By Jason Evans
One afternoon, a colleague and I went to the bookstore at the college where we work to pick up a few office items and a “good-bye” gift for another employee who was leaving. Suddenly my eyes locked in on a purple onesie clearly made for an infant. I didn’t notice much else around the piece of clothing except that it was surrounded by items of equal size. Glowingly purple—as in accordance with the schools colors—the little piece of clothing hung there with bold white letters across the front that I could hardly believe: “I hate my thighs.” I was confused, at first, so I tapped my female colleague who was standing nearby for a second opinion.
With a chuckle of sad acceptance, she shook her head as if to avoid face-palming, and then she said, “Yeah, but look at what’s next to it.”
These things were not labelled “boys” or “girls.” The fact was, as someone who has occasionally shopped with friends for kids—and as an uncle to five—I could see the obvious in the coloring of the clothing. The pastels may not say “for girls,” versus the hard and vibrant colors that are also not labelled “for boys,” but it’s the not-so-subtle coding we all know. The one with the cape that said “I’m Super!” was clearly for boys. It even came with a cape!
I had already snapped a photo of the purple one, but seeing the blue one next to it, I had to take another to include them both. I don’t usually think of myself as much more aware than anyone else, although I do spend some time on feminist blogs and call myself an ally and a feminist. (Thank you, Vassar education.) The two items sitting there next to each other did not seem intentional in a malicious way, but just that very notion is what really got me going about them.
I thought to mention it to someone in the store, but every time I thought of what I would say, only expletives came to mind. And there’s one thing that I’ve also learned as an ally to a group to which I do not belong: it’s that I am not there to co-opt the issue. I am there to be supportive and, chief among all things, to listen.
I had to get back to my office, so I had to hold on to the issue until I could figure out what to say, to whom, and how. When we got back to the office, I tried several times to write an email to the director of our department. She oversees my office and the bookstore, and I thought she might be sympathetic. Every time I wrote a draft, I was either too frustrated or couldn’t find the professional wording. How is exactly do you write “WTF?” to your boss’ boss’ boss?
Instead, I publicly expressed my frustration. I posted a photograph of the onesies on my Facebook page with a quick line about how hard it was to not completely “rage out” about it. I have many like-minded friends, and I honestly thought the response would be a few “Likes” or agreeable comments. Maybe a few slacktivist responses demonstrating how this picture was merely a symbol of how society still enforces sick notions of who boys and girls are supposed to be.
In a matter of hours, my outrage spread like wildfire. My sincere attempt to ask for guidance quickly turned into a launching pad of some real activism. People wanted to boycott the bookstore. Others wanted to call them right away. One alumni actually tagged the college’s alumni association, as well as a few on-campus student groups. My post was also shared with social media outlets, so other members of the college’s community could see it. It went through feminist groups with such momentum I could barely keep up.
People reached out to me directly not just to commiserate or express anger, but also to get information for action. It was exciting, phenomenal, and a little scary. Within hours, a few people contacted the bookstore, and they took the offending clothing off of the shelves.
Who knows what makes things go viral? Even now, as I humbly note that the post got more than 17,000 shares and 8,000 likes, I can only assume that this instance was all about the circumstances—a horribly worded one for girls and women; the placement of the offensive items in a University bookstore; not-so-subtle body-shaming language; and, of course, the deep hum of sexism that keeps such issues alive. This one picture hit more than a few nerves and when I found out that the picture hit a few notable media outlets, as well, I was humbled and impressed that many people actually cared about it.
As for my decision to post the pictures on Facebook in the first place: at the heart of my inaction in the bookstore was a bit of fear. I wasn’t as concerned about being confrontational as I was about co-opting women’s issues. As a feminist, I feel it’s partially my duty to be open about it; but you can lose yourself in the self-righteousness of being an ally. I will never know the true impact of that onesie on a female, or how it makes a woman feel to have that statement projected on them. So in a sense, I’m as hapless and ignorant as the child who might have the misfortune of wearing the darned thing. But watching that image literally go around the world with my name in the credits helps me feel better that I gave voice to the issue in the right way.
The messages from mothers and women all around the world thanking me for standing up helped as well, but I say now what I said to each of them: I didn’t do this alone. The fact that the picture was shared so many times with equal anger and disgust means that there is a community of people who care as I do. If thousands of people care, then that’s enough of a quorum to make difference in the world.
I’ve heard that a merchant on Etsy reached out to the bookstore in all the kerfuffle. This Girl’s Tees sells a line of shirts that re-affirm that women and girls are strong, smart, funny, and athletic, and the bookstore has bought a lot. Says owner Kris Williams, “Too many generations have repeated the same stereotypes over and over because, quite frankly, they’ve become normalized – as have the problems they create. It may seem minor, a t-shirt or a onesie, but youth apparel and toys are where limitation, definition, unrealistic expectation and omission all begin. Body-shaming, gender stereotypes, hyper-sexualization, and the undervaluing of female contributions to the working world begin with the foundation of understanding we provide to girls and boys when they are young. If gender equality is ever possible, we need to start by affirming that girls are deserving of equality in the first place. It’s time we expect better than the dumbing down of who we are.”
So, maybe posting about my afternoon trip actually helped a few people. Maybe this story about how I shared my outrage over someone else’s injustice will help a few more.
Jason Evans is long-time NYC resident, but originally hails from Texas. Although he works at NYU as a Technical Producer, he can be seen dabbling in storytelling and improv theater with the Amnesia Wars Production company from time to time. He is also a published sound designer, theater tech, and three-time triathlete with the NYC TNT team. He has occasionally blogged about online/inter-racial dating, being a movie critic, and being a male feminist in the world of technology. He works daily to bring the “cool” back to being the AV guy.