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There are many ways in which children assimilate the various behavioral expectations of the culture in which they live. Aside from the relatively direct information that they receive from family and various social institutions, there are the subtle messages that they encounter, carried by the stuff of everyday life. Consider, for example, the implicit behavioral expectations to be found in children's clothing. This can be seen clearly in the choices of apparel made within the realm of the family and in the broader sense of what is deemed to be acceptable attire for children by society in general, as well as by what is available to be purchased in the marketplace.
From earliest childhood, children's clothing demonstrates a difference of expectations between boys and girls. Generally, boys are dressed for action. They have been and are expected to be active and their clothes, naturally, accomodate that expectation. In the most obvious sense, the wearing of pants facilitates movement uninhibited by modesty concerns. The sturdy shoes that boys wear ensure a firm step, bearing them confidently through their explorations. The darker colors are more tolerant of the smudges that they collect along the way. Their winter garments seem to be more practical than pretty, more functional than fashionable.
Looking at the clothing traditionally assigned to little girls, a different set of behavioral expectations can be seen. It is hard for a girl to explore the universe while being admonished to not let her panties show, to keep her dress clean and to act like a little lady. Dressing a little girl like this on a regular basis tells her that she is not expected to run and jump or to play the type of games that develop her physical strength and health. It could even tell her that her presence in this world is more ornamental than substantive.
Today, the lines delineating gender appropriate attire for children are not so sharply drawn. On the surface, at least, it seems as though as clothing options for girls have become less restrictive, so, too, have their behavioral expectations. Many schools have expanded their sports programs for girls and many parents encourage their participation. However, the core behavioral expectations for girls can still be seen in the various fashion magazines directed at little girls and in the 'skirts-up-to-here and shirts-down-to-there' type of clothing available to be purchased for young girls, as well as in the variety of cosmetic products that specifically target them.
I am not, of course, saying that young girls should not ever wear dresses and pretty, little shoes. What I am saying, however, is that in this era in which appearance anxiety and anorexia nervosa increasingly strikes young girls, we, as parents and society, must consider carefully the messages we place in our children's closets.