Challenging what it means to ‘dress like a boy’

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

Story highlights

Letting boys be who they want to be includes offering clothing that smashes gender stereotypes, three entrepreneurs say

Boys get messages through clothing about what they should and should not be, they say

CNN  — 

In a YouTube video, Mikki Willis of Ojai, California, told the story of how his son, who received duplicate presents for his birthday, went to the toy store to exchange one of the gifts for an Ariel doll from the Disney film, “The Little Mermaid.”

“How do you think a dad feels when his son wants to get this?” asks Willis with his son, Azai, by his side holding the doll. “Yeah!” cheers his son. “Yeah!” Willis then cheers, as well. The video, posted in August, has now been seen nearly 4 million times on YouTube.

“I let my boys choose their life,” the father of two said.

After the video went viral and was picked up by numerous news outlets, Willis posted a note on Facebook saying he wasn’t surprised at all when Azai chose the doll. “Azai is equally fascinated by princesses and robots,” he wrote. “One moment, he’s all boy, the next he’s expressing a softer, more angelic side. For me, this behavior rings more authentic than playing one note all the time.”

It is that sentiment – that boys can be all things and that we, as parents, should allow them to be all things – that is gaining more traction, especially after so much attention has been focused on empowering girls by shattering stereotypes in clothing and toys.

In the last year and a half alone, we had the #LikeAGirl video, which became a national sensation, Target moving away from gender-based signs such as “girls’ building sets” and 10 entrepreneurs banding together to raise awareness about the limitations when it comes to clothing for girls.

Now, three of those childrenswear entrepreneurs are hoping to focus the conversation on smashing gender stereotypes for boys; they’re providing “cliche-busting” clothes that challenge what it means to “dress like a boy.”

The messages boys get from clothes

Courtney Hartman, the founder of Free to Be Kids and Jessy & Jack, two brands that offer gender neutral clothing for boys and girls, has a 2-year-old daughter and 3½-year-old son. She described her son as kind, sensitive and sweet, and said the outfits offered to boys rarely match who he is.

Courtney Hartman, founder of Free to Be Kids and Jessy & Jack, with her kids, ages 3 1/2 and 2.

“All of the clothes that you see, they would make you think that boys are nothing more than sporty little aggressive troublemakers, and I’ve never seen my son reflected in those clothing options,” said Hartman, whose Free to Be Kids clothing line includes graphic shirts with sayings such as “Love is My Superpower” and “Mr. Nice Guy.” Jessy & Jack and Free to Be Kids both offer different sleeve styles and fits so kids can decide what’s most comfortable for them.

Clothes may look like a small problem in the world, she said, but they are just one of many sources of consistent messages that boys are receiving about who they are and are not supposed to be.

“They’re not supposed to be kind. They’re not supposed to be loving and sweet,” said Hartman. “They’re supposed to be athletic … and aggressive.”

Jo Hadley’s Handsome in Pink, which offers pink T-shirts emblazoned with dirt bikes and electric guitars, was inspired by her son, now 10½, who grew up loving pink and princesses, as well as playing guitar and watching firetrucks.

Jo Hadley, founder of Handsome in Pink, and her children, ages 10 1/2 and 12.

“When he did wear more of the pink and purple sparkly side, which was just part of what he loved to wear, he just kept getting the same feedback, which was, ‘Oh, you’re a girl,’ ” said Hadley, who also has a 12-year-old daughter. “He was referred to as ‘she’ and ‘her’ and it just created a lot of confusion in his little head.”

Related: Is the ‘be a man’ stereotype hurting boys?

Now, when her son wears one of her pink shirts with a stereotypically masculine image on it, people identify him as a boy, she said.

“I really think that boys need permission to wear pink and to be nurturers in our society and the clothes that we offer them are those first symbolic acts of permission,” said Hadley.

Martine Zoer’s Quirkie Kids was inspired, in part, by her older son, age 7, who she said is very sensitive but also very concerned about anyone ever confusing him for a girl. “If anything is considered girlie, then he doesn’t want anything to do with it, so that for me is why the gender neutral thing is pretty important.”

