How My Kid’s Onesie Supports Heteropatriarchy

My kids’ clothing is oppressive.

Okay, so probably not intentionally. I mean to say my kid’s clothes aren’t men’s rights activists or something. They’re just intended for a certain gender, and before I had a daughter, that made reasonable sense to me. My son, who was born first, has lots of cute clothes that refer to him as “Captain Cutie” or “Mr. Adorable” or “Penis-owner Crime Stopper Guy!”

My daughter, by virtue of being second, also has a lot of these clothes, because hand-me-downs are nature’s way of saying “we love you but not like brand-new-clothes-love-you“. And that’s fine, because spending money on brand new clothes for kids is for suckers anyway, though I digress. This all came about when I was sorting their old clothes into piles for a garage sale. I put a small onesie into a “girl” pile (mostly because my daughter had most recently worn it) and my wife suggested that “it’s a boy’s onesie”.

I looked at it – it was red and blue striped, with a little octopus. It was cute, and aside from the coloration being considered male (dumb), I wasn’t sure how an octopus was inherently masculine; I mean, do they even have … wieners?

My issue with children's clothing - gender roles, Heteropatriarchy, womens rights
Can YOU tell the difference?

The answer, if you’re wondering, is that octopuses (the correct plural, by the way) can change sex at will, and also change their appearance from male to female to avoid jealous murder by rivals, but again, I digress. How was this octopus onesie not suitable for the “girl” pile? If anything, octopuses are the most gender-fluid animals, so it should be good for either kid.

The root of this of course comes from the fact that we were already sorting clothes into “girl” and “boy” piles. That speaks to a much larger issue of indoctrinating gender stereotypes – which colors are masculine and feminine, which animals reflect boys vs girls, etc. That’s something that’s kind of odd, but it’s pretty widespread, and although I yearn for the days when we don’t balk at a child feeling incorrectly gender-designated at birth, I don’t fault parents or even clothing manufacturers for continuing certain gender conventions. Changing those themes is something we’ll need to tackle as a society; I don’t need a piece of clothing to fight that battle for me.

And yet there I sat, staring at this little onesie, wondering what pile it should go in, if people would be confused if they found it among the girls’ clothing items on our garage sale table, and also if maybe I was overthinking this whole thing. My daughter walked up and, taking her pacifier out of her mouth, pointed at the shirt and said “that’s octopus! That mine, daddy!” I smiled but then she took the onesie and walked off, because irrespective of gender, my daughter can sometimes be a bully.

My issue with children's clothing - gender roles, Heteropatriarchy, womens rights
Don’t let that sweet smile fool you…

As I deftly avoided the judgemental eyes of my wife, I began to think about what gender models meant for my kids. Both of them like dinosaurs, throwing balls, roaring, playing with dolls and blocks, princess books and monster books alike, and both seem infatuated with makeup. What does this mean? Do I need to make a “boy traits vs girl traits” diagram and see where they fall? Is there a spectrum for gender, or does gender, like posting political Facebook statuses, not matter at all?

We actively seek out toys that don’t conform to gender; those tend to be the least boring toys, anyway. I avoid any phrasing that suggests a specific gender “doesn’t do that”, i.e. playing with dolls. I subject my children to music that has both male and female vocalists, across all genres. Do I do these things because I’m some incredibly left, ultra-liberal crazy person?

No, I do it because I love my babies and I want them to do whatever makes them happy.

My issue with children's clothing - gender roles, Heteropatriarchy, womens rights
Why would I tell him only Sis gets to play dress-up if both of them doing so keeps them quiet and happy?

The absolute last thing I want is for my kids to grow up with a narrow view of who they can be and what they can accomplish. If my daughter grows up with throwaway role models like the Kardashians, then she might think she can’t be a great scientist, or a fantastic artist, or an incredible…sports…person (I covered this in a previous post about being a fatherless father, but I don’t know much about sports). Likewise, I don’t want my son to feel inferior if he wants to do something “traditionally” considered a woman’s role, like teaching grade school, nursing, or opening a bakery. I don’t want to raise my children with the notion that something they love doing or are good at is somehow wrong because of their sex or gender.

