Monday, 18 September 2017


There’s been a lot of talk recently about the decision by John Lewis to stop labelling children’s clothes as “boys or girls” – I never realised quite how divided things were until I became a grandparent and discovered that even baby wipes are marketed in both blue and pink packaging (despite the contents being identical)!

I’m not sure why some people are up in arms about children’s clothes being labelled with just an age range. If you look at boys and girls clothes, the differences are ridiculous, especially considering all children like to do the same sort of things ie: be a child. Clothes need to be adequate for the task in hand which means coats should keep them warm, shoes should be tough enough to withstand kicking balls whilst keeping toes safe, and trousers  thick enough to protect knees when they fall. A glance at the girls’ ranges in almost every shop will show you that the majority are totally unsuitable for any of these activities … they are thin and skimpy in pale pastel colours that get dirty the minute you put them on.
I have nothing against pink or sparkly - my 3 year old granddaughter loves sparkly things and I’m rather fond of a bit of glitter myself (though prefer it with black or red) but it’s the messages we are sending with different styles of clothes that I object to – “just sit and look pretty little girl, you’re not meant to get dirty or play and explore the world because your clothes aren’t suitable for doing that”. And it’s not just the implied message via the types of clothes; the actual messages on them are appalling. Go and look at ANY range of clothes and you’ll see what I mean – girls just want to have fun, girls are pretty and lovely whilst boys are clever and strong and adventurous (and don’t get me started on “suggestive” messages on T-shirts for 5 year olds)!

The argument that you can buy from any section is fine except that parents are taking on board this message about boys v girls and will say “you can’t have that because it’s in the boy’s section (believe me, I’ve heard them). They also seem to be concerned about the social stigma of having somebody ask why their daughter is wearing a boy’s top or is mistaken for a boy. Of more concern is a child being bullied for the same reason (and yes, this happens too). I’ve also been in a situation where a girl has turned up wearing a boy’s t-shirt that a boy in the same group also happens to be wearing … and the boy has been teased over this! If they were wearing “just” a children’s t-shirt, this wouldn’t happen.
Let’s move on to toys and books.
The majority of shop displays have a definite split between the type of activities considered suitable for girls and boys - you can probably guess what it is but if you aren’t sure then take a look at the fantastic “Let Toys Be Toys” campaign! All children need a wide range of play to develop different skills. The reality is that 51% of the population is female and if we don’t encourage girls to look at science and technology as being valid to them, to stop sending the message that playing with construction toys or science kits is for boys and that craft activities are for girls, then we are losing out on a huge source of creativity and inspiration that is important for our future economy.
Not all of our future scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and business leaders are going to be men! There’s a saying “You can’t be what you can’t see” and this applies to both boys and girls, though particularly to the latter.
And what about books?

Fortunately, the majority of librarians I know are pro-active in supporting diversity and inclusion within their stock (and this is one of my most popular workshop topics) – they have books with strong female characters, stories about boys who are emotional and cry, tales with both boys and girls fighting evil and saving the world. Unfortunately though, many publishers still seem to market books aimed at one or the other sex … either via the cover design or using gender-labelling in the title or blurb. The latter is, happily, becoming less common but any glimpse in a book shop will show you a plethora of pink and glittery covers that are obviously aimed at the “girlie” market.
I will be the first to admit that I’ve used these covers to lure students into picking up (and then hopefully reading) a book. Anything that gets them reading is my motto, and I will unashamedly be manipulative and use any means to achieve this. But it is a sad fact that, whilst girls are frequently happy to read a wide range of books with varying covers, boys will rarely pick up a book that they think looks “girlie” which is a shame as the covers often hide a fantastic story (the secret is to wrap it in brown paper and run a lucky dip in the library!).

You would imagine that my granddaughter, having a rather outspoken grandmother, a mother working in the emergency services and an aunt who is an adventurer, would be immune to any of this. But no … a few months ago she announced that “girls don’t play football”(much to our horror)! This was soon corrected with the use of a rather wonderful book (“What Are You Playing At?” by Marie-Sabine Roger) but goodness knows where she got this message from – at the age of three.

I do find the statement “boys are boys and girls are girls” rather odd because what’s the definition of a boy or girl within the context we’re talking about … ie: the colours they like, the games they play, the toys they enjoy or the books they read? There isn't one. There’s nothing wrong with girls liking pink or boys playing with cars. Nor is there anything wrong with girls liking rugby or boys being interested in art.
But pink shouldn’t be the only choice available to girls (or cream if you’re lucky) and by sending the message via their clothes that “girl’s stuff” is pink, they automatically veer towards pink toys, which we’ve already ascertained are restricting their play and thus their development.

Also by constantly focusing on appearances we are creating generations who value what they look like above everything else. This applies to boys too - we expect them to be strong, brave and fit into a specific mould. Any child that doesn’t conform to these “norms” struggles and that’s where the problems start.

Girls and boys who are different, who do not imitate what society expects of them - girls who don’t like pink and pretty or boys who don’t like football and rough stuff - are often targets for bullying. Bullying reduces self-esteem and self-confidence as does feeling that you are not accepted. This results in an increase in mental health issues including self-harm, depression and suicide.
One of the most important (yet often undervalued) roles of the school librarian is the pastoral aspect and I’ve spoken about this before in a previous blog. I know from experience that this role has increased over the years and statistics reflect this yet there’s only so much we can do and so much support we can give; to truly combat this issue we need a healthier approach to letting children develop naturally and not trying to label them or put them into boxes.

You might think children’s genderisation isn’t important, that it doesn’t really matter. If you get a chance try and see the BBC TV programme “No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?”  - in which a class of seven year olds state that “boys are cleverer and have better jobs” and that “girls are pretty and look after children” - these perceptions were actually affecting the children's belief in their capabilities within the classroom as well as their self-worth and self-confidence. At seven years old!
Now imagine they are receiving the same signals time and time again via their clothes, their toys, their books, not to mention media and society for the rest of the time they are growing up? Do we really want to programme our children’s brains – and thus their futures – in this way?

I was recently in a high street shop where the girls t-shirts had the message “Fun All Day” and “Funtastic” whilst the boys said “I want to see the World” and “Create the Future”!!! Come on parents (and grandparents and aunts and uncles ...) … don’t you want your daughters to see the world or your sons to have fun? They’re not mutually exclusive …


  1. Fabulous article SO well argued. Delighted to see you mention What Are You Playing At? - you might be interested in what I wrote about it for BooksforKeeps:

  2. Thanks! It's a huge topic so difficult to condense the arguments into a reasonable length. Enjoyed your blog - What Are You Playing At? did the trick immediately and generated a lot of discussion with my granddaughter!

  3. Thank you. Wrote this 3 years ago and sadly things haven't really improved very much!