Two foot nothing

If you asked me to name a shoe shop, Clarks would be the first that came to mind. As a kid most of my school shoes came from Clarks; as an adult, I keep going back there for smart but sensible, colourful but comfortable shoes. So now I’m thinking about shoes for my baby daughter, of course I thought of Clarks… which made this display all the more disappointing:

Photo of 'girls' display in Clarks children's shoes section

Shoe-gar and spice

“Because girls love comfort and style, we design both into our shoes.” Comfort and style don’t sound too bad (though if I’m trying to buy shoes for my toddler, comfort is far more important than style)… but check out the colours of the girls’ shoes (you don’t need me to tell you that they’re the ones on the left of the cabinet): you’ve got a choice of pink, purple or white. That is: the ubiquitous pink; something that’s really fairly similar to pink; and something completely impractical for actually walking around outside.

You can guess what’s coming next, can’t you?

Photo of 'boys' display in Clarks children's shoes section

Slugs and hobnails

“Because boys test their shoes to destruction, so do we.” The colours back this up: they’re blue, brown, and black. Practical colours, colours that don’t immediately show every scuff or muddy mark.

As a woman I’m immediately furious at the implication that girls aren’t expected to do anything except look pretty in their shoes (but hey, we’re allowed to be comfortable too! That’s progress!) — but the implication that boys don’t (or shouldn’t) don’t care about comfort or style is stupidly limiting too. Toughen them up, it says: big boys don’t cry if their shoes hurt them; and presumably a boy who cared about style would just be beyond the pale (pastel colours).

The maddening thing is that if you look at the “first shoes” more closely, many of them are clearly exactly the same except for the colour. Take a look at “Lucy Girl” and “Little Jono” below on this screenshot from the Clarks website:

Screenshot of 'First shoes' landing page from clarks.co.uk, showing boys' and girls' shoes

These booties were made for walking

Otherwise, the main difference seems to be that boys get two velcro straps (more stability) while girls get one (more style, I guess?). I will also note that even in the names of the shoes, girls get “Chic” while boys get “Saurus”, and girls get “Raspberry” while boys get “Blue” — see previous post for more about colour naming.

But are the boys’ shoes really stronger, more “test[ed] to destruction” than the girls’? If I seriously believed the marketing, I’d be worried about this; I was tempted to email them, all innocence, and ask. Fortunately, my husband couldn’t resist the temptation:

“Hello,

I’m the father of a 9 month old girl and I’m beginning to think about
her first shoes. I went into my local Clarks shop to see what was
available and I saw the following messages on the wall of the kids’
section:

“Because girls love comfort and style, we design both into our shoes.”
“Because boys test their shoes to destruction, so do we.”

Now I’m worried: I’d like my daughter to play outdoors without her
comfortable and stylish shoes falling apart!

Please can you reassure me that Clarks’ girls’ shoes will stand up to
ordinary childhood play? Or should I ask my daughter to sit down and
stay inside with her fashion dolls?

Thank you!”

Amazingly, Clarks actually replied (the garbled first sentence is their mistake, not mine):

“Thank you for taking the time to contact us, I was sorry to learn you
disappointed with the

In view of your concerns I have contacted our Children’s department,
they have advised me that all of our children’s shoes, irrespective of
whether they are boy’s or girl’s, are rigorously tested and they will
be equally durable for both boys and girls.

The messages you saw in store are just about artistic licence and
picking an attribute of a product to market.

We’re always looking for ways to improve the service we give to our
customers. Your feedback has given us the chance to do this, so thank
you once again for contacting us and I’m sorry we have not met your
expectations on this occasion.”

Of course, they’ve kind of missed the point; but equally, from their point of view, it’s “just” about marketing. This is what many people say when they hear me banging on about these issues: what’s the big deal? It’s just an advert. The products are the same: it’s just how they display them. You can make your own mind up. And indeed, one company doing this isn’t a big deal; but when it’s part of the constant corrosive drip, drip, drip of messages telling girls that their role in life is to be pretty and passive while boys get to be active (or indeed, from the other point of view, telling boys that they have to be bold and brave and boisterous but they mustn’t care about their looks or comfort) … then it’s part of the problem.

