When Laura Hunter wanted to buy a gift for a coworker’s baby shower, she did what a lot of people who need baby gifts in a hurry do: She drove to a big-box retailer, in this case Buy Buy Baby. Looking for a particular swaddle — a long strip of fabric that is wrapped around a newborn to comfort them to sleep — she flagged down a sales associate.
As they twisted and turned through the aisles, the associate stopped short to ask Hunter an important question: Was this swaddle for a girl baby or a boy baby?
“It took me aback,” says Hunter, an attorney living in Washington, DC. “It’s a swaddle for a baby. It’s just a baby. It’s a blanket!”
Jennifer Marmor, a podcast producer in Los Angeles, told her family and friends she didn’t know the sex of her child when she was pregnant because she thought it was the simplest and least confrontational way to make sure she got gender-neutral clothes (in fact, she knew she was having a boy).
Shopping on her own, she was constantly surprised by how aggressively gendered everything was. Browsing in Target, she says, she’d find a cute onesie, notice she was in the girls’ section, and think, “Well, this doesn’t scream girl,” before noticing an overt and (to her) pointless feminine detail, like “ruffles on the butt.”
Americans are obsessed with the sex of their newborns. Expectant parents are so seized with gender-reveal mania that they’re accidentally setting wildfires, crashing planes, and even killing people in ever-wilder stunts. Visit Amazon for baby clothes and you’re asked to pick a sex before you can see any merchandise. Retailers such as the Gap, Gerber, and Walmart all sort newborn clothing into boy and girl categories by default — indeed, this is the most common way to encounter baby clothes.
This isn’t limited to children. Finding clothes that match your gender identity is fraught, even when an adult is making a decision about their own clothes for their own body. But how do you navigate sartorial choices for someone else, especially when that person hasn’t made any determination about their identity, or hasn’t even been born yet?
Marmor would freeze, not knowing what to do. On the one hand, who cares? But on the other, she says, buying an explicitly, pointedly gendered piece of clothing for a baby of the opposite sex “feels like a statement that I don’t necessarily want to make, either: ‘I’m going to put my boy in clothes clearly for a girl!’”
Hunter had similar problems. “I brought home a cute pair of overalls with a striped yellow tee underneath them,” for her infant son, she says. “Someone told me, ‘Oh, no, that’s for girls. See the frilled collar and ruffled bottom?’ Like, he’s 5 months old. Why can’t it just be a cute pair of overalls with a onesie?”
Hunter and Marmor are among a group of new parents fueling a backlash to the hypergendered world of newborns. Parents give lots of reasons for rejecting the options currently on the market: wanting to reuse infant clothes for future children who could be of either sex; not wanting to advertise a love of trucks their infant almost certainly doesn’t have; being surprised at the tastelessness of so many infant clothes; or, yes, feeling uncomfortable enforcing gender norms. While there are some gender-neutral items on the market, they can require a huge amount of expert online shopping to find. An expectant or new parent casually visiting the site of a big retailer could easily miss them.
Yet every well-meaning parent is terrified of unintentionally doing damage to their child, whether that means feeding them food that turns out to be unsafe, buying a crib that’s later recalled for some ghastly hazard, or a million other accidental disasters. And with the recent increase in support for transgender people (a 2019 study from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 62 percent of Americans said they have become more supportive toward transgender rights over the past five years), some parents are worried about forcing a gender identity on a child.
But above all, many new parents like Hunter and Marmor are asking themselves, isn’t a baby … just a baby?
Wind back the clock just over 100 years and you’d be hard-pressed to tell an infant boy from an infant girl, says Jo Paoletti, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and the author of several books on the history of the gendering of children’s clothing, including 2012’s Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America.
How we ended up in a culture so obsessed with the gender identity of infants turns out to be a complicated, century-long tale involving everything from Sigmund Freud to 1980s advances in medical technology.
For most of the history of the Western world, Paoletti says, infants were considered almost a different class of human being, sexless and dressed more or less the same regardless of gender. In Europe — and, later, the United States — all babies typically wore swaddles, then dresses until they were as old as 7 (though, to be fair, there were boys’ and girls’ dresses of slightly different cuts). Just look at a painting from mid-1700s Connecticut, Boys in a Garden, which shows two young boys, the older one in breeches and a frock coat (“boy clothes”), the younger one in an elaborate gown not uncommon for his age.
Throughout the past two millennia, babies in art were depicted nude, in gowns, or in swaddles of various types. Consider Jesus. He is perhaps the most famous baby of all time, but good luck finding a sculpture of him in a tiny pair of pants.
There are many reasons for this. In some parts of Europe, wealthy parents preferred long gowns that prevented their children from crawling, which they considered base and animalistic. Practically, of course, a loose gown is also easy to change, and in later times, white gowns were easy to bleach.
But there were philosophical reasons for the gender-neutral treatment of young children, as well. Victorians, especially, were concerned with thinking of children as pure, pre-sexed beings for as much of their lives as possible. Parenting convention at the time held that “draw[ing] attention to children’s sex prematurely is to risk all kinds of deviation,” explains Paoletti. “They’ll become sexually precocious. The boys will be homosexual. They’ll masturbate too much.” Any gender attribution to a young child was frowned upon, she says; even something as relatively benign as calling a male child “such a little man” had “a kind of creepiness to it from the 19th-century point of view.” Giving babies gendered qualities was, simply, gross.
The way we dress babies began to change with Sigmund Freud’s 1905 publication of “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” which held not only that sexual characteristics were innate, but also that our experiences as children could influence us for the rest of our lives.
Freud’s theory of identification was particularly influential in the early 20th century. It held that at a certain point, children must identify with one or the other parent and adopt their characteristics; a boy identifying with his mother was supposedly the root of a whole host of mental disorders.
