The Problem With Girls’ Clothing

As my husband was putting away my daughter’s birthday presents, my daughter pulled out a mermaid dress which she adamantly wanted to wear to bed. She argued that it was a nightgown, and my husband was sure it wasn’t. Girls’ fashion was still a bit of a new world for him, but he felt fairly certain he was in the right this time. The dress had cutting elastic around the arms and waist, looked itchy as all hell, and had shiny, glittery fabric.

After the bedtime meltdown that ensued once we rerouted her pajama choice, she eventually settled down to sleep. My husband brought the offending clothing article out to show me, incredulously, what our daughter had wanted to wear to bed.

“I’m pretty sure that’s a nightgown,” I told him.

“How? Just look at it!”

I could see why my daughter wanted to wear it, as she loves all things mermaid and sparkly. But I could also see why my husband was so aghast. Who really thought this was a good idea for kids’ clothing, let alone something to wear to bed at night? Nothing about the nightgown looked comfortable. Nothing about it fit right. And as we appraised the offending nightgown, I couldn’t help but think about all the other times we had come up against this same fight.

The princess mermaid nightgown presented some glaring problems, but I had noted dozens more complaints with other girls’ clothing choices. The cutting elastic bands around ankles or arms. The clothes that were too tight in some places while too loose and long in others. The sweaters that didn’t zip or button but remained fashionably flowy in the front.  Finding girls’ clothing that’s actually comfortable and functional is like finding a needle in a haystack.

When we’re shopping, my daughter always wants the impractical clothing she sees hanging prominently in the front and center displays. Why wouldn’t she? They’re designed to catch her eye, to be wanted. She knows, without fully realizing it, that this type of clothing is what she “should” want, what she “should” look like, what she “should” accept. And what’s she’s being told to accept, to even desire, is a life hindered by discomfort. A life on the sidelines being “pretty.”

Of course, boys have their front and center displays telling them what to wear too, but these seem to be evergreen, timeless, and most importantly, practical. They are meant to be worn, to be played in and to be comfortable.

I’ve never run into clothing battles with my son, because nothing is off-limits for him. It’s easy for me to take him into a store and buy him clothes for school that make us both happy. We have to search out the “fancy” and less practical boys’ clothes. Girls, however, are apparently supposed to be pushed into discomfort and restriction from the very beginning of their lives.

Even in toddler clothing, the difference in size, comfort and overall quality between boys’ and girls’ clothing is cringe-inducing. There seems to be an even more troubling correlation between clothes that are perceived as “pretty” for girls and the quality issues that abound with these more fashionable items of clothing and accessories, like headbands which dig into their scalps and dresses with glitter-laden tulle that scratches their legs.

We’re normalizing this stuff for little kids. Kids whose bodies are all basically the same right now. Kids who all want to do the same sort of mucking around in the dirt and climbing play structures and riding bikes regardless of their gender. So why aren’t we making clothes that work for girls? Why are we already giving them an obstacle to being able to do everything on equal ground with their peers by strapping their feet into uncomfortable shoes and stuffing them into clothing that is meant more for decoration than for movement?

Why are we selling them a life that is pretty, instead of one that is fun?

When are we going to do better?

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer with a BA in writing from The University of Nevada, Reno. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Glamour, Women’s Health, Babble, Yahoo Parenting and more. She lives in Reno, NV with her husband, three young children, an awesome dog and a terrible cat.

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