Martine Zoer, founder of Quirkie Kids, and her sons, ages 7 and 4.

The brand offers gender neutral T-shirts for boys and girls, including pink for all. Messaging for boys and girls begins as young as preschool age, she said she believes.

“They listen to what people tell them and if they wear something and they get negative feedback,” said Zoer, who also has a 4-year-old son. “When I was a little girl, I had short hair and people thought I was a boy and that was very upsetting to me and so I started wearing dresses just so people would know that I was a girl. I mean even little kids … pick up on that stuff all the time.”

‘Why boys?’

When these executives talk publicly about their goal to raise awareness on the limitations for boys, they say they’re often met with some resistance.

“When I tell people we are picking up boy empowerment right now, the response is usually, ‘Well, I get why you’re doing girls but why boys? They have everything. They’re so empowered. They’re the leaders. They’re the politicians. They’re the mathematicians. They’re the sports heroes. What do they need?’ ” said Hadley. “And really what it comes down to is there’s not the message for them of nurturing and love and friendship.”

Also, unlike the girl empowerment debate, the issue of letting boys be anything they want to be is often “tangled up in the issue of their sexuality,” said Hartman of Free to Be Kids and Jessy & Jack.

“I think it’s because we’re at a time socially (when) people are afraid that boys will be gay or they will be the next Caitlyn Jenner if they are not traditionally masculine, which of course that’s fine if they are, but that’s not fine with everyone and that seems to be a fear,” she said.

Hartman said more dads like Willis standing up for their sons will have a huge impact in terms of increasing acceptance of letting boys be all the different things they want to be.

“I feel like it’s going to be the dads that push us forward because the dads are not afraid to kind of defend their son’s masculinity even when they’re doing things that aren’t traditionally masculine.”

Willis, in his Facebook post, said his job as a father was to provide a “safe playing field” for his boys so they could play whatever game they chose or make up their own game. “I trust that by the time they realize the world isn’t as accepting as Mommy and Daddy they’ll have such a solid foundation that nothing will shake their stance to fully and unabashedly be themselves,” he said.

The impact of gender stereotypes

The importance of this conversation extends far beyond what clothing and toys are acceptable for boys and men, and includes the messages in the media, these women believe.

“When we see a mainstream TV show with a boy who has a doll and loves his doll, and it’s not something to be laughed at, it’s part of the show,” that will help, said Hadley of Handsome in Pink. “I just think that seeing it in the media will help to allow this young generation to make it theirs and make it like a normal part of their existence.”

Zoer of Quirkie Kids said the messaging is in every part of society. “It’s all over the place. Somebody at Starbucks told my son the other day that cake pops were for girls. You know, the pink birthday ones,” she said. Another time, at another store, when her son selected a purple dragon, Zoer said, “The woman was like, ‘Really, that’s the one you want? Don’t you want this one?’ It’s everywhere you go. … It’s insane.”

Hartman said the impact of messages repeating gender stereotypes can lead to boys growing up without the appropriate respect for women. She points to incidents such as the case of a fraternity at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, which was suspended after posting messages during freshmen drop-off that read, “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time” and “Go ahead and drop off mom, too.”

“I thought it’s no surprise that boys act like that because we’re telling them with every message we give them from the youngest age that that is who they are, that they are not kind and sweet people, that they’re aggressive, masculine, competitive, powerful (and) don’t need to have a soft side or respect people,” she said.

Real change, these women believe, will come one parent at a time, as we all think critically about our own perception of what is for a boy and what is for a girl, and as there are more parents like Willis letting their boys be whomever they want to be.

“Just set a good example for our kids and don’t say anything to them about something being for a girl or a boy and give them the opportunities to pick out what they like and that means taking them to both sides of the store and down all the aisles of the toy store,” said Hartman.

“We need to make all things available to kids and not be afraid.”

Do you think stereotypes in clothing and toys are hurting boys just as they may hurt girls? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.