At Stride Rite, girls are pretty and boys are active.

A few days ago, one mom wrote about a conversation she overheard, in which her 6-year-old daughter’s classmate insisted that sparkly shoes are not for playing–they’re for looking pretty:

“Your shoes are ugly,” said the kindergarten classmate.
“No they are not,” replied the 6yo Original Pigtail Pal, Amelia.
“They are. Look how pretty mine are,” the classmate taps her toes for emphasis.
“They are the same pair of shoes. Like the exact same,” explains Amelia.
“They aren’t the same. Mine still have all of the pretty sparkles. I didn’t get them messed up,” boasted the girl, in full sparkle. […] “Amelia, you should care a little bit about being pretty or you won’t get a boyfriend,” says the classmate.

Where do young girls get the idea that it’s more important to keep their sparkly shoes looking pretty than to play? Let’s consider Stride Rite’s marketing strategy for its play shoes (ie, sneakers), which I recently witnessed at a Stride Rite store near me.

For girls: The instruction to “sparkle with every step.” (Like pretty Cinderella, whose glass slippers were really impractical but helped her find romance.)
For boys: “Look out! Here comes Spiderman!” (Active, energetic, powerful.)

A quick review of reveals more of the same: girls are meant to be looked at, so their play shoes are a route to prettiness, while boys are meant to be active, so their play shoes are made for play. Excerpts from the gallery below:

  • Cinderella sneakers “transport your little princess to a world of fantasy”
  • Hello Kitty Keds are “the cutest sneakers on the block”
  • Glitzy Pets sneakers help girls “to really shine and steal the show”
  • Spiderman sneakers offer “light-up powers,” “no matter what kind of web he spins”
  • Star Wars sneakers with “lighted technology” are good for “your little adventurer’s feet”
  • Lightning McQueen sneakers, also with “lighted technology,” let boys “be as fast as the legendary Cars Lightning McQueen on-and-off the track”

In other words, Stride Rite’s marketing strategies–like other companies’–reinforce the sex role biases that keep boys active and girls passive. As Colette Dowling has argued, these biases are at the root of the Frailty Myth: Boys learn “to use their bodies in skilled ways, and this gives them a good sense of their physical capacities and limits. […] Girls hold themselves back from full, complete movement, Although it’s usually something girls are unaware of, they actually learn to hamper their movements, developing a ‘body timidity that increases with age.'”

I’ll give Amelia from the conversation quoted above the last word: as she told her friend, “You should care less about being pretty and more about playing with us. My mom says there’s lots of different ways to be a girl.”

Well said, Amelia! Marketers: You would do well to take this same advice: care less about girls being pretty and more about their play.

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41 Comments on “At Stride Rite, girls are pretty and boys are active.

  1. Luckily there are a few tennis shoes out there that are not Spiderman OR princess. My daughter wears those “regular” shoes. We also try very hard not to complain about the fact that she routinely gets holes in the knees of her jeans. I have seen her slide on the gym floor and have tried to explain that this is how she is getting the holes. “But sometimes you need to slide into base to get there first mom.” You go girl!

    • Simeen, that is excellent. Good for her, and smart of you to try not to complain! It must be hard to resist when clothes are getting ruined. 🙂

    • Wow! i like her very much! you go girl! 🙂

    • Your daughter is bad-ass. Have you tried getting those iron-on denim patches and reinforcing the knees of her pants? My mom used to do that to mine and it worked great. I did a LOT of sliding, climbing and stuff. 🙂

  2. That Frailty Myth book looks mighty interesting. I have always had a hunch that a lot of the ‘men are so much stronger than women’ is less because of biological differences than because of girls being socialized from birth to be weaker and less active while boys were socialized to always be active. Exactly like the messages the ads in this post propagate.

    Looks like I know what book I’m picking up next at the store. Thanks for the great article.

    • Another great book is Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Elliot. She goes into detail about the differences between male and female brains (mostly how they either don’t exist or are caused by environmental factors).

      • Ooh! Thanks for the recommendation, Ann. Putting it on my library list now.

  3. Wandered here from The Bloggess’s place. First I want to say “GO AMELIA!” Stand your ground.

    Advertising is so insidious and ever present. I remember so clearly being a HUGE fan of all the Disney princesses when I was a kid, 425 years ago. They had fewer princesses then but the biggies were there – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. I loved all things Barbie too. But I didn’t get the Barbie play house, I had the Barbie camping set. I personally HATE camping, but I liked letting Barbie get her Grizzly Adams on.