I think my overall lesson from this experience was that I don’t want my children put into a box by society or by branding and certainly not from stupid, gender-specific octopuses. Your babies are born, they grow up, and somewhere in between they might actually listen to you for five, maybe ten minutes. If part of what you’re saying to them is that they can only do so many things or act in a certain way because of something that they had no control over – like their sex at birth – then you’re both wasting your time to help build their confidence, and also eroding their faith in themselves and their abilities, and probably a little bit of their faith in you. And now it’s the dead of winter, that garage sale is long over, and that octopus onesie is…I don’t know, on the cat or lost in our creepy basement, but the lesson it imparted remains:

You can do or be whatever or whomever makes you happy, regardless of whether or not you were born with tentacles.

18 Comments

  • Molly Stevens Reply

    When my son was small I tried my best to expose him to as much as possible before he declared his interests. I didn’t give him toy guns and at 18 months, without having watched television, he ate his toast into the shape of a toy gun and said ‘bang.’ I realized there is a lot to nurture but nature played a role too. I exposed him to music and he loved sports. I bought him a doll and he flung it aside for trucks. He didn’t grow up to be a gun slinger, and up until 6 months ago was a stay at home dad to two boys. And now he and his wife are exposing their sons to music, art, sports and neutral gender toys. I can’t wait to see how their interests evolve. I applaud you for your efforts to give your children freedom to fully be themselves.

    • Monechetti Reply

      Yeah, my son definitely has interests in more “traditionally” boy things, like Ninja Turtles and such. There’s definitely a natural component, but I think it’s so important to not limit them. It sounds like you had the same idea for your children and it worked out for the best 🙂

  • Mandi Reply

    It is odd the things that we are taught belong to one gender or another- certain colors or animals. The most frustrating thing to me is that little boy clothes often have empowering messages and such and it’s much more challenging to find in the young girls section. My gu le often go to the boy’s section to get science or superhero t-shirts.

    • Monechetti Reply

      My wife bought a couple of the same shirt – they say “I can change the world”. I think they’re made for girls (judging by the shoulders, if that makes sense) but we have one for our son and one for our daughter. I agree with you – the boy clothes tend to be “hero”-based, while the girls are more childish (clothes shopping for girls is all candy, puppies, and “shopping” references). Though my daughter was wearing a sweet robot shirt this morning that I bought my son before she was born. She was standing in the playroom going “daddy, look at my robot. They say ‘beep beep'”. Proud 🙂

  • Linda Hobden Reply

    I was given once a baby’s 2 piece. It was navy blue dungarees with a top underneath in white with pale blue teddies on it. Colourwise it screamed boy but the top had a very frilly feminine collar. It could really be an either or moment. A lot of stuff can be like that. My eldest was a boy; then I had a daughter; followed by 3 more boys so hand me downs are easy for me! 😊

    • Monechetti Reply

      5 kids! We want 5 as well, so in the spirit of hand-me-downs, I salute you. Did you save all your clothes from first to last? We’ve bundled up a lot of their clothing but we’ve sold or given away a lot, too.

  • Anna R Palmer Reply

    Clothes, toys, expectations. My son had long hair for a long time and it shocked me how differently he was treated from his brother. Societal gender norms are complicated. Your kids seem to have parents that will help them navigate this…In some small way we are all octopuses. Have you seen them play with legos?

    • Monechetti Reply

      Not legos, exactly, but with the Duplo blocks. They both build towers and monsters, but I think the smaller legos will give them more creative options. I still have a ton from when I was a kid, so it will be interesting to see how they react when they’re old enough to play with them.

  • Shopgirl Anonymous Reply

    It sounds like you have the right idea about it all. Being gender neutral means to me letting your child define their style and personality. Though some seem to think it means not to allow their child to fall into stereotypical styles and personalities. My first daughter was a princess from day one. No really before she had words she was squealing with joy over a princess sleeping bag in Target. The person sharing the aisle with me looked over at my tiny infant hardly able to hold her own head up pointing and joyously babbling.
    “Is that for real,” The lady asked.
    I laughed just as amazed, “I guess.”
    I didn’t take it too much to heart but as she grows it continues to be all about princesses, minnie mouse, castles, jewelry, and gowns. She’s so girly any child by contrast would come off as butch. Hah! So much so my nanny was insistent to dress my youngest girl like a boy. If baby K asked for a bow like her sister she would tell her no. If she came over and I happened to have K in a dress because, hand me downs, she would go on and on how she was not a real girl, and should not be tortured in a dress. K at 12 mos. did not seem to care.
    Now that she is growing she is my flower child hippy chick I’m finding. She wants to run with the boys, but seems to want to embrace some part of femininity. My daughters have a wide array of variety to choose from, and they pick what they wear, they always have. If they want to be girly, go on, if they don’t, whatever works.

