Gender Appearance Rigidity: Redefining What it Means to Be "Girly"

Contributed by Rebecca Melsky

Every day, in a thousand ways both small and large, we--the big we, everyone, society, culture-- direct our girls away from science, away from math and away from engineering. Usually, hopefully, we don’t mean to, but we do it anyway. We know from numerous studies that teachers and professors tend to underestimate girls’ abilities in math even as they overestimate boys’. We know that employers choose men for math and engineering-related tasks even when women are equally qualified. And we know that it’s not just male teachers, professors and employers who build these barriers for our girls. Women do it, too. Sadly, that shouldn’t surprise us. Girls are told so often and in so many different ways that they aren’t as good at STEM subjects that they begin to believe it.

Think about something as pervasive and seemingly-innocuous as clothes. From the moment they are born, children start to learn important lessons from clothes, and right now those lessons aren’t always good ones. Any parent can tell you what they see when they wander the rows in a baby or children’s clothing store. The girls section is full of pink and purple hearts, rainbows, and adorable big-eyed animals wearing makeup and jewelry. The boys section, on the other hand, is festooned with dinosaurs, trains, sharks, pirates, and robots. There’s nothing wrong with rainbows or flowers, of course, but the choices available to our children sends them a clear message that one set of things is “for girls” and the other set is “for boys.”

Plane DressThat message can be especially powerful in early childhood as children go through a developmental phase called “gender appearance rigidity.” During this phase, girls tend to actively want to associate with things that they define as “girly” or “feminine.” So when the clothes that are “for girls” feature flowers and fairies, while the clothes that are “for boys” feature trucks and planets, without even realizing it we have started them out with a powerful and damaging lesson about what girls “should” like and what boys “should” like.

Far beyond early childhood, clothing continues to hammer home the same horrible lesson that STEM isn’t for girls. Think about how adults often begin a conversation with a child they’ve just met. “Oh, what a beautiful dress you have on! I love how it sparkles!” or “That’s an awesome T-Rex. Do you roar like a dinosaur too?” Commenting on clothes is a natural way for adults to engage with children, and there’s usually nothing wrong with that. But because STEM themes are far more common on boys clothes than on girls, boys end up having conversations about dinosaurs and paleontology while adults talk to girls about sparkles and frills.

And it’s not just the message that adults communicate to children based on their clothes, it’s also the message--unintended or garbled though it may be--that children’s clothes communicate to adults. If a kindergarten teacher sees a student with rocket ship-themed clothes, that teacher might assume the child is interested in space. The teacher might offer that child activities to meet that interest, or direct the student to books about astronomy or science fiction. But how often do you see rocket ships on a dress?

Pi DressesThe good news is that none of this is immutable. There is no government regulation or law of nature that prohibits dresses from having helicopters on them, or that bans all headbands that feature bugs. We could just as easily harness the power of clothing to send a more positive message: that STEM is for any child who is interested. If girls could wear dresses with, say, the pi symbol all over it maybe that sends the message that math is just as much for girls as it is for boys. Maybe a teacher or a coach sees that dress and now correctly assumes the little girl wearing it loves math. Maybe that girl’s neighbor says, “Wow! That’s pi! Do you know what that means?” when she sees her in the morning.

Right now, childrens’ clothing options are thematically limited and that is a small but meaningful part of the problem. It is part of a larger cultural story that we are constantly telling our children about gender and STEM. It’s a sad story that we see play out in classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories and offices all the time. But we can change at least this one small part of that story - by offering our children broader, more diverse clothing options.

Rebecca Melsky and Eva St. Clair are co-founders of Princess Awesome, a DC-based, mom-run girls clothing company. They believe girls shouldn’t have to choose between dresses and dinosaurs or twirls and trains. They are creating a different kind of “girly” clothing that honors and reflects the wide range of girls’ interests. Their clothes are manufactured ethically and expertly in Chicago, IL. You can find them on-line at princess-awesome.com.