My daughter is a little obsessed with pandas.
For her birthday last year, I bought her a toy panda family - parents and four kids. They came sweetly dressed in classic Victorian-era clothes:
The first thing my daughter did was take the clothes off the pandas. I suppose that makes sense, since, as we all know, Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing. Tiny as they are, the clothes were promptly lost to the Charybdis that is the toy chaos of my basement. So the pandas went for months and months without any clothes and we just played with them au naturel.
With their clothes lost, we couldn’t tell Mommy Panda or Daddy Panda apart - they’re identical without clothes on. Same thing for Sister and Brother Pandas. That meant that all of their activities and roles were perfectly equalized, since the characters could stand in for each other with no perceivable difference.
On the other hand, the baby twins were easy to tell apart, because they’re posed differently. I didn’t think it mattered, until I noticed that Baby Boy Panda kept getting into a lot more trouble than his twin. The boy twin is posed in a crawling position, while the girl is sitting still. Naturally, the mobile twin ended up in story lines that involved crawling up to the top of the fridge, or out of the tub, or around the car - he was an active character. The girl twin instead would sit quietly in her high chair, in her crib, in her stroller, etc - a passive character. Pretend play with these two toys just naturally evolved that way, because that is how the characters are depicted. Boy = motion; girl = not in motion.
But I digress. This is a blog post about clothing.
The other day I was cleaning out the basement and I found all the panda clothes. I brought them upstairs and we dressed the pandas up again. But something was different. Now, Mommy and Sister Panda had a harder time participating in all the activities that they had always done - their clothes weren’t appropriate for hiking or swimming, or even playing at the playground.
Brother and Daddy could still do all the active things - they were wearing pants and shirts. But the females’ long dresses restricted their movement. More to the point - they restricted my imagination, and the kinds of situations I could create for them. The clothes changed my perception of their abilities.
And it wasn’t just the type of clothing the pandas were now wearing. As an adult, I recognize that I’ve been socialized to associate pink with girls and blue with boys. But I hadn’t realized that my kids had also developed those same deeply ingrained associations. Then, for her third birthday, my daughter received some additional baby panda clothes, which fit both of the twins. She put Baby Girl Panda in blue overalls and Baby Boy Panda in a white layette set.
This is what happened next:
My daughter finally solved the problem by taking the clothes off the pandas, telling her brother - firmly, again - which panda was which. I watched as my son, seeing them without their clothes on, realized that his sister was right - he recognized which was which by their shape and not by the color of their clothes. He even said, “Oh yeah, that’s right. I forgot that Baby Girl Panda sits up.”
The takeaway from our panda dress-up experience is that clothing matters. It provides signals not just about gender, but about ability, interests, wealth, status, cultural background, taste, personality - in other words, clothes do a lot of the talking for us - even in imaginary situations!
We can say that it’s the inner person who matters, regardless of what we wear. That is of course true, but it’s both naive and facile to say that it doesn’t matter what we wear. And that is why having choices when it comes to clothing is important. We know that it’s important enough that there are charities dedicated to helping people dress appropriately so that they can secure a job.
If the clothing worn by genderless toy pandas can immediately affect my perception of them, so much more so the clothing on our unique, developing children. Here at Princess Awesome, we strive to create clothing options that speak to the personal style and interests of girls who like skirts and twirling but who also are interested in dinosaurs, adventure, science, and math. And we’ve learned that it’s important - not only so that girls can express themselves uniquely, but so that other people can more accurately perceive who that girl wants to be seen as.