When Cody McBurnett, a 36-year-old mother and creative director living in Brooklyn, goes shopping with her 3-year-old son, she lets him pick out the clothes he likes, whether they are from the boys or girls section, as long as they are gender neutral.
“Traditional roles are changing a lot,” she told MarketWatch. “I would like to see them change a lot more, and a lot more quickly — and if i can do my part by raising a caring good man who doesn’t fit into the typical gender roles, that’s great.”
McBurnett is one of a rising number of parents raising children without the pink-and-blue binaries of the past. Beyoncé said in September’s issue of Vogue on Monday that she is raising her twins Rumi and Sir and her oldest child Blue without traditional gender roles. “They don’t have to be a certain type or fit into a specific category,” the superstar said. “They can explore any religion, fall in love with any race, and love who they want to love.”
A September 2017 survey of 12,000 people across 32 countries from international marketing firm Havas found 61% of women and 46% of men believe children should be raised in as gender neutral a way as possible. (In comparison, 39% of women and 54% of men would prefer to see girls and boys raised with gender-specific clothing, toys, etc.)
“There has been a growing realization that our gender norms and gender stereotypes not only do not necessarily fit all young people, but can actually be really harmful,” Nicole Cushman, adviser to AMAZE, a sex-education video playlist.
Often boys are taught to be aggressive and assertive, while girls are taught to be passive and polite, said Daniela Ligiero, chief executive officer of Together for the Girls, a non-profit to end violence against girls.
“One of the most important things in changing the mass levels of harassment and assault in this country and world has to do with changing norms — and that is absolutely linked to how we raise our children,” she said. “If we are going to solve these issues we really have to look at how we are raising our boys and look at masculinity.”
This does not necessarily mean raising children in a gender neutral way, but in a manner that is critical of why different traits, activities, and toys are labeled as either feminine and masculine, Ligiero said.
Cody McBurnett’s son in gender neutral clothing.
Marian Salzman, chief executive officer of Havas PR North America, said this shift in attitudes is being reflected by companies. “We are a country in transition,” she said. “The retail landscape is starting to reshape perspectives on what is ‘boy’ and what is ‘girl.’ The groundswell is toward this a-gender lifestyle where gender is something people can pick and choose.”
Indeed, gender itself is becoming a more antiquated concept, with 52% of women and 44% of men surveyed saying they agree they “do not believe in set genders, gender is fluid and everyone can be what they feel they are.”
There is a growing body of research suggesting that rigid gender roles are damaging. A comprehensive study of children from 15 countries released in September found gender stereotypes can cause lasting negative effects, including violence, suicide and depression.
“We are almost in a post-gender society, meaning gender feels like an older issue,” Salzman said. “People do not want to dwell on whether someone is a boy or a girl. We want to value the individual and their gender is just a part of who they are — but also something they can assert and select.”
Some mainstream retailers are shifting in this direction, with Target’s TGT, +0.20% release of a gender-neutral kids collection in July and U.K. retailer John Lewis removing gender labels from its children’s clothing. Despite the changes in the retail world, McBurnett says she still struggles to find gender-neutral clothing for her son.
At Gap GPS, +0.40% and J Crew, she says, she has to look to the girls section to find leggings and often finds costumes of her son’s favorite Disney DIS, +1.62% princesses are hyper-feminized and have slim cuts that make them difficult for boys to wear.
“He loves to play dress-up in dresses but they are always marketed as just for girls,” she said. “He is much more excited in the girls department, where clothes have a lot more sparkle and color.”
The change in beliefs surrounding gender is not without backlash: Many shoppers called for a boycott after John Lewis removed gendered labels from its clothes and some mental health professionals have pointed out potential drawbacks of gender-free parenting.
Cody McBurnett’s son carries a baby doll. She says she is glad her son is free to play with toys traditionally reserved for girls.
Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of ‘The Self-Aware Parent,’ said it is “counterproductive, confusing, and unfair” to raise children wearing a-gender clothing.
“Not only does the lack of structure create internal confusion for a child, it also is a setup for other kids to comment about the a-gender child’s appearance creating self-consciousness, feelings of being on the outside and different,” she said.
Others say putting children in clothes that clearly makes them unhappy or alien, especially if that child is gender fluid or identifies as the opposite sex, is more damaging. They call for more education and awareness around the issue.
Actor Brian Austin Green has defended his young son wearing dresses and actor Liev Schreiber has been seen in public with his son dressed as a female character. Angelina Jolie famously lets her daughter Shiloh Jolie- Pitt wear almost exclusively boy’s clothing.
Similarly, McBurnett said she has not found any negative effects thus far. In fact she is glad her son, whose favorite toys are baby dolls, is able to be emotional, sensitive and nurturing — traits often discouraged in boys.
“As much as I’ve thought of gender roles being damaging to women, it’s taken me having a son to realize how limiting they are for men as well,” she said. “We all lose when people are forced into believing they have to be one thing or another.”
(This story was updated on Aug. 6, 2018.)
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