Clothing, Communication and (Children’s) Gender Identity

I am nine years into fathering and there is one social norm expected of me that has been more striking than any other; the clothing my children are dressed in—the colors, cuts, images, material, brand, and origins. All of these attributes contribute to much more than their essential purpose of protecting the body from external elements.

Until my oldest daughter was three, I was regularly reminded of the social messages her clothing communicated—many things that words did not. Explaining our choices of garments was a waste of breath. The clothes my daughter wore were a medium for expressing hers and our beliefs and values around gender identity to adults and children.

If you’ve ever walked into a classroom of young children who are playing it is likely that children have sorted themselves by clothing. For young children, clothing is often the initial proxy for social status. Consider the following example:

A four-year-old girl walks into a class for the first time. She is wearing a dress. If she is not glued to her parent’s side, it is highly likely that she will be approached or she will approach another girl with a dress or pink shirt. A brief conversation will be had and then the children become best friends. The friendship might only last five minutes or a lifetime. The clothing was symbolic of an assumed identity … particularly gender identity.

Clothing and Gender Identity

A couple of weeks ago my daughter wore her new sweatshirt to school. I noticed the sweatshirt the moment she sat down at the table for breakfast. I was immediately struck by the gender-typed juxtaposition. The striped colors of gray, orange, blue, yellow, and green circling the middle, as well as the hoodie cut, was stereotypically associated with boys. However, printed in white above the strips was the word ‘love’ which was stereotypically associated with girls.

I immediately felt uncomfortable with my bias as a cisgender man who was socialized to perceive gender as binary. Then my discomfort shifted to inquiry. Was interpretation of the word ‘love’ as distinctly feminine outdated? Would her second-grade peers think the same thing? My thoughts lingered as I began a conversation with my daughter.

“I like your new sweatshirt. It looks warm … I like the colors … what do you think your friends will think about it?” I said with skepticism.

“I don’t know…who cares.”

I briefly thought, but did not say, “Who does care? Apparently me.”

Our conversation later that night was the following:

“So, did anyone at school notice your new sweatshirt?

“I don’t know. Well … [three boys] on the playground told me shirts with the word ‘love’ are for girls. They said that boys wear clothes with sports on them.”

“And why’s that?”

“Dad,” she responded incredulously, “because they’re boys.”

“So what. What does that have to do with the word ‘love’ on a shirt?”

Matter-of-factly, she said, “Because dad, boys don’t like the word love. YOUUUU don’t have any shirts that say ‘love’ on them.”

She had me. I was guilty of … but, what was I guilty of?

Clothing and Communication

In Steven Pinker’s book, The Stuff of Thought, he writes, “Words don’t just point to things but are saturated with feeling … People use language not just to transfer ideas from head to head but to negotiate the kind of relationship they wish to have with the conversation partner.”

In other words, the word love, or at least love on a shirt, is saturated with feelings. If I (and the boys) eschew love from our efforts to be masculine am I unable to engage in a conversation about love?

Pinker talks about the boundaries language places on our social relationships, but he pushes back on the idea that it also places boundaries on our thought. He argues that we have many thoughts and feelings that the Oxford dictionary has not granted us permission to clearly speak about. However, that does not mean the thoughts don’t exist. This was demonstrated with my daughter’s shirt.

The three boys in my daughter’s class with whom she consulted stated their interpretations of the word ‘love’ in their peer group. They saw it as the flare of lower status in their social group. For them, me and many men I have talked to since, love inhibits masculine status as a man/boy. Whereas it increases the status of femininity as a woman/girl. Using the word love to label emotions is socially beneficial for my daughter who has long wanted to present as a girl.

Growing up playing soccer and baseball I can say that there is no shortage of love between men/boys in sports, but using the word love is risky. It is seen as feminine, which is synonymous with weak and homosexual. As Pinker believes, we are not restricted in thought or feelings by words, we are only limited in the means we have to communicate those thoughts and feelings. Other languages have many words that express loving emotions, but that is not the case in English, making it more difficult to talk about.

Next Steps for Growth and Inquiry

The word “love” on my daughter’s sweatshirt is just one example of the power of gender socialization, the weakness of the English language, and the complexities of interpersonal relationships. I assume that if you made it this far into this blog post you are or are becoming socially conscious of those.

As is the case with any form of social consciousness, awareness is just the beginning and growth is continuous. I have always found it helpful to have ideas that can guide my growth and further inquiry. The following seven points will guide my thoughts around clothing, communication, and gender identity.

I will work to:

  1. Challenge my perceptions of what my daughters can and cannot wear to communicate her comfort, values, and beliefs.
  2. Ask more questions about the meaning of the clothing she is wearing and the unspoken language it communicates for her.
  3. Recognize the status and emotions clothing carries.
  4. Provide a positive response to her clothing selections.
  5. Understand the expansive impact that barriers of the English language have on her and her peers’ abilities to communicate their feelings.
  6. Hold space for conversations about her comfort, values, and beliefs and my comforts, values, and beliefs.
  7. Talk to my daughter about how I can continuously support her through the emotional ups and downs she experiences navigating social groups that impose contradicting values and beliefs around gender and other group identities.

I have begun this process by asking myself questions about the sweatshirt my daughter was wearing. When I asked her why boys can’t wear shirts that say ‘love’ she responded with her beliefs and values of gender roles. I then went on to think more about and explore the implications of the word love and gender roles.

I recognize that my daughter’s sweatshirt gives her a status she welcomes. I do my best to value that and hold space for deeper conversations.

Originally published at https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/clothing-communication-children-gender-identity-kvnw/