Every time I roll by the freezer section of the grocery store with my two-year-old daughter, I know exactly when she’ll start making demands: when we pass the pizza. It’s her favorite food. Even seeing a neighbor’s discarded Little Caesar’s box in a pile of recycling makes her want some.
But if I want to treat her to a piece of clothing decorated with a slice, I’ll have to go to the boys' department, where another one of her cherished dishes, macaroni and cheese, has been labeled more fit for male consumption. For girls, I’ll find double cherries on socks; lollipops, popsicles, strawberries, cupcakes, and lemons on onesies; ice-cream cone dresses, sweaters, and more. An explosion of sweetness.
From Wal-Mart to Saks Fifth Avenue, inventory in boys’ and girls’ sections isn’t merely gendered by color, cartoon characters, or expectations of average sizes. It’s separated by the decorative food motifs based on which are deemed masculine or feminine. Apparently, girls shouldn’t eat pizza — and they shouldn’t wear it, either.
Kate Davis of Addison, Texas, says the sleeves on girls’ shirts are too narrow, the underwear are generally thinner, and the dresses and other “nice” clothing are full of itchy tulle, sparkles, and sequins. Like many millennial parents, Davis is tuned in to the different clothing available to girls versus boys. Her two-year-old daughter loves the color red, cars, airplanes, trains, and frogs — and it’s rare for her to find any of that in the girls’ section.
While progressive parents have all but labeled the color pink toxic, and worn out all discussion of the Disney Princess Phenomenon, they probably haven’t considered what it means that their daughters’ T-shirts and pajamas are covered in sugary foods, like cupcakes and pie, while their sons’ aren’t. Now that she thinks about it, Davis says her two girls do have eight food-themed articles of clothing — all sweet, except for one set of bacon-and-eggs pajamas, which, of course, was meant for boys.
But, is it overkill to raise eyebrows at a saccharine, smiling watermelon on a toddler’s romper? Not when you consider, for example, the way desserts have been used as sexual euphemisms in pop culture for at least a century. The metaphors for female genitalia in Warrant’s 1990 hit “Cherry Pie” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” are thinly disguised — if at all. Katy Perry’s video for “California Gurls” epitomizes the visual and lyrical double entendres of food and sex, with girls melting boys’ “popsicles,” and women’s bras ejaculating whipped cream in the sexiest game of Candy Land imaginable. There’s D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” and Kelis’ “Milkshake” bringing all the boys to the yard. This year, Perry came back for seconds, serving herself as a pie in the video for “Bon Appétit.” How sweet.
When 50 Cent told women he’d take them “to the candy shop,” he was just playing into what girls have subtly been told to want all along: candy. More candy, please. (Mandy Moore agrees.)
“In the modern era, [food gendering has] recrystallized around notions of masculinity being about ‘hunting and gathering’— grilling and barbecuing — and also around ideas about female beauty and slimness," posits Alysa Levene, a social historian at Oxford Brookes University and author of Cake: A Slice of History. For girls, she says, "cute cakes and desserts are okay, but big hunks of meat less so.”
As a vegetarian, Levene isn’t interested in hamburgers on any child’s clothing, but in general she doesn't see an upside to socializing small children into gender roles through food.
"Personally, I abhor the cutesification of certain foods, like ice creams on girls’ clothing,” she says. “I think it’s infantilizing and helps to embed gender ideals which are not helpful at a young age."
Even the adults who gravitate toward all-gray everything when shopping for kids may not realize they’ve been raised with gendered perceptions of food. In Urban Outfitters and American Eagle, the young men’s section sells several shirts featuring alcohol, cereal, pizza, soda, and hot dogs. The young women's offerings had some of these, too, but also fruits and vegetables. (Likewise, J.Crew’s eat-your-veggies print is only made for girls.) This sends a message that women and girls, exclusively, need to concern themselves with a healthful diet. But it's the sexualized messaging that reaches its peak at these teen retailers.
Particularly euphemistic foods — think tacos and oysters or sausages and bananas — come paired with innuendo-loaded phrases. Those shirts say everything the children’s clothing begins to, just much more loudly. Kinda makes you think about that smiling-doughnut shirt you almost bought your niece, huh?
Krissy Gibbs, 36, a former teacher in the Bay Area, says it’s a struggle to keep these messages out of her two kids’ wardrobes. Her seven-year-old child is non-binary, and loves pink, sparkles, and butterflies — but also bacon (as one does). “Do you know how hard it is to find a good bacon T-shirt in femme colors?” Gibbs says. She’s been frustrated with the subtle sexualization of girls’ styles, too. “Let’s start with the horrible reality of shorts for little girls. My prepubescent children do not need booty shorts.”
Indeed, a review of children’s departments in nine stores this summer found a stark difference in the offerings. In general, when food is represented on boys’ clothing, it is something higher in fat and salt content, and it is pictured with or as a cartoon character in motion. The Hulk is poised to smash a pumpkin to smithereens, and Cookie Monster sits behind a mountain of goodies waiting to pounce. For girls, there’s a lot less action but more pervasive food imagery. The glittery heart ice cream cone centered on the shirt does nothing. It’s just there, like all the other smiling confections adorning girls’ clothing.
