Wednesday, December 8, 2004

My Mom Went to Birthland, and All I Got Was This Monster Truck T-Shirt

My Mom Went to Birthland, and All I Got Was This Monster Truck T-Shirt
Jaala Spiro

“This is the first day in two weeks he hasn’t been wearing all blue,” my friend told me, watching her son toddle around in a purple patterned outfit pilfered from the girls’ department.

Every mom I know with boys asks the same question: Where are the fun boys’ clothes? It makes me wonder who manufacturers think are buying apparel for the little guys, and if they’re somehow different from the ones buying the legions of adorable girls’ clothes.

When my daughter was born, I swore to myself that she would not wear pink and bows and froufy pantaloons; she’d be her own person. I’d fight against gender stereotyping from day one. Well, she inherited my husband’s blue eyes and fair skin, earning her the nickname “the porcelain baby” so naturally, in service to my own aesthetics, I ended up pulling pastel clothes over her head more days than not. But I made peace with it. Most girls’ clothes feature flowers or butterflies, items from nature with which I have no beef. My daughter, now two, does have a taken-from-the-boys motorcycle sweatshirt, which she points to proudly when she wears it, and plenty of striped blue tops. Since girls get short shrift in the warm clothes department, she’s got a bunch of blue fuzzy pants, and some cutely butch work boots.

But when my little boy arrived, the difficulty of finding outfits for him took me by surprise. I thought dressing a boy would be a snap—solid colors and stripes, right? Animals, circuses, geometric shapes….Well, when you can find the boys' clothes tucked in a corner behind the rainbow of the girls’ section, the menu seems to have all been designed by the same hand. Blue, as my friend said, dominates probably eighty percent of boys’ clothes. The rest spread themselves thinly between khaki, brown, gray and red, with a small sprinkle of green or yellow, maybe orange if it has a Bob the Builder logo.

Do you think boys like trees, babies, plants, animals, or fish? Well, think again. In the world of baby clothes, boys, even at three months, only have one thing on their minds: machines. While my daughter was steered into teddy bears hugging each other or watering a plant, my son was locked into dump trucks from day one. The clothes we received for our baby boy all showed trucks, planes, tractors, trains, cars, taxis and more trucks.

Aside from the endless parade of fire trucks and diggers, a portion of boy’s clothing includes sport and team words, as well as a few select professions. War planes, construction cones, fire paraphernalia, and for variety, shirts emblazoned with the word “Football” or “Baseball” (never canoeing, track or cross-country skiing) are regular players in this lineup. Fatigues? Easy to find. What about friendship, a common theme on my daughter’s little shirts? Every once in a while you hit on a shirt proclaiming “Forest Friends,” and when you do, snatch it up! The career-oriented ones say “Air Force,” and “Fire Chief,” while the sports are (your local team here) in our case, the Milwaukee Bucks. Even with hand-me-downs for my daughter, we’ve only had one outfit that showed a ballet class, the stereotypical girl activity.

Cold-blooded animals or “icky” bugs appear sometimes, lizards, toads and the like, sticking out their tongues or eyeing a fly on the pocket. Dinosaurs, fierce creatures that will “eat you up” march across the fronts of many an outfit, and then of course, come the hybrids, the dinosaurs playing football or iguanas driving trucks. Plaid shirts are acceptable, as are jeans and overalls, clothes made for work or competition. In the more upscale lines, argyle sweater vests conjure up a picture of my kid in prep school, and while a baby of any gender looks ungodly cute in overalls or a jean jacket, it’s not exactly fashion-forward or exciting. The stripes and solids I’d envisioned are possible to find, but you’ll be digging; if you want to buy a plain-colored shirt, you’d have much better luck in the girls’ section. Just pull off a bow and you’re done.

Of course, the market also teems with merchandised wear; throw a boot in any direction and you’ll likely hit a Buzz Lightyear. One of my other friends observed wryly that we now pay more for the privilege of not immortalizing a brand name or transient cartoon character in our baby albums.

Once I did score a ridiculously appealing skater shirt for Aden, silver sport mesh with a faux-layered navy tee over it, and that afternoon I found myself unconsciously treating my happy little chub as if he might start handing me some attitude. That really started me thinking. If we look at little guys covered in cars or instruments of destruction, they start representing someone who’s interested in speed or demolition. A six-month-old wearing a Fighter Pilot t-shirt unconsciously pushes our “tough” button, so we treat the child as if he should be tough, maybe wonder why he’s crying so much. What is he, a baby?

Let’s be honest; a six-month old doesn’t have a clue about skateboarding, backhoes or the local hockey team; most likely all he really cares about is the cat and his mom’s breasts or his bottle. Maybe that’s part of the fun, that he appears to identify with something he couldn’t possibly understand, so he represents us, rather than himself. The narcissistic element to dressing your kid certainly appeals to me, as well. But do we love cars and dinosaurs that much? Or are we supposed to love the idea that a boy has intrinsic interests and values from day one?

I’m wondering about a chicken-and-egg here. If you see your kid sporting truck designs most days, won’t you think about getting him a truck for his birthday, since he likes them so much? The focus on inanimate objects points a sinister finger to me, that we’re unconsciously training our kids to identify more with objects than people, that in the back of our collective minds is the idea that they might have to kill or hurt someone one day to protect the home fires. I don’t think boys are necessarily built that way, but it makes it a lot easier to accept if you see them wearing affiliations they don’t understand on their sleeves.

What bothers me more than the simple fact of the career-oriented boy wear is the incredibly small range of careers represented, somehow they are all professions that would endanger their lives. I suspect the number of mamas who really want their children to become police or firefighters, jobs where you’d worry about their safety every day, can’t be that high. It seems to me that in embracing these heroic occupations, we’re also starting to prepare to lose our boys. Surely someone could design a kids’ line featuring artists or doctors, vets, chefs, inventors, musicians…even with traditionally male occupations, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with some choices.

Girls aren’t steered toward a profession that I can tell; certainly clothes that proclaim their wearer to be “Police Chief” never show up in the girls’ department. Even traditionally female occupations like teacher, say, don’t make the front of a onesie; It’s all just flowers, flowers, flowers, and an animal or two. This lack of career awareness signals a problem unto itself, sending girls the message to just be nice, care about others and land yourself a man to take care of you. A truck driver, maybe, or a fireman. We’re herded into the assumption that our boy babies have to be Little Men, while our girls are never supposed to grow up to Be anything.

My younger child has always been very sensitive to beauty. It was him, not his sister who I used to take on “rose walks” around the neighborhood in high summer. Peeking out of the backpack, he squealed with joy whenever we approached a fragrant bush, and reached for the blossoms so eagerly he was almost trembling. I don’t expect roses on my boy’s clothes; I have a shred of realism (though the tropical trend means a few Hawaiian shirts are out there). But it bothers me that whenever we look at girls we see softness, beauty, art, friendship, relating to other people, and when we look at boys we see a love of machines. As a peace-loving, yet sarcastic mom, I’ve been tempted to make a “Property of the Defense Dept” t-shirt to go under that Air Force jacket.

Now when it’s time to shop, I go out of my way to protect my sweet baby boy from gender stereotypes. I make his clothes whenever I can (polar fleece is the hurried seamstress’ friend) and stick to solids and stripes as much as possible, handing down a generous portion of my daughter’s wardrobe. His shoes have pink and purple trim—I feel much more comfortable with that than with fighter jets. Ultimately, if my little girl likes flowers or teddy bears, it’s not a deal-breaker for me. But I want my little guy around caring for his loved ones for a long, long time, so let’s hold off on that fire-truck maintenance class, baby.

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