Girls are struggling with body image and self-esteem at younger ages than ever before, but a few impassioned entrepreneurs think shopping for clothes shouldn’t contribute to the problem.
Walk into any girls’ clothing store, and shorty shorts, skinny fits, teeny bikinis, and body-hugging t-shirts are almost all you see. The message is loud and clear: girls are supposed to dress to look slim.
The fit of mainstream girls’ clothing adds to the enormous pressures girls face to be thin, at a time when the evidence of young girls’ faltering self-image is clear.
By the time kids reach toddler sizes, the fit and sizing of girls' and boys' clothes diverge sharply, despite their bodies being basically identical. And the gap only widens when they reach tween and teen sizes. Young girls are forced to “size up” because a girls’ size 8 is usually equivalent to a boys’ size 6. Girls’ clothes also fit tightly and tend to reveal much more of their young and developing bodies. In fact, comparing clothes from ten mainstream children’s brands reveals that girls’ shirts are consistently 1 to 3 inches narrower, and their shorts 65% shorter, than the same size boy clothes (5). Parents complain that even the fabrics used to make girls’ clothing are flimsy compared to the sturdier fabrics of boys’ clothes.
Enter two small businesses working to change this reality. One developed what they call an “in-the-middle” fit (Girls Will Be) and the other offers two different fit options: one slim and one gender-neutral (Free To Be Kids). These trailblazing childrenswear brands are giving girls a say in how their clothes should fit.
“Girls need clothes that focus more on what their bodies can do, rather than what they look like. Both Girls Will Be and Free To Be Kids are dedicated to making that happen, because the self-esteem and confidence of our girls is too important to wait for the big brands to change the fit of their clothes. After all, it took them years longer than us to put things like dinosaurs and ‘Smart Girl’ themes on girls’ clothing,” said Sharon Choksi, co-founder of Girls Will Be.
Experts support their efforts. "While boys' clothes are constructed for comfort and utility, girls' clothes tend to be designed to emphasize and minimize their shape. Fitted leggings, fitted tees, and shorty shorts are the norm. Only offering those options sends girls the message that their bodies are, and should be, on full display at all times – and that looking slim is more important than having freedom of movement. That can lead some girls to feel self-conscious, especially as they enter the tween years,” states Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership and author of two New York Times bestsellers, including The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. “The work being done by small brands to give girls more body-positive options is absolutely critical to changing the relationship girls have with their bodies. After all, girls face these issues every single day when they get dressed."
To address the fit problem in girls’ clothing, the founders of Girls Will Be designed their own “in-the-middle” fit – right in between what you find in most girls and boys departments. “Many girls, including our own daughters, simply are not comfortable wearing typical ‘girls’ clothing. But that doesn’t always mean they want to shop in the boys department, or wear the oversized, boxy clothes you find there. There was a real need for an option in the middle,” said Laura Burns, another co-founder of Girls Will Be.
For example, Girls Will Be shorts split the difference between the two-inch inseams and skinny fits of most girls’ shorts, and the past-the-knees, baggy fit typical in the boy aisle. Similarly, Girls Will Be shirts are not super fitted with tiny cap sleeves, but are not boxy and made of heavy fabric either. The result is outfits that allow girls to be active, adventurous kids, without worrying about how their clothes fit.
Free To Be Kids addresses the fit problem in a different way, by offering customers a choice between slim, cap-sleeved tees or roomier, unisex tees. “If a girl feels comfortable and confident in a slimmer fit, we think that’s awesome. But fitted clothes shouldn’t be the only option girls have available to them,” said Courtney Hartman, founder of Free To Be Kids. “We offer each of our designs in three different styles because we believe every child should have a say in how their clothes fit and feel. There’s absolutely no reason boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes should be such wildly different shapes.”
These entrepreneurs are no strangers to tackling hot-button issues in children’s clothing. Both Girls Will Be and Free To Be Kids have been battling the stereotypes perpetuated by rigidly dividing colors and themes along gender lines for almost four years, designing science and math shirts for girls, “I’m A Cat Guy” shirts for boys, and so much more.
As is so often the case, it is entrepreneurs who have sounded the wake up call and are driving a much-needed change in an industry.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Hi-res photos, bios, and quotes from parents are available on request.
1 Robin F. Goodman, clinical psychologist, writing for the New York University Child Study Center website.
2 Collins M.E. (1991). Body figure and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208.
3 Lowes, J. & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. The British Psychological Society, 8, 135–147.
4 Mellin LM, Irwin CE & Scully S (1992). Disordered eating characteristics in girls: A survey of middle class children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 92:851-53.
5 Based on measurements of clothes from ten mainstream children’s brands, by the founders of Girls Will Be, in April, 2017. For additional information and research on children and body image, refer to the 2015 Common Sense Media Research Brief, “Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image.”