The other thing people tend to say is “Well, what would you say about boys’ shoes and girls’ shoes that would pass your ridiculous criteria for not being sexist?” Here’s a radical idea: don’t divide them into boys’ shoes and girls’ shoes at all. Boys’ and girls’ feet aren’t that different (and even if they were, you could sell the same design of shoes in “boy” and “girl” shapes, just as you sell them in different sizes).

Imagine that display filled with shoes of all colours: from sober and sensible neutrals, to delicate pastels, to vibrant primary colours. The slogans on either side say:

“Because your kids test their shoes to destruction, so do we.”
“Because your kids care about comfort and style, so do we.”

Would changing the Clarks display make a difference? No. But if the people responsible for thinking about the marketing were encouraged (or even forced by law) to work along those lines, and if the parents weren’t content just to sit back and consume as if marketing was an elemental force of nature that couldn’t be guided, tamed or curtailed…. then perhaps, slowly, things would change. Otherwise, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a blue destruction-tested bootie stamping on a little girl’s face — forever.

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37 thoughts on “Two foot nothing

  1. Agree 100% and consequently am avoiding Clarks. Went to Scuffs in Abingdon, which had a larger colour range for both genders. Girls boots were available in dark purple and red, and now B has some snazzier than high st shoes!

  2. We just went shoe shopping today, for 3 year old daughter. There was, as there usually is for my children, one pair of shoes in the shop that fit. (Last time I took 12 year old son, there were none and we had to try a differnet shop…)

    Sadly for daughter, the shoes that fit were not, as she had hoped, yellow or even orange. They were pink.

    She actually had a bit of a cry in the shop at the idea of pink shoes. She’s usually had blue, pink or brown shoes in the past but occasionally other colours. I know that son would not have been bothered by pink shoes at that age. He might even have quite liked them, but the shop was owned by different people then and I don’t remember them even stocking pink shoes.

    I think it’s because boy clothes come in a wide variety of colours. Daughter still wears those, but when well-meaning relatives buy clothes, they come from the girl section and are almost universally pink, and she is fed up.

    Anyway, I’m normally one of the people who you complain about, but on this one, it came so close to my own feelings that I wanted to comment.

    • Boy clothes are a funny thing — in some shops the boys seem to get all the colours, in others they seem to be stuck with blue, brown, black or khaki/camo (which is just as silly and limiting as the pink palette for girls).

      It’s a pain about relatives buying pink clothes — we have the same problem, daughter has lots of outfits bought by relatives and they are almost all pink and frilly and girly. It’s a shame, because they’re lovely outfits — I mean, if you took any one of them on its own it’d be great — but the overall effect just makes me feel like I’m drowning in a sea of pink. (Also they’re often dresses, and I very rarely put her in dresses because they bunch up when I pick her up, and they get crumpled up when I’m carrying her in the sling. I’m not opposed to femininity, just impracticality!) Anyway, I thank them politely, put her in the pink outfits occasionally (for photos or visits), and try to dilute the effect by buying her lots of non-pink stuff as well.

  3. Boys shoes often go wider. Many girls styles don’t go to H. Also, look at the shoes side by side from above. Otherwise identical shoes often have pointier toes in the girl version.

    • So are boys’ feet actually wider than girls’, on average? I can believe they might be, but I do wonder with older children how much of the width difference is due to boys’ feet not being squeezed into tighter/pointier shoes from the minute they can walk…

  4. I can’t agree more with this. My normal scenario when buying shoes:

    Shop Assistant: Your daughter’s feet are size xyz.
    Me: Lovely. Do you have any shoes in that size which are not pink?
    Shop Assistant [goes to check]: er… no.
    Me: Thank you, I will go to another shop.

    And that’s before you start factoring in the trainers, slippers, wellies, etc, which are just pink pink pink.

    I have no objection to pink being available as a colour choice if people want it: what I can’t stand is this whole ‘you are a girl and therefore everything you own must be pink’ attitude.

