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Beyond the girl and boy aisles: How funneling kids into a category can hurt

Rebecca Melsky points to a ninja character in the pattern of a dress. Seeing a gap in options for little girls, Melsky and Eva St. Clair created the Princess Awesome line of simple dresses with prints and patterns such as robots, planes, pirates and trains. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Rebecca Melsky’s daughter had been “traditionally feminine” and had “girlie” tastes since she was old enough to express herself in any way. She wore only dresses — occasionally a skirt, but only if she was told it was a two-piece dress.

Things were a little different with pajamas. Melsky bought them from both the boys’ and girls’ sections of stores, and her daughter gravitated to the robot and spaceship ones — purchased, naturally, in the boys’ section. So it dawned on Melsky, when she walked past the girls’ section in a store one day two years ago, “I wish I could get a dress with a spaceship on it.”

She couldn’t get that idea out of her head, and she couldn’t figure out why such clothing didn’t exist.

A few weeks later, she told her friend Eva St. Clair about it. Although St. Clair, who lives in Silver Spring, had only boys at the time, the idea made sense to her. “At first it was like half a joke. But then we found fabric online, and I sewed [dresses] by hand,” St. Clair explained.

The friends, both 34, made a bunch of dresses with prints that have traditionally been considered more boyish, such as mathematical symbols and dinosaurs. When they decided to sell them at the Christmas church bazaar at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Silver Spring, the women thought there was a good chance they’d be laughed at. Instead, the dresses sold out.

“We realized there was a market,” Melsky said. But they didn’t realize just how big of a market.

After investigating different ways to fund Princess Awesome, the name they gave their new hobby/business, the women decided to try a one-month Kickstarter campaign to raise $35,000 in start-up costs. Then the Web site A Mighty Girl featured the business. The women credit that small story for the final push. Before they knew it, they had raised $215,000.

Apparently, they discovered, they had hit a nerve.

“I just wish I could buy her what she wants to wear,” Melsky said. “I want to make sure I can offer her the variety and keep her exposed” to things other than pink dresses adorned with princesses or flowers or ruffles.

Why does this matter?

Parents recognize that their children don't fit into specific molds, says Christia Brown, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and author of "Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue ." They want their children to have options in the clothes they wear, books they read and toys they play with.

“There are a lot more differences, according to research, between individual children than between genders,” she said. “Individual boys will differ more from other boys than from another gender in general.”

If you say, "This is what boys like" or "This is what girls like," you're ignoring your child's individuality, she said. "It funnels them into a category. . . . If we funnel them into that from birth, it's hard for kids to be individuals."

Perhaps the best-known recent example of this is Target and its toy aisles. For several years, people have been pushing the retailer to stop segregating its toys by gender. Inspiring one of the most recent uproars, a Target sign declared “Building Sets” in one spot and “Girls’ Building Sets” in another. As if both genders couldn’t play with the same magnetic tiles, Lego bricks or other toys.

The store recently announced it would stop segregating the toys, saying "we know that shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments such as toys, home or entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary."

Target will stop separating toys and bedding into girls’ and boys’ sections

Also last month, a mother posted a message on Pottery Barn Kids' Facebook page out of frustration: Her 6-year-old daughter wanted the plum-and-turquoise-striped "girl" backpack, but with a dragon patch from the "boy" section of backpacks. She was told it wasn't allowed. She could, however, have a fairy, heart or rainbow patch.

“Seriously? To get the dragon patch, you have to order a ‘boy’ colored backpack (green/navy/white),” she wrote. “I called and spoke with three representatives, all of whom said you can’t mix and match. I tried to explain that I wasn’t mixing and matching from different styles, and that the patches were available on the SAME STYLE BACKPACK but in different colors. Still the answer was no.”

The store relented and her daughter got the combo she wanted.

St. Clair, who now has a girl in addition to three boys, said it doesn’t make sense to define some things as specific to boys or girls when they aren’t. Dragons? Sports? Superheroes?

"We've made these things gendered," she said.

On a recent morning, her 1-year-old daughter was toddling around Melsky’s Brookland house, pushing a baby doll stroller and wearing a onesie with an attached skirt that was decorated in brightly colored dinosaurs. (Melsky’s son and one of St. Clair’s sons were throwing balls and biting small pieces off of a Lego set.)

Melsky and St. Clair aren't the only ones dipping their toes in the stereotype-defying clothing market. In fact, they recently partnered with nine other small businesses that do similar things. The group has started a social media movement called #ClothesWithoutLimits. Together, the companies are encouraging parents to share photos of their children pushing against stereotypes.

Dear stores, What about the boys?

The group was featured in a piece on Upworthy, a Web site for feel-good viral content, that showed pictures of clothes that caused uproars in recent years: a blue "boy" onesie that says "I'm Super" hanging next to a pink one that says "I Hate My Thighs," and a sparkly "girl" shirt from Children's Place that said "My Best Subjects: Shopping, Music, Dancing, Math" with check marks next to only the first three.

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The push for clothes like those at Princess Awesome seems good to Brown. "Not all girls like the same type of clothing," she said. Her daughter, a kindergartner, likes superheroes. Brown finds herself most often in the boys' section because it has more selection for her daughter.

“But a lot of people don’t want to go to the boys’ section,” she said.

And not all boys like to wear shirts with just trucks or sports on them. As one commenter noted on the now-viral Pottery Barn Facebook post, her son likes trucks and the color blue, but also butterflies, baby dolls and cooking.

“Anything that just lets your kid be how they are is only a positive for the kid,” Brown said.

More from On Parenting:

How to prevent gender stereotypes at home

‘Everyone’s a winner’ and other lies

Talking to boys about puberty

5 tips to make talking to your daughter about sexuality easier