    My son is 5, and he is already coming home from preschool with notions of what are girls and boys clothes, hair styles, games and activities. To which I point out that mommy has short hair, he has worn, and loved wearing, a tutu in the past, and there is very little difference between a doll and any one of his super hero action figures. The gender messages are EVERYWHERE. Ugh.

    I was lucky. Despite my ability to stay clean in any environment while my brother oozed dirt clouds like Pig Pen, and my love for all things sparkly and frilly, my mother was a fabulous living example of being practical, active and in charge. She wasn’t the girliest mom, but she taught me life lessons that have stood the test of time about taking care of myself, believing in myself, relying on myself and being the best me I can be.

    I think that is what is important for us as parents to remember: No matter what the gender of your child, no matter what messages they are given from external sources, the messages that stick, the ones that are the most important are the ones WE send them. The ones we live out day to day. Those are the ones that they will take to heart and remember regardless of what Stride Rite tells them about their shoes.

    • This is really well said! It’s usually so hard to argue with 5 year olds because developmentally, they’re at an age where they’re clinging to ideas about the differences between the sexes. The gender messages that are everywhere make it so much harder to help kids of this age see things in more nuanced, less stereotypical ways. Do you find you have much success with your son when you point out all those great things?

  4. Pingback: Boys and Girls…Differences? « Three Descriptors

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  6. Interesting post, Rebecca. The advertising and choices are directed more toward what the parents want, than the children, I think. And that may have more to do with advertisers trying to cater to 65 year old corporate white guys making the decisions.

    Now stop looking at your pretty shoes and be more active with the title of this blog… 🙂

    • Thanks–and you are definitely on to something re: who’s making the decisions! I talk about this a bit in my post on toys, here: If you click on the links at the end and see who the execs at the toy companies are, it’s a bunch of middle-aged white men. There’s nothing inherently WRONG with middle-aged white men, but when they’re essentially the only ones in charge of figuring out how to sell products to females and minorities–well, they do have some limitations! 🙂

      • Middle aged White men are the ones who keep the country going and most likely are the reason you & your husband/wife or live-in are earning a living. Your government has some young men of mixed race and doing a crappy job of running the country and you’re worrying about shoes. Look at the shoes women wear, it documented that they are the worst things for women’s feet, legs etc. That’s what you should be protesting. I’ll wager you wear heels and not 2-4 inch heels. Wake up and pull your head out.

        • I wear flats, but thanks for playing!

          Just because women’s high heels problematic doesn’t make it invalid to critique the gender stereotypes used to sell children’s products. This isn’t a zero-sum game where we can only validly critique one area of life to be authentic or making good use of our time.

          Oh, and sorry to see all your other prejudices on display, too… My, oh my.

  7. We had some sparkly flats with frilliness, and they got completely annihilated on the playground. All that told me was that these shoes were not the best suited to my active girls’ preferences for outside playtime. My 5yo chose those pink mary jane sneaker-type things because “they’re sparkly and I like that but I can run around with those better than the other kind.” Works for me!

    • I’m glad she found a compromise. She can be active AND have the sparkles she wants? Sounds perfect!

  8. This is one of the reasons I’m buying my son plain tennis shoes. If we have a girl (unless her feet are super skinny) she’ll wear her brother’s hand me downs.

    I love Stride Rites but they are expensive and I can’t buy gender specific shoes for twice the cost of passing down shoes that still have a lot of life left in them.

    • That’s a really good point. Kids grow so quickly, they can’t easily wear out a pair of tennis shoes! We’re lucky that we have a friend who’s handed down her son’s “flashy” high-top sneakers to us for our 3-year-old; so we haven’t really had to deal with requests for exorbitantly expensive Spiderman and Cars shoes. If you have to buy new, it’s really smart to buy gender-neutral….and apparently that’s not what Stride Rite is selling nowadays.

  9. I have a not quite 5 yo daughter who has bought into the playground mythology that girls are pink sparkly, frilly and need to be rescued. We indulge that to some extent, although we do try to challenge some of those ideas without her challenging HER importance.
    To balance the pink and ruffles and glitter, I searched high and low for a pair of nuetral runners for her. It was tough. Her previous pair was from the boys department. This time I gave into the pink (no sparkles or princesses) but managed to at least get a decent pair of athletic shoes that she can run and roll and jump and pedal in. But it was really really hard to find! I don’t have this issue in sandals or boots or other shoes, just runners. I wonder if it because being athletic is “masuline” so the only way for it to be acceptable to market it to girls is to overly “feminize” it. I had the same problem with athletic shorts. Either they were short shorts or they were boys shorts. So she’s wearing boys shorts.
    (Disclaimer: I am not opposed to pink, it is a lovely colour and I wear it myself. I merely feel there should be more options; not every girls’ shoe needs to be pink.)

