Impending parenthood brings with it all manner of anxiety and challenges, but also fun things– like picking out baby stuff. I was fully prepared for the gender apartheid I knew we would encounter in the baby clothes department, but I was caught off guard by the extent to which this boy/girl segregation has bled into pretty much every facet of baby gear production. I’m not saying there aren’t any “gender neutral” options out there (whatever the heck that means to people – I might need a whole series of posts to unpack the notion of “gender neutral”), but you name the baby item, there’s a “girl” version and a “boy” version. Thinking and writing as much about the gender binary as I do, it was probably naive of me to have been surprised by this. And yet.
In the end, it was the washcloths I couldn’t get over. The most mundane things can also be the most absurd. My partner was setting up our baby registry and as we were scrolling through the pink and blue car seats and the onesies with frills for girls or “tuff guy” printed on them for boys, we came across the baby bath items. And there they were: one set of infant washcloths for girls and a separate set for boys. What distinguished the “girl” and “boy” washcloths from one another I could not even begin to explain to you. They were both polka dot patterned and that’s about all I could tell you. Why two sets of washcloths? Part of it is definitely about money. It’s the baby gender industrial complex out here. If all the baby gear comes in boy versions and girl versions, the likelihood that parents to whom that stuff matters might not reuse as much stuff and will buy more if they have a male and a female child is higher.
Money matters. But there is also an unbelievable amount of social and cultural energy focused on identifying infants as male or female, or more specifically, marking infants in ways that communicate to the world at large – namely, strangers, of course – that the child is a boy or a girl. I’m not completely sure where this anxiety comes from. On the one hand, binary gender is about power. Clear distinctions between men and women serve to maintain power for those who benefit from a system in which gender is still significant in determining people’s life chances. But the fact that the gender binary reinforces the patriarchal elements of our culture isn’t new. That’s always been true. There has not, however, always been such social anxiety around infant gender. Both male and female infants once wore dresses. I was born in the 1980s, before the “pink princess” phenomenon really took off. There were definitely differences between what boys and girls wore when I was small, but I don’t remember there being such distinctions in everything else – like strollers, car seats, crib sheets, etc… like there are now. I’m not sure what it is about the cultural moment that we’re in that leads us to embrace the idea that boy and girl babies can’t use the same washcloths, or that leads strangers to believe they’re entitled to know the sex of other people’s kids at passing glance, but it’s the moment we’re in. I’m hoping I can keep as much of this stuff out of our kid’s life for as long as possible, though I know that will be difficult. Perhaps we’ll start with a revolution at bathtime. Washcloths for everyone.