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Back-To-School Shopping For Gender-Neutral Clothes Is Challenging For Parents

For these families, fashion goes beyond the binary.

Like so many other parents in back-to-school shopping mode, Beatrice Amin just wants to find her kids clothing that’s comfortable, and that helps them express who they are.

For her son, she hasn’t found this challenging. But when it comes to her daughter, Amin said it’s “been a nightmare.” Zoe is an active nine-year old who loves hockey and identifies with her assigned sex, which is female — but she doesn’t identify with much of the clothing in the girl aisles.

Amin, who requested anonymity to protect her children’s privacy and is thus a pseudonym, is always on the hunt for gender-neutral fashion choices that will comfortably fit her daughter, who wears larger-than-average sizes. Amin was impressed by some of the options on the website for the tween fashion brand, Justice. Upon visiting the brick-and-mortar store near their home in Vancouver, however, she was disappointed.

“It just seemed to showcase that girls were only into dance, gymnastics, rainbows, unicorns and ‘super-girly’ things,” Amin said.

“How can I raise kids to be themselves and support each other when the clothing for kids is so frustrating and so based in specific gender roles?”

More parents are raising their children gender-neutral

Increasingly, parents are searching for clothes that allow their children to express gender in flexible, personalized, and creative ways — but parents and kids are left wanting more options.

A 2018 study by McCann Worldgroup Canada and Ipsos found 63 per cent of millennial parents are raising their children gender-neutral, which in this context means they are allowing their kids to explore their identity without being limited to the boy/girl binary.

Tiffany Sostar, a Calgary-based writer, narrative therapist and community organizer, told HuffPost Canada that deconstructing gender in this way means “putting all of the gender expressions on the table and making them equally available and accepted.”

“Gender is really fun!” said Sostar, who also emphasized how important clothing is to a child’s self-definition and creativity in general. “There’s a whole wide range of gender identities and gender performances out there, and when we’re in supportive environments, that can just be delightful.”

One survey found 63 per cent of millennial parents are raising their children to be gender-neutral.
One survey found 63 per cent of millennial parents are raising their children to be gender-neutral.

For LGBTQ+ parents, the need to provide those supportive environments may carry extra weight.

“We’re a queer family, and clothing is a part of that,” said Allison Tremblay of Surrey, B.C, whose partner is trans non-binary. “We want to make sure our kid is free to express a variety of genders. That, for us, has meant shopping ‘both sides of the aisle.’”

Tremblay’s child is still young, but already she’s finding what Amin’s family knows all too well: when it comes to gender expression and conformity, the clothing options become more prescriptive as the sizes go up. In infancy, there are more gender-neutral options, but increasingly, things that are pink are also covered in frills, and blue clothing is adorned with dump trucks.

“It bothers me to see this overt sexualization and enforcement of a gender identity on someone so tiny,” Tremblay told HuffPost Canada. “So finding appropriate clothing that doesn’t have all of that baggage has been a goal of mine, and of my partners’ as well.”

Kids should be able to explore

Families like Tremblay’s are intentionally creating supportive home environments. According to Dr. Wallace Wong, a clinical psychologist who has been working with trans youth for over two decades, it’s great to allow children to “try out their affirmed gender, and explore different gender expressions with different clothing in a positive way. Because we want kids to explore and consolidate.”

Wong noted that a side-benefit of buying clothes kids actually want to wear is that they’ll get dressed faster and with less resistance. And ultimately, when parents listen and are open-minded to their child’s needs, it strengthens their attachment.

Access to a variety of comfortable clothing options is important for all young people, but it’s critical for transgender or non-binary youth, Wong said. Feeling comfortable and fitting in at school will reduce anxiety and depression, and simultaneously can help alleviate the stigma they experience.

WATCH: Your boy loves dresses? Fantastic! Story continues below.

For young people regardless of gender identity or expression, the ideal is to have many clothing options to choose from — ideally, “stuff that brings joy.” This is according to Jana Reid, the founder of Modern Rascals, a Canadian online clothing company that curates brands from around the world.

Reid started the company in 2016, after her first son was born, partly because she wanted to find him gender-neutral clothing that went beyond the dull beiges and greys of most North American lines.

Modern Rascals, as a matter of principle, makes no references to “boys” or “girls” clothing on the site, so that “children see more options. It’s not in a clothing store in a section assigned to their genitals,” said Reid. She’s glad not to have to decide what “gender” each item of clothing would be — “Because what do I know?”

Reid’s son loves dresses and has long hair, though will correct anyone that calls him a girl. “There’s a part of me that is very hopeful for the future — to see boys who are more comfortable with their femininity.”

Since few parents can afford to outfit their children solely in high-end gender-forward clothing, many have to get creative. Like Reid, Tremblay also has an affinity for the Scandinavian brands, which seem to be more fluid than North American ones. Tremblay said she will buy a few separates from the “Scandi” brands, and then purchase a big box of mixed thrift store clothing, to be worn whatever the style.

There’s an opportunity for brands

Erica Klein of Fredericton is a parent of four, all of whom have a unique way of expressing their identity. Her eight-year old daughter has requested a tie and dress shirt for her next school concert, whereas her four-year old son loves jeggings and dinosaur prints.

Klein told HuffPost Canada that she’s lucky — her mom makes the kids 98 per cent of their clothing, letting Klein “easily avoid taking them shopping and being influenced by, or restricted by, choices that are available to them in stores. Or the glaring signs that separate the clothing by genders and may make them lose confidence in their choices.”

Some boys are becoming more comfortable with their femininity.
Some boys are becoming more comfortable with their femininity.

According to the McCann-Ipsos study, the move away from traditional gender expectations is a “huge cultural shift” that represents an “opportunity for brands to help create different realities” from the prescribed gender norms and expectations.

But this is not just about brands pandering to social trends; kids want and need more options, from infancy to graduation. Sostar would also like to see more understanding of young people who have a disproportionately hard time finding gender-expressive clothing, from older trans kids needing gender-affirming clothing like binders, or “the lack of options for fat bodies.”

Nine-year-old Zoe Amin has her own advice for clothing companies: Although she’s a girl, she wants choices beyond what she calls “girly-girl.” She’s asking for more diversity in kids clothes — because ultimately, “gender-specifying clothing just puts pressure on us to be something that we are not.”

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