This belief merged with several others, notably those of psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who studied the sexuality of adolescents, to create a period in the 1910s and ’20s focused on establishing ever-younger children as proper men. (This focus was almost entirely on men).
“How do we toughen up our boys and make them more manly?” was a common concern throughout that period, which was addressed in various ways, says Paoletti, including the 1910 founding of the Boy Scouts of America. Dresses for boys older than infants went out of fashion, along with the idea that early gendering would somehow harm a child’s psychological and sexual development. Dresses for infants, however, existed at least into the 1950s.
The next major touchpoint — in many ways the one that began our modern gendered world — is the rise of amniocentesis in the 1980s. This test, originally given to pregnant women to check for birth abnormalities (principally the chromosomal markers for Down syndrome), had the side effect of being the first reliable assessment to accurately determine sex before birth. Hunger for both of these results helped amnio explode in popularity.
“‘Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl,’ a very modern query to someone still obviously expectant,” Patricia A. Nelson of Albuquerque, New Mexico, wrote to the New York Times in response to a column on amnio in summer 1988. According to the Times, about 3,000 women each year were having the procedure in 1975; by 1990, it was 250,000.
Parents now knew the sex of their baby before birth, which helped spark a kind of mania for gendered dolls, frilly onesies, tiny cars, and pink and blue things of basically every size and shape, according to Paoletti. New parents were almost irresistibly compelled to buy as many gender-specific things as they could.
“Now what we have is that the children are just like mini adults from almost the point they appear in the world and are dressed accordingly,” said Hazel Clark, a professor of design studies and fashion studies at the Parsons School of Design. Retailers have been engaged in an escalating gendered arms race in children’s clothing ever since.
There is evidence that the wave of hypergendered clothing may be cresting, at least among older children and teens. According to a 2016 study from trend forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, a full 56 percent of Americans ages 13 to 20 shopped outside of their chosen gender, the same percentage said they knew someone who went by gender-neutral pronouns, and 81 percent said a person shouldn’t be defined by their gender. The same year, a UCLA study estimated that 1.4 million transgender people live in the United States.
“People who don’t want to feel restricted ... to what’s historically been male or female? That’s not going anywhere. That’s only going to expand,” said Christina Zervanos, the head of public relations at Phluid, a Manhattan boutique that exclusively sells nongendered clothing. She sees a general softening of strict gender norms across society and believes it will continue to have ripple effects beyond those who identify as trans — maybe even to new parents.
And gender-neutral doesn’t have to mean some kind of massive, boring tan sack that we pour our infants into, like a bundle of potatoes. Indeed, every parent interviewed for this story talked about being frustrated that retailers seem to think “unisex” means “gray.” They want vibrant colors — yellows, greens, reds, patterns, drawings — just not things that are restrictively gendered.
“People assume that if you’re going to have something that’s gender-neutral, then it’s going to be oversized ... or drapery,” says Zervanos. “We celebrate color. If you walk into the store, there’s a lot of color and a lot of print.”
If retailers were quick to catch on to and promote the rise of gendered baby clothes, says Clark, they should also reflect this change in society.
“The convention of having the boys’ and the girls’ section, [and] the way of sort of directing the consumer, and making assumptions about where the consumer will be going to find the clothes has got to be rethought by the retailer,” she says.
Some have already made strides. COS and its parent brand, H&M, for example, exclusively offer unisex or gender-free infant clothes. The Gap recently launched a hub for gender-neutral baby clothes, the Neutral Shop, which has been steadily growing in popularity, though it isn’t particularly easy to find when poking around the Gap’s website (it’s effectively hidden under the heading “Newborn 0 to 24m”).
But making moves is easier than staking out a position. Vox contacted Amazon, Walmart, Target, Buy Buy Baby, Carter’s, the Gap, H&M, COS, Old Navy, and the boutique infant brand Mac & Moon for this story; Target was the only brand to offer a comment on the record, via email. This is that comment in its entirety:
We organize clothing by gender in stores and on Target.com. We understand parents don’t always know whether they are having a boy or a girl, so we intentionally create products that span a variety of colors, prints, and patterns, including offering a number of more neutral aesthetics. We also organize baby clothing on Target.com in a unisex baby clothing category to make it easy for our guests to find.
For most of my life, the sartorial choices of infants weren’t, shall we say, top of mind. But this past fall, my wife gave birth to our first child, a girl. When shopping, I was surprised at how early and how often I was required to make choices about my daughter’s likes and dislikes and her presentation to the world.
Of course, all those choices aren’t really about my daughter; they’re about me. Parents use our children to signal things about ourselves to other people. For parents, there’s lots we want to say: We like the Ramones, we shop responsibly, and we care about the environment. For the past few decades, the sex of our babies — and all the gendered characteristics that supposedly go with it — was high on that list. From birth, we wanted people to know about our sweet girls and our tough boys so much that when all else fails, we strapped pink bows on their heads so it’s utterly impossible for anyone to mistake a girl for a boy.
Now, we wonder, are some tasteful, colorful, attractive gender-neutral options too much to ask? My wife and I bought a lot of stripes and polka-dots, and an adorable sweater with cartoon bears that the retailer told us was for boys.
The gender fixation is a historical anomaly, a perfect storm of technology, psychology, and anxiety about a changing world. But the world is changing, inexorably. And many new parents agree with the Victorians: There is something creepy in waxing lyrical about the gender characteristics of your infant. There’s something sensible in this 19th-century way of treating an infant as something of a blank slate, not daddy’s little girl or mommy’s little hellraiser, but, you know, just potential — a beautiful, lovable human that could become almost anything.
Chris Chafin covers the business of culture for publications including Rolling Stone, Vulture, and the BBC. He also hosts a movie podcast.