    • Laura, where did you finally find those shoes? I’m sure other readers would love to know!

      You make a great point re: athleticism being “masculine.” I’ve been thinking lately about how all the princess stuff really revved up at about the same time I started noticing “feminine” versions of basic tools at the hardware store–things like hammers and screwdrivers covered in flowers or colored pink. That would be borne of the same impetus, to market the “masculine” to women by overly “feminizing” it. Like you, I’ve got nothing against pink–but when it goes from being an option to a uniform for all girls’ things, something has to change.

  10. God damn right I’d like to leave a reply. If I ever had a child and she was a girl, I’d teach her how to shave with a bowie knife and let her decide whether she wanted be a princess after that.

    Knowing me, she’d choose princess.

  11. Thank you for sharing this. Hopefully more parents will instill the values that Amelia’s are. I have a son and my husband and I strive to shelter him from gender stereotyping. It can be frustrating when the kid needs shoes and the only ones in his size have batman’s six pack abs on them. We have managed to be stringent and successfully avoid that junk, but I am sure it will be harder and harder as he gets more involved with other kids. If I ever have a daughter I will be the same way.

    • I have a son, too, and I’m fighting the same fight you are. It’s so important to me to raise him to know that gender stereotyping hurts everyone–boys and girls. Even if we can’t avoid all the junk, we can make our values known and hope our little ones embrace them!

  12. I’m late to the game here… but one thing I noticed when our first daughter was small was that I couldn’t find closed toed sandals for girls. All the boys sandals had closed toes and ‘active’ soles, but the girls sandals had hard ‘church’ soles and were strappy-open toed styles. My little girls wouldn’t have any toes left if they were allowed to run around in open toed sandals. I eventually found some boys Keens at the thrift shop and have since bought any pair I see (at $6 I can afford them, at $50, no so much!) and they are waiting for little feet to grow into them.

    (As a side note, last summer Kohl’s started carrying a Keen-like sandal for girls and boys that my 2yo has been wearing for a year. They are great and not as pricey as the name brand!)

  13. Pingback: Dear Striderite, until you stop gender stereotyping, we’re through | Reel Girl

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  16. I see very wrong both on the girls’ side and the boys’ side. Boys are expected to grow up to be violent, aggressive, be in prison, killer, soldier (a puppet to kill), smoker, drug addict. Girls are expected to grow up to be beautiful, nice, money spender on jewelries, married a rich man then dump him in court for the money, immune from prison. After we make it neutral, both boys and girls will grow up to be in prison, violent, soldier, killed in war (hero / bad executed invader), money spender, vain, smelly, mindless killing puppet, buy lots of jewelries, harasser and drug addict. Marketers should not use violence and gender stereotype. They are only allow to market those shoes because they are cool to wear both for boys or girls, nothing to do with stereotypes.

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  19. Pingback: Stride Rite’s gendered marketing persists. | Rebecca Hains

  20. Shoe manufacturers try to sell women outrageously high-heeled shoes in which we cannot even walk, let alone work or dance. If so many women are foolish enough to fall into that trap, no surprise that they are taking their daughters with them.

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  23. My daughter would have gone for the Spider-Man shoes at that age. She loved Spider-Man (among other ‘non-girly’ things) and man, those light up eyes are cool!! She didn’t/doesn’t care whether it was marketed for boys or girls, and we encouraged her innate belief that it didn’t matter, that she could like whatever she liked. When she wore a ‘boys’ Spidey tee to preschool for the first time one of the boys said that it was a ‘boys shirt’ – but another boy came to her defense and said that girls can like boys stuff and vice versa! I was impressed by that.

    Side note – I never shopped at Stride Rite anyway because their shoes are way overpriced!

    • On the flip side, we were at Disney when she was 5 and a boy her age really wanted an Ariel shirt. His mom told him that it was for girls, pointed at my daughter, and said it was something that SHE would like. I soooo wish I had said something… such as, actually my daughter would probably go for that Marvel shirt over there… and it still infuriates me to this day that she responded that way to her son’s wishes. But of course, it’s even harder for society to accept it when boys like “girl” things than the other way around.

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