There's an interesting discussion going on over at Bitch's about gendered children's clothing. The comment thread over there got so long, that I decided to write my comment here.
Over twenty years ago, before I had kids of my own, I spent one spring and summer teaching elementary school kids how to use computers. I ate lunch in an empty teachers' lounge, near an open window that overlooked the school playground. While I ate my sandwich, I watched the kids on the playground.
Here's one of the first things I noticed: the boys were all running around, yelling and screaming, climbing on stuff and having a good time. About half the girls were doing the same thing. But half of the girls were just sitting quietly on the sidelines, talking and such.
I puzzled over this behavior. Why did some girls feel free to run and play, while others felt they had to sit quietly? Did some of the girls just have quiet personalities?
I looked for external causes. My first hypothesis was that clothing might be a factor: many of the girls wore dresses while the boys wore shorts. I counted carefully for several days, making notes in my journal. (Yes, really, I am that much of a nerd.) But clothing did not seem to make a difference. Little girls wearing dresses were just as likely to climb the monkey bars or jump off the swings as the girls wearing shorts.
Since I knew most of the kids, I tried to make a hypothesis based on their personalities, but I could not come up with anything. Outgoing girls seemed just as likely to be sitting on the sidelines as shy kids. It didn't make sense.
Then one day, I noticed a boy teasing one of the girls who was sitting down. She got up to chase him, but kept slipping on the pavement. She gave up and sat back down with her friends. That is when I noticed her shoes. She had on these shoes with slippery soles. I don't know if these kind of shoes still exist (I suspect they do), but we always just called them "pretty shoes" or "dress-up shoes."
In looking at the kids' clothing, I had completely overlooked the shoes. Now I studied their feet. The boys wore sneakers or sensible rubber-soled shoes. The girls who were racing about with the boys, running and climbing and having fun, had on sensible shoes. Some of them were gendered by colour (after all, we wouldn't want unisex hand-me-downs, because that would cut in half the amount of money a new parent could contribute to the cause of consumerism), but still, they were shoes that encouraged running and jumping and climbing.
On most days, nearly 80 percent of the girls sitting on the sidelines were wearing "pretty shoes."
I've since wondered how many "feminine" and "masculine" traits that our culture accepts as biological are caused by simple things like gendered choices in footwear. When I used to attend corporate dinners with my husband (before he got fed up with corporate life and quit that job), I'd watch women wearing high heels even on nights when the pavements everywhere were covered with ice. Women were always complaining about how their feet hurt, sitting down because their lower backs ached, or taking their shoes off in order to dance. The men, in the mean time, were able to mingle and walk about all evening, their feet comfortable in sensible shoes. At the end of the evening, it was common to see a huddle of women, balanced precariously on high heels, clustered near the entrance way, helpless when it came to facing the icy sidewalks. They would stand in a helpless clump, waiting while the men went to get the cars and pick them up.
At least one husband told me he thought that heels were sexy because he liked how it made his wife dependent on him: going out to get the car made him feel like the big strong man taking care of his wife. (Yes, I'm paraphrasing , and yes, he was quite drunk.) A woman, one of the upper level corporate managers, told me that she hated wearing heels but that they were part of the unwritten dress code. She was bitter about the trips she would be taking to the podiatrist from the footwear she felt obligated to wear. "Men in the corporate world are not expected to cripple themselves for the job." (No, I'm not paraphrasing here. And she was not drunk.)
When I buy shoes for my kids, I always ask the kid to put the shoes on. Then I tell him or her to run around the store. I refuse to buy a pair of shoes that is not conducive to running, climbing, and jumping.
I put my own shoes through the same test. Because to be honest, I don't like feeling helpless. I don't find the role of helpless woman sexy in the slightest. I can remember my karate teacher talking about the best way to react if attacked. You have one chance to strike your assailant and then run like hell. "And if you are a woman wearing heels?" someone asked. He shrugged. "Better have a man with you to protect you."