Standing in Target with my 3-year-old son, I searched for Minnie Mouse underwear. Check any retailer online or in stores and you’ll see: Minnie Mouse and every other female character you can think of is printed exclusively on underpants labeled “girls.” For boy-specific briefs, you’re stuck with Mickey or Pluto. Good luck if you’d like the whole gang: Boy and girl characters — like boy and girl toys, clothes and shoes — do not occupy the same spatial plane.
If we believe in equality and inclusivity, it’s incumbent we create space early in kids’ development to experiment, experience and grow outside of narrow labels. For me and my son in that Target, these labels raised questions on why we separate genders in the first place and the ways this separation impacts how each of us sees the world.
Ultimately, we solved our underwear dilemma through crowdsourcing and daring: We put him in “girls” underwear, one size up. He wore them without a sense of oddity or difference, confused when kids attempted to correct him after seeing a glimpse of his undergarments at group potty time. “I think they said it was girls’ underwear because it has girl characters on it,” he said. But later, when he wore his Disney princess socks to school, he began to realize that the label “girls” was seen as inferior and strange ― a source of ridicule.
Separating people into categories has an adverse effect on children’s worldviews, reinforcing at an early age harmful stereotypes. Kids are set up early on to use limiting frameworks when addressing issues like gender, race and ethnic identity. The more we teach kids that people’s differences should place them in separate buckets, the more they will find these buckets to be appropriate.
Conversely, a broader scope of understanding can diffuse such exclusivity. A study shares that empathy — the ability to live in or understand another person’s perspective — can reduce human bias and improve real-world interactions among those who are different. Meanwhile, the California Department of Education recommends education on gender inclusivity start early.
I am not daft about the realities of a society that has thrived on categorization. Recent attacks on transgender rights at schools and legislation discouraging any education on gender identity until fourth grade, as adopted in Florida, represent an increasingly fervent backlash to broadening gender labels and norms. The idea we should stick to our own corners, like 1950s segregation, is one as old as human existence, but one that’s been proved to hinder society from thriving.
Take same-sex schools, for example. Human behavior experts and neurologists have debunked the idea boys and girls should learn in separate schools. Moreover, studies of same-sex schools have demonstrated these institutions help engender harmful stereotypes and promote inequalities between men and women.
Similar points were raised in Brown v. Board of Education by psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark, whose research showed Black children preferred white dolls, having internalized the preferential treatment of white children over Black children. Boys who are teased for “dressing like a girl” will equally internalize messaging that proposes a superior position of males over females. So will girls.
So how do we proceed? Pushing past the mainstream means facing harassment and being confident against it. Kids — age 3 or 15 — are not emotionally equipped to handle these repercussions. However, we, as parents, can help build a supportive environment. When I asked other parents how they handle clothing, most said they steer their boys toward the boys section — even if they want pink or unicorns — to save them humiliation. It may feel like an OK strategy in self-preservation, but should our fear of how they will be treated dictate how fully they can express themselves? Our own upbringings are perhaps the culprit — generationally outdated undertones of sexism and misogyny guiding us wrongly about what it means to enjoy a cultural moment that is deemed feminine instead of masculine. If femininity hadn’t been so maligned, would we care if boys embraced it?
My husband and I have told our son that people will not always understand his styling choices, but the popularity of his choices shouldn’t shape his preferences. In the months that followed the underwear incident, he consistently chose “girl” things: a tie-dye pink baseball backpack, My Little Pony figurines, and most recently, sparkly Skechers that light up in pink and purple hearts. I try my best to disarm the categories created by others, while still educating him that his peers may have a different opinion.
Even as conservative debate heightens, more people are seeking a fluid gender space — one where gender assigned at birth does not dictate cultural gender expression. Echoed in pop culture, we’ve seen Harry Styles wear sequined jumpsuits and Billy Porter rock extravagant ball gowns. Hopefully, in this space, our kids will learn to understand the differences between them are not as vast as retailers suggest and that, in the end, underwear is underwear and shoes are just shoes.
Avni Shah is a novelist and communications strategist, and a mom of two young boys. The daughter of immigrants, her writing focuses on themes of culture, identity and belonging. Avni has written pieces for USC News, Trojan Family Magazine, Viterbi Magazine, Bangalore Review and others. Originally from New Jersey, she is a WriteGirl mentor and Op-Ed Project Ambassador, and currently leads communications at Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles.