If you're a person who has ever purchased clothes for a child, you've likely observed the dismal options provided by the current clothing industry. Most stores are sharply divided into blue and pink aisles. Skulls, trucks, and camo are usually aimed at boys, while the girls' section is mostly filled with pinks and purples in sizes much smaller and tighter than their boy counterparts.
Related: How to Talk to Kids About Gender Identity
And it's not just the color and design stereotypes that are the issue - the messages printed on kids' clothing are sometimes blatantly problematic. For example, JC Penny's once produced a shirt for girls that said, "I'm Too Pretty to Do Homework So My Brother Has to Do It for Me."
Popular company, Gymboree, released a "Smart Like Daddy" shirt and a "Pretty Like Mommy" shirt, but apparently didn't think to offer a "Smart Like Mommy" option.
Land's End offered science-themed shirts for boys, but none for girls. The mom who wrote about the issue noted, "the boys' options include realistic images of planets and our solar system, labeled diagrams of sharks and dinosaurs, and a "NASA Crew" tee design that she immediately declared to be 'the coolest shirt ever'... when we got to the available t-shirt designs for girls on page 56, instead of science-themed art, we were treated to sparkly tees with rhinestones, non-realistic looking stars, and a design featuring a dog dressed like a princess and wearing a tutu."
A snarky design company called, Wry Baby, created a onesie aimed at baby girls, with the words "I hate my thighs" on it. Yes, really.
One Twitter user recently went viral after moving a handful of NASA shirts from the boys' section of a clothing store over to the girls' section.
Hinde has since clarified her intentions in an insightful blog post, part of which includes this explanation:
"Yes, Target has NASA shirts for girls (awesome!). But I never indicated which Big Box Store I was in, [because] I was making a broader social critique of gendered children's clothing. Once folks started talking about NASA shirts for girls there, I went back the next morning to find them and check on some other things. The NASA shirts in the "boys" sections were placed in three different locations (2/3 were prominently on the main aisles visible from 20+ feet away) and positioned at three different eye levels for typical heights in early childhood, middle childhood, and adulthood. For the girls' staff told me that they definitely had them in the store… somewhere. Turned out, the girls' NASA shirts were in one location at the back of one section, facing a divider, away from the main path. Other folks have talked about how their local store has prominent NASA & science displays for girls. Sadly not so my store. Yet."
Another mom, blogger Stephanie of Binkies & Briefcases, wrote a viral article calling out Target for making their girls' clothes significantly smaller than boys' clothing of the same size. Stephanie compared shirt sizes and measured the inseams of boys' and girls' shorts - sometimes finding that the boys' inseams were seven times longer than the girls'.
What's the big deal? It's just clothes, you might think. Some will say not to worry about it - just take your boy to the "girl aisle" if he likes "girly stuff," and vice versa. But progress and enlightenment are important, and we have a duty to call out inequity when we see it.
There's nothing wrong with girls liking stereotypically girly things, nor boys enjoying stereotypically boyish stuff. It becomes a problem when children's identities are boxed in by repeated messages that boys are strong, tough, and good at science, while girls are pretty princesses who don't like homework or their bodies.
Most importantly, we have proof that forced gender roles are damaging.
The website Women You Should Know compiled an evidence-based list showing how forced gender roles negatively affect children:
"Parents underestimate their daughters interest in science and think science is harder for them- despite no differences in daughter and son interest or performance.
- Girls are more likely than are boys to think their teachers think they are bad at math.
- Women encounter different obstacles to achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
- Across the world, lower national measures of gender-science stereotypes are associated with better representation of women in scientific careers."
Research also shows that gender biases from teachers and parents affect girls' attitudes and performance in math.
One study found that children who feel forced to adhere to rigid gender roles experience negative mental and physical health effects directly linked to the pressure to be either stereotypically masculine or feminine.
Decades of telling boys to "man up" and "toughen up" has created an epidemic of people with low emotional intelligence; people who think anger is the only acceptable emotion to feel.
All of this to say: gender stereotypes have a negative impact on children, and ignoring it isn't the solution.
Related: 20 Kids' Books That Redefine What's 'Normal' For Genders
Thankfully, someone is doing something to combat this. That someone is Courtney Hartman, creator of Free To Be Kids -- the new brand revolutionizing the children's clothing industry. With shirts with slogans like, "Feminist Like Daddy" and "Tough Like Mommy," Free To Be Kids is turning gender stereotypes upside down.
