Gender-neutral kids’ clothes: a peculiar obsession

Should you know someone who has just had a baby, I’d suggest you don’t look for a ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ card in John Lewis. I imagine they’ve all be thrown on the bonfire along with the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ clothing labels, which the retailer renounced last week.

John Lewis has become the first department store to rid its shop floors of separate girls and boys signs and to label all children’s clothing ‘girls and boys’. Caroline Bettis, head of childrenswear at John Lewis, said: ‘We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within our John Lewis collections and instead want to provide greater choice and variety to our customers, so that the parent or child can choose what they would like to wear.’

As you would expect, the move has been applauded by many on social media. Cheryl Rickman, a representative of the group Let Clothes Be Clothes, which campaigned for this change, said: ‘This is fantastic news and a great step in the right direction. It’s about not putting children into boxes.’

But there has also been a backlash against the change, with some shoppers calling it ‘politically correct nonsense’ and urging others to boycott John Lewis.

But beyond the enthusiastic and angry responses to the move, it’s doubtful anyone was actually surprised. Gender is big news these days and has been for the past couple of years. Just a few weeks ago, shoe retailer Clarks was under attack for a ‘sexist’ pair of shoes. And there was recently a BBC programme depicting a social experiment in a gender-neutral primary-school class.

Given the volume of gender news, you would be forgiven for thinking there is a huge demand for gender-neutral children’s clothing. There isn’t. Let Clothes Be Clothes has 12,000 followers on Facebook and its Change.org petition calling on retailers to ‘Stop selling children’s clothes as “for girls” or “for boys”’ has only 3,623 signatures.

It says gender stereotyping in clothing is ‘harmful’ to children. ‘Taking some of the worst stereotypes about gender and aiming them at children is only going to perpetuate problems in our society, from low self-esteem among girls to boys who are unable to express how they feel’, says its website.

Yet just last week it was reported that record numbers of girls were going to university — they’re now one-third more likely than boys to go. We are living in an age when girls and boys, men and women, are freer than ever to express themselves without fear of discrimination.

Questions about gender roles and stereotypes are very much adult discussions and should not be foisted on to children. Young children know there are physical differences between boys and girls, but at primary-school age cannot be expected to understand the difference between sex and gender – nor should they be.

Rather than removing politics from children’s clothes, campaigners for gender-neutral clothing are making clothing political. Kids don’t need that. Forget Let Clothes Be Clothes — how about letting children be children?

Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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