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A perplexed feminist at Baby Gap

What with a baby boomlet in the family and Christmas practically upon us, I’ve become a reluctant expert in the latest style trends for those of us too tiny and clueless to care how grownups deck us out, provided the clothes don’t itch. I’ve never spent so much time at Baby Gap. So I am here to tell you what I’ve learned from wide-eyed contemplation of eensy-weensy toddler jeans, fashionably distressed like Dad’s. Guess who they’re for! A boy, of course. Baby Gap and its competitors dress boys like men (or at least like college freshmen) and girls like dolls, all flounces and pink polka dots. The gender divide lives on.

I remember when we were going to rip it down. Equal access to Tonka trucks became a serious matter to newly-employed moms like me as we set our sights on equal paycheques. We cringed at the thought of young Adam or Jason ever brandishing a toy gun (although some of us got our comeuppance when he waved a stick in the air and yelled, “Bang, bang!”). Our sons would be gentle, our daughters resolute and courageous. But now here I am at Baby Gap, with an armful of expensive gear that tells me things haven’t worked out that way.

It was on a previous shopping trip, for a baby not yet born, that I first became perplexed by the gender-bound rules of infant fashion. I thought I’d take advantage of a U.S. vacation to pick up a gift at one of those outlet malls where you can buy a three-piece outfit for the price of one hoodie back home at Baby Gap. “Boy or girl?” asked the sales clerk. I didn’t know. Surely there were unisex options? The sales clerk looked worried. I scoured rack after rack of newborn clothes, pink or blue to the last onesie (why not yellow? or red?), before I finally pounced on chocolate brown with puppies. What’s not to love about puppies?

Perhaps my age is showing, but I have a weakness for baby clothes adorned with cuddly critters. They recall the books I loved as a child or read to my own child (The Sailor DogPeter Rabbit). Perhaps more profoundly, they reflect a notion of childhood as its own country, where furry mascots befriend the small and vulnerable. At Baby Gap I was charmed to find a shirt with an appliqu?d bunny—the perfect size (12 to 18 months) for the only girl on my list. For boys, the animal motifs vanish quickly. By 12 to 18 months, it’s all cargo pants and preppy plaids. The colour palette darkens, suggesting manly gravitas. Smiling animals give way to soccer balls.

I’ve got a feeling this wouldn’t surprise Carol Gilligan, the clear-eyed feminist psychologist who’s been probing the tangled roots of gender roles for more than more than 25 years. In The Birth of Pleasure, an under-rated book that keeps drawing me back with the breadth and depth of its insights, Gilligan writes about the unstated, unseen process that turns soft-hearted little boys into sturdy little men.She interviews forward-looking fathers who treasure their sons’ tenderness but are asking, as one dad puts it, “How can we preserve our sons’ vulnerability without putting them at risk for teasing and getting beaten up?”

For starters, we dress them like men who know the score.

As I write this, I’m wearing the pink cashmere sweat pants that keep me warm this time of the year while putting me in mind of spring flowers. I’ve been tramping all over downtown on Christmas errands, and I’ve yet to see another adult woman wearing pants that aren’t a sensible neutral. But I did see a pair of hot-pink pants today—and a pinafore in brilliant turquoise, and some eye-popping striped dresses. They were all on display at Baby Gap, in the 12-to-18-month size, costumes for little girls who are already learning how to brighten up a room. And you know what? If I had a granddaughter, I’d be wrapping one up right now.

 

Posted by Rona

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