It's one thing for the occasional tacky top to suggest girls would be better off just sitting there and looking sweet, but this is overwhelmingly the trend in children's wear. Saks Fifth Avenue had six shirts for male infants and children up to age six that featured food items, referencing or picturing fish, avocados, and pizza. On the same day, the girls’ section online offered 25 items with food motifs: There were pineapples, lemons, lollipops, bananas, lemonade, french fries, soda, hamburgers, Chinese takeout, popcorn, and milkshakes. Both boys' and girls' clothes had tacos, doughnuts, ice cream, soda, and cherries, though the latter was stitched in black for boys.
The difference is as evident in The Children’s Place, Janie and Jack, Gap, Hanna Andersson, J.Crew, Target, and Wal-Mart. Of retailers’ inventory compared that day, Zara provided the fewest food motifs on kids' clothes. All of these brands either declined to provide comment for this story, or did not respond to several requests, with the exception of Target.
Joshua Thomas, senior director of communications and public relations at Target, says the mass retailer’s children’s brand Cat & Jack was introduced in summer 2016 as an answer to what parents and children today really want. And that isn’t clothing that might be referred to as “gender-neutral."
“Gender-neutral, to us, isn’t what Cat & Jack is about,” Thomas says. "It’s working directly with our guests to find out what they’re most passionate about, and then ensuring that those areas of interest are reflected, whether it’s for a boy or for a girl.” Practically speaking, this means any child can wear a hamburger, but it’s going to be presented in two different ways. “There might be more pinks and purples for a girl, and more blues and greens for a boy in some cases,” Thomas says, explaining that these design choices are a direct reaction to customer requests. The origin story of the whole food-on-clothes trend, however, isn’t quite as easy to pinpoint.
Lauren Zodel, a New York-based fashion designer and adjunct instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says gendered food messaging hasn’t been part of conversations about design that she’s had with her students, professors, or clients since she started working in the fashion industry 13 years ago. For her, the practice comes down to cultural conditioning.
“In American society, food is so much more acceptable for girls to wear than for boys,” Zodel says. “You could take any single food that is out there, put some glitter on some portion of it, and it becomes an easy girl graphic tee. But for a boy, if you put a candy with a cellophane wrapper on a shirt, you’re not going to sell that.”
Candy isn't just a random example Zodel plucked from thin air; it's long been central to the gendering of food in America. In early candy advertisements, writes historian Jane Dusselier in Kitchen Culture in America, “women were depicted as coquettish and flirtatious,” and dressed wrapped in bows and ribbons, just like the bonbons they were selling. In other words, a woman had the freedom to enjoy herself but was also being presented as the object to be enjoyed.
Over time, candy became acceptable for men, too, if only it were presented in a "manly" way. And so here we are, in 2017, with Halloween shirts for boys showing candy between bloody fangs or at the bottom of a skeleton belly. Boys would dominate the hell out of a snack, while girls are merely meant to look like one.
And designers are up against a lot if they want to change that, Zodel says. In order to gender-swap a food item, they've got to make the garment otherwise adhere to gender norms: By using ribbons, glitter, lace and sequins to feminize a masculine food, for example, or rougher textured fabric, like corduroy; bold or darker color; and vintage block fonts to go the other way.
“If you put some cookies and some type of animals eating it, and the animal is on a blue shirt, that would be completely fine as a boys’ shirt,” she says, noting that the 7 to 14 age group is going to be a “harder market” for this kind of blurring of the lines. A Zara boys’ ice-cream print shirt from the summer, for example, used harsh geometric lines and subtle blues. Meanwhile, the mere presence of ice cream is enough to make something for girls.
Thomas, speaking for Target, says he doesn’t see a dramatic difference in his store's shirt designs. They are expressions of the children who wear them — not the products of some group of designers sitting in a dark room deciding that girls should wear gender-normative snacks.
The tricky part is that the children wearing these clothes express preferences outside of their wardrobes, too — like in the actual foods they eat. Studies show that the gender differences in food choice are real and encouraged, with men often opting for more calorie-dense foods full of animal fat, and women consuming more fiber and less salt. "Boys, like men, were expected to prefer substantial, hearty foods," wrote pop culture researcher Sherrie Inness looking back at Midcentury America. "Girls, like women, were supposed to enjoy sweet, delicate foods.” It seems not much has changed in the last 50 years.
At 2, my daughter unabashedly asks for bowl after bowl of mac and cheese, and she’s equally enthusiastic about cupcakes and cookies with sprinkles on them. But every time she steps on a scale and asks if she’s getting bigger, I know the amount of time she’ll be pleased with an affirmative shrinks by the day. A woman's food choices, she'll learn soon enough, are judged in tandem with her looks, her body, and behavior.
In a qualitative study of stories of food collected in the early 1990s, Carole M. Counihan, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Millersville University, concluded that “[chidren] learn that male activities are more highly valued, and that competition and aggression reap greater rewards than nurturance. At the same time, they learn that restricted eating, thinness, and denial of appetite are appropriate for girls, and that hearty eating, bigness, and expression of appetite are appropriate for boys.”
Her research conducted nearly 30 years ago highlights a truth that feels as evident today, and way beyond the kids’ section: Women must constantly fight for approval of their “appetites, their diverse bodies, and their cooking and feeding work.”
The problem of people being held back by the stereotypes of their gender is pervasive, it's not just a clothing story, to be sure. But as far as Zodel is concerned, it may be fashion that finally breaks the cycle. “Design’s always ready to push the envelope,” she says. And now would be a great time for it to do so.
The iron is hot for any brands willing to question why boys are encouraged to wear clothing that shows them to have bigger, less discerning appetites, while girls are directed to look like the food boys get to eat without reservation.
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