We found them in all the stores on a recent shopping excursion. There were tons of them, as I flipped through the racks for my son, among the typical footballs and soccer balls and shirts that just proclaimed “SPORTS!” One, in a size 3T, read “Ladies’ Man.” Another, in brown with slashy red letters: “Tough Like Daddy.” Sounds cute at first. Then there were the ugly sports shirts: “I Always Win.” “Winners Rule.”
These are the clothes I’m supposed to put on my kind, sensitive boy? Shirts that sexualize tiny kids? Shirts that push toxic masculinity? Shirts that promote an aggressive, unhealthy notion of competition? Other than this stuff, there wasn’t much left. Lots of branded characters, and maybe a dino shirt or two. Those were our options.
We didn’t buy any kids’ clothes that day.
Slogans like these are what most kids in America are wearing, because this is what most stores are offering. Sweet little boys are sporting shirts with slogans that embrace toxic masculinity. Competition. Never being wrong (“My Brother Did It” was another shirt we found). Objectifying women. Valuing toughness, whatever that means -- and usually it means, “Suck it up, buttercup. Crying is for sissies. Be a man!”
There are other ways to be a man.
We need to combat this limited vision of boyhood and masculinity in any way we can. That means that we need to care about the messages our children absorb from all sorts of sources. And yes, that includes their clothing.
If you’re sitting behind your screen thinking, “Well, what the heck is wrong with a football shirt?” Well, nothing. There is nothing inherently wrong with a football shirt. But there is something inherently wrong with a system offers nothing but football shirts. There’s no choice. This sea of shirts emblazoned with sports imagery offer only one way to be a man. But we know there are also cat guys, whose favorite shirts have cats and kittens on them. There are little dudes who dig bunnies. And there are boys who are proud to be superheroes of love, and kind like their daddies. All of these are viable ways to be boys. And we need wardrobes that reflect that.
As for the straight-out toxic messages – it’s time to simply ditch them. When you put an 18 month old in a “Ladies Man” t-shirt, you’re sexualizing him, which is super gross, and you’re objectifying women, which is also gross. And those “I Always Win” and “Winners Rule” t-shirts? Well, winning is fun. But you can’t base your identity on it, because someone, sometime, is going to come along and beat you one day. Then where will your sense of self lie? And what do those shirts say about your attitude towards people who don’t win?
So today I'm passionate about designing slogan tees for kids that push back against the negative messages in mainstream clothing stores. And I'm proud to see the double-takes when I take my son out in “Boys Will Be Good Humans” and “Tough Like Mommy” shirts. I see people reading them. They don’t glance over them the way they do other little kid shirts. These shirts give people something to think about.
Boys need these positive alternatives. It can seem ridiculous: the fight is so big, and the shirts are so small. But these positive slogan tees are a spark. They’re a spark for our kids, and they’re a spark for those who see them. They help combat the toxic culture around us. They give our boys a choice beyond sports, sex, and competition.
We need positive kids’ clothing. And we need it badly.