, senior vice president of childrens’ wear at the Doneger Group, a trend intelligence firm. “Pink is always going to sell for girls and blue is always going to sell for boys, no matter what is going on out there with small labels,” she says. In the end, it’s up to the parents. “The consumer is the ultimate voter here,” she says.
Take Lands’ End, which in 2014 found itself under attack by angry shoppers when New Jersey mom Lisa Ryder wrote a letter decrying stereotypes in its clothing selection. Flipping through a catalog, Ryder’s daughter loved shirts with planets and dinosaurs, though they were clearly marked for boys. When it was suggested to Ryder by a Facebook commenter that she simply purchase a boy’s shirt, she responded with vigor. “The problem is that your recent catalog copy and product offerings strongly promote the gender stereotypes that young boys are smart and mighty and young girls are adorable,” she wrote. “Simply buying my daughter one of your ‘boy shirts’ is not the answer because it perpetuates the idea that science is a boy thing that she happens to be participating in.” Lands’ End decided to release new science-themed shirts for girls.
For the giants of the clothing world, it’s an exercise in figuring out what will sell. For the budding brands, it’s less a race for revenue than a mission to make a difference. “Everybody’s really supportive of each other, rather than being competitive,” Zoer, the Quirkie Kids founder, says of the community of new brands. “We’re all sort of in this together.”