Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Should clothes define us?

My answer to this question is a strong "No!". I like to wear pretty clothes, but I think that I am the one with the personality and not my shirt or skirt.

When I was growing up, my shirts did not have slogans on them. They generally had one color and were made of cotton. Sometimes they did have flowers or lines drawn on them or some other equally non-defining drawing.  However, as small children, my brother and I did receive compliments of the kind "you are smart like your father, and handsome/pretty like your mother".  Our natural response to this was "No! no! I am smart like my mother". We did not care about looking pretty/beautiful/handsome at the time.

My mom & Mihai
My mom and dad
While both my parents are very intelligent and were good looking, my mother had always been the practical one. And, no, not in terms of fixing things around the house (my father did that and he was very much the man in the house), but in the overall picture my mom was the one who hired people and got things done.    She had been not only exceedingly smart and very beautiful, but also generous and with a talent in interacting with people of all ages. She was an outstanding doctor (my father was a doctor, too, but in the military; my mom was a gynecologist). She had the ability to fix people from all walks of life with very few resources. Whenever we had visits from neighbors, family, friends or strangers, they would all tell her their health problems, and unless they had lung cancer or something equally terminal, she managed to help them get well. She also loved us very much and has always supported us unconditionally.

 Most women I know are both strong and talented. However, our culture does define men and women differently and this is reflected in the writing on the clothes in the stores and in the popular Hollywood movies. Yes, we are different, and we want the men in our lives to be kind to us, but we are neither stupid nor incompetent, and do not like to be insulted and treated as such. This latter fact should not be difficult to understand, and yet when I mention I graduated from Cornell, most people assume I cheated in some way. They make statements of the form "I know many men who are way smarter than you, and did not achieve half of the things you did" and assume that people do me favors. Such beliefs seem to be ingrained at a fundamental level and cannot be uprooted at 20+ or 30+ years of age.
Men's T-shirt

Label: "Women's geek shirt"
I started writing this post after reading an article about sexist clothes and their impact on young children and particularly on girls, which said that the paucity of women in science is related to how we dress girls. It is hard to disagree.

 A simple google on "rocket scientist shirt" shows the two images I included here and a few others. All are very ugly. The one for women here has the crazy old man scientist stereotype and the label "women's geek shirt", which implies that women who are interested in rockets and wear this shirt are geeks.  The one for men is worse, and so I will simply abstain from comments on that.  It cannot be so hard to design some shirts that promote learning, and are decent looking.

Mihai and me at the beach. Hint: I am standing.
Personally, I still prefer clothes that are simple and beautiful without silly statements on them. I am raising boys at the moment, and I would not buy them shirts with "Be a hero", "Training to be Batman", etc. I don't want them to be someone else. I want them to be happy being themselves on all days other than perhaps Halloween.

Conclusion: In principle, clothes should either (1) hold messages that encourage children towards learning something (e.g., math, science, music, art) and increase self-esteem & creativity,  (2) contain some message that is generally positive or (3) simply be cute with no message at all. I generally vote for (3) in the clothes I buy, but that is a personal preference. Anything that is sexist or demeaning should just not be manufactured, and especially not for children who have no say in what they wear.

Note: Thanks to Ruth for pointing out that math & science are not the only subjects that are important ...  I tend to forget that.

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