• Sometimes we buy sexist clothing for our kids without even realising, until we take a closer look. (Supplied)
Sometimes we buy sexist clothing for our kids without realising it - until we take a closer look.
Louise Wedgwood

1 Mar 2018 - 11:43 AM  UPDATED 1 Mar 2018 - 11:43 AM

My one-year-old daughter is walking and happy as a clam to be a “big kid” wearing her first pair of shoes. However, the experience of buying them has ticked me off. 

When shopping for my eldest, a boy, it’s a breeze to find shoes that are comfortable to play in and practical for parks and puddles.

When I stood in front of the girls’ sections in three different major retailers, I was perplexed each time. Why is almost EVERYTHING pink, frilly or sparkly? How are pale fabrics and glittery finishes to withstand the rigours of play?

On that first naive shoe-buying mission at my local shopping centres, I was desperate to go home with something. So I bought the most practical shoes I could find – Mary Janes in a sparkly rose gold canvas, and glittery jelly sandals.

From birth, girls’ “cutest” outfits are usually dresses. But they can be unwieldy to move in, and girls in dresses are discouraged from climbing, hanging upside down or doing anything else fun that might show their undies.

I’ve unwittingly restricted my daughter with dresses. We were given a sweet purple cotton dress with white polka dots, buttons down the back and contrasting frills on the edges. I popped it on my daughter for a playdate with a baby boy the same age, around 10 months old. They were both eager explorers but she kept getting tangled in the skirt and couldn’t crawl in it, navigate stairs or climb onto furniture. As soon as we got home, I changed her into leggings.

Girls took about 200 fewer steps when they wore their formal school uniform compared to their sports uniform.

When they start school, girls’ uniforms have real consequences for their physical health.

Australian research shows that girls’ uniforms limit how much they move. During lunch breaks, girls took about 200 fewer steps when they wore their formal uniform compared to their sports uniform. There was no significant difference for boys.

To better understand the problem, I spoke to Simone Cariss, co-founder of Australian group Girls’ Uniform Agenda. She says, “We're basically setting them up in many cases for a lifetime of inactivity. And that's not something we want for our girls.”

Aside from encouraging idleness, it’s unjust that students in dresses must constantly monitor how they’re sitting and moving to avoid exposing their underwear. I remember one end-of-year school concert and wearing the “modest” mid-length pleated skirt - way too much fabric for summer. Sweltering while trying to perform on stage, my friend and I shockingly pulled our hems up to knee height, about the same as the boys’ shorts. After the concert, an ill-at-ease male teacher was called in to tell us off for being indecent.

Two Australian states, Western Australia and Victoria, recently gave girls equality in the playground. This year their state schools must offer girls the choice of pants and shorts. But the new policies don’t cover independent or Catholic schools.

It’s the independent and Catholic schools which are particularly fond of seeing girls in skirts, says Cariss. “We are hearing that the uniform is part of the school's marketing strategy, and they want their students to present in a certain way. We would actually encourage independent and Catholic schools to really look at their vision and their values for their school, because often they're in complete contradiction to the uniforms they make girls wear.”

If an alien landed in any of our major retailers, you could forgive them for assuming girls and boys are different species. Girls’ t-shirts encourage them to be "sweet and fun" and "hug your heart out". Meanwhile boys' shirts instruct them to “say yes to new adventures”, “fly away with me” and be superheroes.”

Both boys’ and girls’ slogans limit them to narrow stereotypes but the girls’ are particularly uninspiring. “Those companies are selling sexism, basically, the idea of a subordinate female or a dominant male,” according to Dr Hannah McCann, a gender studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

More subtle but just as unfair is the lack of pockets. My son is rarely without a decent pocket to retain his little treasures - a feather, a shell, a random button from the gutter. But girls often miss out.  

Why do girls’ dysfunctional clothes prioritise their looks over their freedom? And why do we parents buy them?

“Part of the fabric of how we live is gender,” explains Dr McCann. “And it's a structure that informs our entire life. That regime that's reinforced in all kinds of institutions - schools, the workplace, family - it's a hard thing to think outside of.”

"We would actually encourage independent and Catholic schools to really look at their vision and their values for their school, because often they're in complete contradiction to the uniforms they make girls wear.”

To school girls who want the option of pants, Cariss says, “Reach out to us, we're here to help. Don't be afraid to ask [your school] and don't be afraid to put forward your arguments as to why it is a good thing to have choice at school.”

One prestigious Melbourne girls’ school, Lowther Hall, gives me hope. They’ve just overhauled their uniform and this year it includes a “wardrobe” of pants, shorts, dresses and skirts.

For casual clothes, I was excited to recently discover some stores boldly designing outside the gender box. Free To Be Kids, for example, is a member of the Clothes Without Limits consortium. My favourites are the shirts that say "Kind like Daddy", "Tough like Mummy" and "Love is my superpower". After I whinged to them about girls’ shoes, friends have also referred me to specialist shoe stores that stock practical shoes for active kids who happen to be girls (at a higher cost).

However, Dr McCann says to change our broader expectations of what girls “should” wear, it takes more than individual parents making careful purchases. We need a broader social movement. “The feminist activism that's happening at the moment is where it's at. That's when people start to question what the expectations are and whether they're good or bad.”