When children’s stores reopen, let’s leave boys’ and girls’ sections behind

Back in February, when people still went into stores to buy things for their kids, a California state assembly member, Evan Low, introduced AB 2826. The bill would require retailers with 500 or more employees to stop dividing toys, clothes and childcare items into boys’ and girls’ sections; those who didn’t would face a $1,000 fine.

To some parents, this seemed overboard and unnatural. Scientist Barbies and macho black Easy-Bake ovens are one thing, but forcing stores to abandon gendered sections? That ignored biological reality. As one California mom noted, “We wanna raise our daughter to know she’s a girl, that’s how she was born, that’s how she will live … I want my daughter to dress like a girl and I want my boys to dress like boys and I want those sections to be separated.” The president of a religious freedom-defending non-profit remarked that “Compassion for our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors does not require us to embrace absurdities on gender.”

But this is not an LGBTQ+ kids’ issue; it affects children of every sex and gender identity, and it’s far from absurd. One parent appreciated the expedient shopping wrought by placing boy and girl stuff close together, but even she didn’t question where our ideas of “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” originated, or how we came to believe that girls liking pink, or boys liking balls, was natural.

As stores are in various stages of reopening, and the retail world sputters to life again – whether or not it’s safe to or should – it’s a good time to understand how recent the practice of segregating children’s toys, clothes and colors by sex is.

Until the early part of the 20th century in America, babies generally wore white dresses. As they got older, they wore dresses of different colors and had long hair until school age, around six. Gender, sex and sexuality were all meshed in people’s minds, so parents didn’t want to emphasize their baby’s sex because it was connected to sexuality: to see a kid as a future man or woman was to see them as a sexual being. As historian Jo B Paoletti has noted, young kids were dressed according to age, not sex.

This shifted at the dawn of the 20th century with the rise of sexology – the study of human sexuality – which classified gay people as their own group. Although early experts debated whether or not homosexuality was wrong, homophobia eventually won. Since many believed that homosexuality was the result of nurture, not nature, parents began to raise boys as little men, to teach them early how to perform gender roles. Delicate and beautiful things like lace and flowers, which had been gender-neutral, were stripped from boys’ clothes, and relegated to girls’. Balls and manly animals like bears appeared on boys’ outfits, conveying the message that they should not be feminine.

According to the research of sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, toys followed a similar trajectory. They were relatively ungendered at the beginning of the 20th century, but also began to communicate and inculcate gender roles by the 1920s: engineering toys for boys and mop-and-broom sets for girls.

Meanwhile, the idea that pink is for girls and blue for boys is a mid-20th-century construction, and one department stores debated once the idea of separate colors for each sex took hold. Initially, Filene’s, Best’s and Marshall Fields declared pink a boys’ color, since it was associated with red. Blue was for girls, recalling the Virgin Mary. Pink became more associated with girls in the 1950s, courtesy of President Dwight D Eisenhower’s wife’s obsession with it – we’ve all seen those mid-century “Mamie pink” bathrooms.

A reprieve from hyper-gendering occurred in the 1970s – that tomboy heyday when many girls were encouraged to reach across the pink/blue divide and take anything they wanted: clothes, activities, boisterous personalities associated with boyhood. The same cultural forces that sidelined tomboys in the media, from feminist backlash to a declining birthrate, resulted in the creation of the hyper-gendered norm. Dr Sweet found that, in the 1990s, toys became as gendered as they had between the wars. So did clothes.

But there is nothing natural about these childhood gender divisions, nor are they good for kids, even if they are good for retailers’ and manufacturers’ bottom lines. Many mistake these cultural shifts for biological realities, taking offense, or worrying, when their children don’t stay on their respective side of the pink/blue divide, no matter how recent that divide is, or how much of a cultural construction.

Carol Martin, a professor of child development at Arizona State University, has found that kids like a toy because it is marked as sex-appropriate; girls, for instance, are drawn to something pink and princessy not because of a biological attraction, but because those are the ways that they communicate belonging to the girl group; trans girls follow much the same pattern.

When kids like an ungendered toy, they assume it is for their gender category because they like it. Boys like dolls so much that action figures – dolls for boys – are a $1.71bn industry. But they had to be gendered for boys to feel comfortable embracing them.

Gendering kids’ toys and clothes limits their growth and development in all kinds of ways, and creates an environment where kids shame and police each other for reaching across that divide. Researchers found that making science materials in pastel colors lowered boys’ engineering aptitude – it made engineering too girlie. When any toy is gender color-coded and pitched as for one sex, one study found, a kid of that sex may gravitate toward it – or avoid it if it’s not gender-coded to include them.

But they should reach across that divide. Girls’ toys tend to foster nurturing and communication; boys tend to promote spatial skills and leadership. We want our children to develop all those skills, but gendering them makes them harder to access and develop. None of those things needs to belong to one kind of kid. As Assembly Member Low notes, “separating items that are traditionally marketed for either girls or boys … incorrectly implies that their use by one gender is inappropriate.”

Research shows that it’s not hard to change perceptions. One study, aptly named “Counterstereotyping can change children’s thinking about boys’ and girls’ toy preferences,” showed how communicating that trucks are for girls and boys like dolls opens and changes kids’ minds. Simply showing kids pictures of girls playing with Lego bricks and boys playing with pink stuffies helps them understand how natural it is for them to embrace all kinds of toys, colors, clothes and skill sets.

Some stores have already promoted this cross-gender embrace. Target stopped gendering toy sections in 2015. The British department store John Lewis stopped separating boys’ and girls’ clothing in 2017. I would much prefer to see this important shift occur voluntarily, rather than be legislated, but sometimes the law leads the zeitgeist.

The truth is, we already embrace absurdities on gender – namely, that there is a “normal” way to be a boy or a girl, or that those are the only two categories. It is absurd to believe that pink and rainbows and hearts and kindness are for girls and blue and trucks and balls and roughness are for boys. As stores reopen, they can discontinue the homophobic and sexist practice of hyper-gendering kids’ material worlds, which has nothing to do with being Christian, nor does it have to do specifically with the LGBTQ+ community. This is a practice that will benefit all children – boys, girls, intersex kids and those who identify any number of ways, from genderfluid to trans, and those who identify as straight, cisgender, too.