Can gender neutral clothes really cause mental health problems for children?

Alice | Letters to my DaughterBlog, Child Health, Feminism & Gender Issues, Support & Mental HealthLeave a Comment

John Lewis recently announced they are removing gender labelling from their own brand children’s clothing, and removing gender specific signage in their stores.

Personally I think this is a fantastic step forward but the internet has, naturally, been pretty divided about it. Scrolling through Twitter however, the complaints that shocked me most were those claiming that this will cause mental health issues for children including issues with gender identity confusion.

The word ‘normal’ keeps cropping up in comments as a means to differentiate ‘normal children’ from those who identify as not gender binary. This suggests that many people are viewing this move as anti-gender, or that John Lewis intend their clothes to only be for gender neutral children, or further still are encouraging ‘normal’ children to denounce their gender and live androgynously. Perhaps they even think children will be forced to wear clothes commonly associated with another sex against their will.

I think these people have missed the point.

In fact, I think there are at least two points here.

1. Equality in clothing is a step towards equality in general

Clothes are clothes, and despite the fact it shouldn’t matter what anyone wears, we DO live in a world obsessed with aesthetics.

As this mum found, there is a disparity between clothes for girls and clothes for boys in their sizing, functionality, and of course, colour. Walk into almost any kid’s clothing department and there are big signs dividing the area into gender specific sections, with the only unisex clothes available for newborns.

I think John Lewis have got it right. It’s not about what the clothes are particularly, but it’s about how they are presented to children and parents. I’m fairly certain parents browsing the children’s department of JL aren’t going to mentally scar little William by accidentally buying him 2 new dresses because they had cars and dinosaurs on them. Unless he’s forced to wear them against his will, I imagine he’d turn his nose up and the clothes would swiftly be returned or exchanged.

But if little William REALLY liked the dinosaur dress? Well then why not, it was from the unisex section after all…

A toy dinosaur made from multicoloured stripey fabric with a button for an eye representing gender neutral clothing

I remember being mortified about some clothes I was given as a child that were 100% designed for my gender. It’s all down to personal preference about what we feel comfortable in, and as long as you’re given the choice of whether to wear them or not, being presented with clothes that aren’t right for you is unlikely to affect mental health.

It;s also NOT about rejecting the concept of gender identity as some critics have suggested. There are plenty of other ways to celebrate being one gender or another if that’s what you want to do, and there are many wonderful differences between men and women and other gender identities without putting girls in pink sparkles and boys in blue combats. Sparkles and combats should be available to all!

2. Non-gender defined clothes might even help REDUCE risk of mental health problems for children who aren’t gender binary

In a study published by the American Journal of Paediatrics, researchers examined the mental health of pre-pubescent transgender children. They compared those who were being supported to live as the gender they identified with, with a group from a former study who suffered from gender dysphoria (feeling distressed because your biological sex doesn’t match your gender identity).

They found that:

Socially transitioned transgender children who are supported in their gender identity have developmentally normative levels of depression and only minimal elevations in anxiety, suggesting that psychopathology is not inevitable within this group.

In simple terms, the group who were supported to live as the gender they identified with were just as happy as other children their age, with only a slightly higher tendency towards anxiety.

Conversely, in comparison to the group with gender dysphoria (GID):

socially transitioned transgender children have notably lower rates of internalizing psychopathology than previously reported among children with GID living as their natal sex.

This means that by empowering children to outwardly express themselves as the gender they identify with, we can reduce the risk of mental illness.

But what if all clothes were gender neutral? Then children could just wear whatever they felt comfortable in without having to worry about how that item of clothing was representing them to others. It takes away the flashing sign above their heads that shouts ‘I AM FEMALE’ or ‘I AM MALE’ and which predisposes people to interact with them a certain way based purely on that one fact.

For transgender children growing up in families and communities who are less or not at all supportive, gender neutral clothing could offer some respite as they are not expected to wear clothes they feel uncomfortable in.

A girl and a boy play in a park wearing gender neutral clothes

A real world vs hypothetical world scenario:

Consider Emily, a young girl who really feels like she would rather be a boy. She feels uncomfortable in typical ‘girl clothes’ because they make her feel awkward, but her school uniform is a dress, and even at the weekend, her grandmother loves all things pink and frilly so Emily is cajoled into wearing something she hates when they visit her every Saturday.

Now consider a world where clothes have no gender identity. Emily can wear what she wants – and that might even be a dress because, after all, it is just a dress and doesn’t say anything about her gender – it’s just comfy and she likes the pattern. Her grandmother still has a personal penchant for frills and pink, but doesn’t expect Emily to wear these just because she was born female, in fact she’s equally insistent Emily’s brothers wear pink frills too.

We’re a long way off total gender neutrality in the clothing department, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get there, or even if it’s completely necessary… but John Lewis has taken a big step in the direction of breaking down unnecessary gender stereotypes. Let’s keep the conversation alive and keep working towards equality for all our children.


What’s your stance on gender neutral clothing? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction or is it unnecessary? 

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