Before we started Free to Be Kids, we knew a little boy who loved cats. He was six, and cats were his everything. The news that a friend was pregnant once had him furrowing his little brow: “What will their cats think about it?” he asked. A day in which he spotted a feral kitty was automatically a better day, and he would tell you about it over and over, catalog it by color and size and assumed age. He would make up a name for it. And if he got to pet a friend’s cat -- bliss. He would revel in the feel of soft kitty fur, talk about it for days.
He wanted a cat shirt. His mom looked and looked and looked, but all the cat shirts were for girls. Instead, our boy got dinosaurs. He liked dinosaurs a lot, on both a play and a dino-fact, this-lived-in-the-Cretaceous-period level. So those shirts made him happy. He asked for them the same way his brothers asked for their dinosaur shirts, because they loved dinosaurs the same way. But he still couldn’t find that cat shirt.
"I'm a Cat Guy," one of the first shirts we made for boys.
We know why this was: Certain animals are coded boy. Other animals are coded girl.
Graphic credit: Blod Design UK.
We knew a little girl who loved dinosaurs. Loved them. Adored them the same way the boy and his brothers loved them. She could tell you all about Jurassic-Triassic-Cretaceous, how Spinosaurus was found in Africa and most modern dino finds come from China. She knows about the Solnhofen Limestone and how it contains a treasure trove of ancient fossils, including Archaeopteryx. 19th century British fossil hunter Mary Anning was her hero. This little girl wanted a dinosaur shirt that wasn’t made for a boy. It didn’t have to be scientifically accurate. It didn’t have to be pink, though pink would have been awesome. It just had to sport a dinosaur and not scream “this shirt was meant for boys.”
Her mom looked and looked and looked. There were no dinosaur shirts for her daughter in any of the local stores she scoured.
Fierce T-Rex, a dino shirt we designed with girls in mind! (Also available in non-pink choices.)
Most stores don’t offer girls dinosaurs. They give them the shirts our boy wants -- kitty shirts. But those shirts are drenched in pink and ribbons and ruffles, not anything our cat guy felt comfortable in. Why do so many stores leave so many kids disappointed?
Ferocious animals, like bears and lions, roaring tigers, and menacing dinosaurs -- those are coded boy. Kitties, bunnies, zebras, unicorns, and butterflies belong to girls. Full stop, end of discussion. These animals don’t cross gender lines, except as patterns: tiger print, leopard print, and zebra print are the exclusive purview of girls. As long as the animals are skinned and hence nonthreatening, it’s okay for our little girls to wear them. Even prestigious. Even cute.
Boys DO look adorable in zebras. Exhibit A: our Black and White and Rad All Over tee.
Children’s clothing is so coded that even imaginary things get stuffed into a gender. Yeti and Bigfoot belong to the boys. So do most monsters, unless they’re branded or pink. Dragons are for boys unless there’s a princess involved and the shirt is pink. Boys get most of the superheros and almost all of the villains.
And we need to ask ourselves why.
Hip Hop Bunny: a bunny tee for everyone.
Why couldn’t our boy find a cat shirt that wasn’t covered with gems and ruffles and pink and peach -- a cat shirt, in short, with a cat, without girl-cut sleeves, until we at Free to Be Kids came along and made one? Why couldn’t our girl find a dino shirt that wasn’t navy blue, olive green, grey, and oh-so-boyish? Finosaurs are becoming a more common theme in mainstream girls’ clothes these days, but there's still so much more ground to cover.
Happysaurus! It's a sweet herbivore, because not all dinosaurs have to be ferocious.
Some boys want an alternative to roaring lions and superheroes and sports, sports, sports. They also want zebras and butterflies and yes, even unicorns. They want these things because zebras, butterflies, bunnies, and unicorns are awesome. And some girls want lions that aren’t aggressively roaring, and shirts that celebrate their brains rather than another graphic tee advertising how cute they are, and, in this STEM-oriented world, girls too like robots, which are firmly coded male.
Unicorn T-shirts + Boys = Awesome.
Our kids want to proclaim their likes, to proclaim their identities. Big box stores need to take a long look at themselves, at their marketing, and at their design. And they have to ask themselves: why aren’t we giving these things to them? Why aren’t we giving them the chance to tell the world who they are, and whom they want to become?
What are they afraid of?
We decided we weren't afraid of anything, so we started Free to Be Kids a few years ago with a mission to flip the script on gender cliches. Our first two animal shirts were a cat shirt for boys and a tiger shirt for girls, and we never looked back after that. Today we have zebras, bunnies, unicorns and butterflies designed with boys in mind, and lions, dinosaurs, robots and more inspired by girls.
Boys look fly in our Bugs & Butterflies tee.
Most of our shirts look cute on just about any kid, but our designs are always inspired by what's missing in those big box stores. Because that cat-loving boy deserved an "I'm a Cat Guy" shirt and that little girl deserved a Fierce T-Rex, a Shineosaur, and a Happysaurus in her wardrobe.
We made our shimmery silver Shineosaur print to show that sparkly silver inks aren't just for girls, and dinosaurs aren't just for boys.
Kids -- real life kids, with real life kid interests -- inspire us to keep creating new designs every month to push back against tired gender stereotypes. Because kids deserve to be themselves, and to love what they love, and show that love to the whole wide world.
So we'll keep making shirts for awesome kids who love all kinds of different stuff, not just what the big stores tell them what they should like. And big stores: we hope you'll catch up soon.