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Why Words Matter

The Power of Words

Have you ever wondered about the differences between girls and boys clothes? I hadn't until I had a girl and walked between the clothes and toy aisles, wondering why on earth the messages and images were so radically different. It's not just about fairies and tractors - although that should be addressed too - it's about the words we're using. We're giving children false words and labels about their gender and those labels are severely limiting.

Perfect Girls

In a recent shopping trip I saw two girls’ tops saying the following: “Perfect little Granddaughter” and “Sweet Always”. In the same shop there were two boys’ tops saying: “Cool like Daddy” and “Boys Will Be Boys”.

What are these actually saying? I see this wording as promoting perfection in girls and a considerably more relaxed attitude in boys. Look around you at the clothing in the shops, this is one example of many.

The messages on clothing for girls are usually written as a judgement that is a) permanent (“always”) b) to do with their looks (“beautiful”) and/or c) somewhat passive (“sweet”).

Compare this to what we see on the boys’ clothes. Their labels are more temporary, more active and fun, less about being good, and hardly ever mention looks. Being a bit naughty or making a mistake is ok for a boy, but not for a girl. She’s perfect you see.

Is it any wonder why there is still a considerable difference between men and women’s working lives, from pay to promotion prospects, if we are telling really young kids different things about themselves from the word go?

Why the wording matters

Perfectionism isn’t helpful. Research shows it has an inverse relationship with resilience – so the more of a perfectionist a person is, the more they struggle when things go wrong. The French philosopher Voltaire said: “Perfect is the enemy of the good”. How about we put that on a T-shirt?

And what about confidence? Every study going shows it is different in men and women. Take for example the often-cited research showing that men are happy to apply for a job if they meet around 60% of the job description. Women will typically only apply if they meet every. single. criteria. While the source of this research is currently under debate, it is so popular because it rings true for so many. Then there is imposter syndrome (the feeling that we are winging it and will be exposed soon as not-really-all-that-qualified) which appears to exist more in women than in men. This article offers some evolutionary ideas as to why this might be the case. I think clothing could be playing a part.

And even more than this, if we look at psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, there is an obvious link between this wording and which kind of mindset we are encouraging in girls and boys. A fixed mindset, where we see our skills and attributes as unchangeable, is linked to poor resilience,

Not just in clothing

I appreciate that these differences aren’t solely promoted by the clothing industry. I’ve read many a social media comment that says ‘if you don’t like them don’t buy them’. I might not buy them, but my daughter might read them, her friends might read them. The little boy who might one day be her co-worker might read them. And I’m not ok with that.

There are many gender bias issues we have to tackle as a society – and this is a simple one to change. John Lewis in the UK recently removed the boys and girls labels from their kids clothing sections which is a great start – though John Lewis please take note, there’s still an awful lot of pink and blue and gender-linked messaging that we need to tackle.

What messages have you seen on clothing? Tell us about it here or get it online using #notjustaprincess.

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