I interviewed Courtney to learn more about her vision.
Q1: Who are you?
A: I'm Courtney Hartman, mom to a five-year-old boy who loves purple, butterflies, and dancing, and a three-year-old girl who loves pink, monster trucks, and dinosaurs. I'm also the founder and designer at Free To Be Kids, so basically I have the best job in the world!
Prior to quitting my day job to run Free To Be Kids full time, I spent seven years at Amazon's Seattle headquarters doing everything from Marketing to Product Management, which was good preparation to be a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur.
Q2: What led you to create Free To Be Kids?
Two things really bothered me about a lot of the kids' clothes I saw when my son started moving from baby clothes into toddler clothes. The first was the super overt gender cliches on everything. Of course pink was just for girls, boys only got dull colors, cats and bunnies were for girls, tigers and dinosaurs were for boys, and so on.
But the other thing that really bothered me was an undercurrent of negativity and snark, particularly on the boys' side of the aisle. I wanted to design a line of graphic tees that would push back on gender cliches, be really stylish, and also provide more uplifting, positive messages. And I thought the most direct way to do that would be with slogan tees.
A lot of parents will tell you that they don't really like words on shirts. I get that, because I didn't like words on shirts either. But I realized it was because the words you typically saw on shirts were terrible. Princess, Gorgeous, Beautiful, I'm Too Cute To Do Homework. Troublemaker, Play To Win, I Run This, Ladies Man, Lock Up Your Daughters. Yikes, what do these types of things tell our kids?
So I started Free To Be Kids in Summer 2014 with two designs: Smart Girls Club and Mr. Nice Guy. Then we added a cat shirt for boys (I'm A Cat Guy) and a tiger shirt for girls (Hear Me Roar). We made our first foray into onesies when an awful "I hate my thighs" onesie went viral, and we designed a cute "I [heart] my thighs]" onesie in response.
People responded really well to it so we just kept going! Some of my favorite designs are Love Is My Superpower, Boys Will Be Good Humans, Tough Like Mommy, and Kind Like Daddy. We have more than thirty designs for sale now, and we launch a new design just about every month.
Q3: What was missing from the clothing currently available that you wanted your company to fill?
There are a lot of indie brands addressing gender cliches in girls' clothing, but not very many are doing the same thing for boys. I have a special place in my heart for making boys' clothes that defy gender cliches.
My son is a really sweet, gentle little soul. He loves cars, being rowdy, and playing sports, but he also loves ballet and butterflies and wearing pink and purple. And there are so many boys like him who want to wear more than "Daddy's Top Draft Pick" and "Ladies Man" shirts.
I feel like as a society we have come a long way in our awareness of why gender cliches are harmful to girls, but we still need to think a lot more about what we're telling boys when we use phrases like "boys will be boys" and dress them in clothes that tell the world all they care about is winning and stealing your girlfriend.
Q4: Who creates the shirts?
We have our own print shop in Seattle and we hand print them ourselves! When we started I actually printed all the shirts personally but we've grown a lot now, so there are two other screenprinters here now.
If you visited our shop you'd see a big screen printing press, shelves upon shelves of blank t-shirts, onesies, and rompers, a whole rainbow of inks that we custom mix in-house to get just the right colors, and three tall racks of screens - one for each of our designs.
Our blank shirts come from factories that are Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certified, which means our garments are guaranteed sweatshop free and free of child labor. Seattle also has the nation's highest minimum wage ($15 an hour), and we pay more than that.
So when you buy a shirt from us, you pay about the same as you'd pay at the Gap, but all the people in the supply chain are being paid a living wage and treated well. We're very proud of that. Printing the shirts ourselves and selling directly to customers, rather than through retailers, allows us to really be a cut above big chain stores on the ethics front.
Q5: What do you see as the future of your company?
This fall we'll be adding hoodies to the lineup, and next year I'd like to expand the line to include bottoms, like cozy leggings and shorts. I'd also seriously like to do undies someday, because have you seen how limited the themes on girls' and boys' undies are? It's ridiculous. There are a million things I'd like to do, and so little time.
Image credits: Free To Be Kids