    Love your more genuine approach, you are an amazing father it seems, they are so very lucky!

    • Monechetti Reply

      Fantastic! And thank you – I’m trying, haha.

      I think, no matter what we do unless we’re out-and-out forbidding a child from acting or dressing a certain way, kids will do what they want. My biggest fear is making my children feel like they’re not “correct” somehow. I’m glad that less rigid gender constructs are – seemingly – becoming the norm.

  • Margaretha Montagu Reply

    I worked for a couple of years in obstetrics in Belgium. I was forever annoying new moms by assuming their babies were the wrong sex. Do you know why? Because they dress boys in pink and girls in blue. And continue to do so as their children get older. Just saying.

    • Monechetti Reply

      Ha, that’s interesting. I wonder why Americans relate the other way?

  • Silly Mummy Reply

    Yes, I agree – encourage children to be octopuses! In seriousness, I think it is, as you say, about not making them feel that they must do certain things and cannot do other things due to gender. As others have mentioned here, I do think that there is a nature aspect too. I think that gender stereotypes are not entirely a marketing ploy – there do seem to be certain things that many boys gravitate to and others for girls, and I think there are differences you see between boys and girls. Boys seem to be more physical, in general, and girls communicate more by words. I’m not a fan of sparkly or princesses or disney, but both my girls (particularly the eldest) have gone that way, despite not being encouraged. But I think actually that’s okay. I think it is okay if a lot of kids do fall into certain gender stereotypes, as long as we accept that those generalisations don’t apply to all kids, and we don’t push the idea that one set of behaviours is inherently worse or weaker than the others. Realistically, I think you would always expect there to be some temperamental and behavioural characteristics that would be more seen in one gender than the other because we are not biologically designed to be exactly the same, we have different hormone balances, etc. My girls might be drawn to lots of activities and likes that are more associated with girls. But, while the eldest loves pink, my youngest’s favourite colour is blue. She happily has her room blue, and likes blue clothes and dinosaurs along with her princesses. The important thing for me is that no one tells her she is wrong to like blue and often pick the items allegedly designed for boys. But, at the same time, that no one tells my eldest that it is wrong that she wants pink and frills and flowers all the time, either. Because I think actively discouraging girls away from the ‘feminine’ if they have chosen it themselves is also wrong – it implies that there is something bad about femininity.

    • Monechetti Reply

      Oh absolutely – I am focused primarily on not actively discouraging anything, I guess. If my daughter wants to wear dinosaur shirts or princess dresses, then I’m all for it. Same with my son – if he wants to play with dolls or dance, then I will not stand in the way. In all honesty, the only thing I try to influence them on is how they approach bugs (it’s a long story, but they had a “stomp on all bugs” thing going, and I’ve been actively teaching them about the good bugs can do and there’s no good way to make this make sense I don’t think, haha).

  • Terri Webster Schrandt Reply

    So interesting, Tony, that despite our best efforts as parents, kids will default to who they really are! Remember, we are dealing with testosterone and estrogen–nature. They determine the macho male or the frilly female, and everything in between. I raised two daughters so I may not know the ins and outs of little boys, but I saw both my younger brothers grow up. The oldest one played with Tonkas in the dirt at 1 yr old, while my other brother is gay. Bravo to you for just being open-minded and paying attention to your kiddos!

    • Monechetti Reply

      Thanks! And yeah, I can definitely see “boy” and “girl” tendencies in both kids, but I am focused on not strictly enforcing those. I know kids growing up whose dad’s would wail on them if they did something perceived as “girly”. I would NEVER make my kids feel like that.

  • Carol A Cassara Reply

    I love the younger generation of actively involved–and evolved–Dads. Glad to meet you.

  • Jennifer Reply

    I love this. Allowing children to play and dress the way they want to is so important. It helps to grow healthy, emotionally well-adjusted adults—and that’s all that matters.

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