  5. Pingback: Goodies | Two colours in my head

  6. Hello,
    Was horrified at John Lewis where the Clark’s shoes free gifts were gender specific with a girl with a fairy wand and a boy with a stomper rocket set. It wasn’t until after my son got his rocket, I realised there was a choice and now I am irritated that there even was an alternative. Surely all kids regardless of gender would find a rocket interesting. It sends a dreadful message to girls if they are told ‘rockets are for boys’ especially in light of recent evidence that women girls, despite higher grades are less likely to go into STEM fields. Now I will go write to Clark’s. Thank you for sharing your story.

  7. So glad to see it’s not just me. I hope you won’t mind if I bore you with the message I just sent to Clarks…

    “Hello.

    We have two daughters and have always bought their shoes from Clarks, which we previously trusted as a wholesome good-quality brand.

    In late spring this year I went to our local Clarks (Manchester Arndale) To get my daughter some sandals in the hope of some summer sun.

    I was horrified to see the signage in-store, indicating all the pretty pink shoes “…Because girls love comfort and style…”, while boys had more practical footware “…Because boys test their shoes to destruction…”. The pictures of active boys, and girls at a “tea-party” backed up the inherent sexism of the marketing statements.

    The shop assistant brought out pink sequinned ornamental sandals, which were completely inappropriate. In the end I went over to the boys display and asked about some practical blue rubber-soled closed-toed “Doodles” branded sandals. I was told they could be worn in water – great – and since (unlike Clarks) I don’t think colours are gender-specific there was nothing about them to indicate they might not suit a girl.

    Thankfully my daughter did not pick up on the bizarre gender-based branding. She has worn her Doodles all summer, climbing trees and rocks, camping, running over beaches and through paddling pools. She loved them.

    So I was right that practical sandals were required and I was right that Clarks make some good shoes. But unfortunately you are also sexist bigots who don’t recognise that five-year-old girls can be expected to be just as active as boys. And I will work hard to stop my daughter from thinking at her young age she should be judged solely and superficially on how she looks.

    Why not make the shoes available in all the colours and let the kids and parents decide which they like, regardless of gender?

    I’m really disappointed to see the message you are sending with this kind of marketing. I won’t be buying shoes in Clarks any more, and I will be posting my thoughts regarding this in various locations online to ensure other parents realise how Clarks buy into, and perpetuate, the tired stereotypes that little girls are just about looks and only boys are about active play.

    Regards,

    Tim”

  8. My daughter has had boys cruisers and boys first shoes because a) it was all they had that wasn’t pink b) they seemed much more supportive with 2 straps and c) they had dinosaurs on like her big brother’s shoes (she idolises him).
    I complained in the shop both times – the assistant seemed to agree with me, but someone’s not listening to us.

  9. I despair at Clarkes. I always thought I would shop there for all my kids shoes until i had them !!! My daughter hates pink and sparkles. White is a joke and purple with hearts and flowers not much use either. She is a boisterous sporty outdoor child who now lives in Nike trainers and practical boys shoes… Or other brands. I am genuinely shocked at the lack of choice and implications that girls don’t play enough to test their shoes.

  10. Hi, I complained about this advertisement to Clarks over a year ago and received this reply. I replied suggesting that maybe they should think about their marketing and that they are alienating a growing number of parents. Advert still there last weekend.

    Dear Ms Venis

    Thank you for your email regarding our Point of Sale in our stores. Firstly I do apologise that you did not receive our response to your first email sent to us in February, I am unsure why the response didn’t reach you but I can assure you a reply was sent.

    I was sorry to learn that you were unhappy with some of the wording in our store in Stratford, and I do apologise if any offence was caused by the Point of Sale wording used in our current seasonal displays.

    For many years Clarks has regularly carried out research with parents and children to help us understand the factors that are most important to them in choosing shoes. The lines you refer to which were written by our female marketing director, were based on some of this insight that for many parents durability is one of the key reasons for choosing boys shoes from Clarks, whilst comfort and style is one of the key reasons for girls. They were designed to give a small snapshot into the lengths Clarks go to create perfect shoes for many different children.

    We recognise that these are not the only reasons for choosing shoes for either girls or boys which is why in other communications we share many types of information about our products such style inspiration, fit, materials and technologies. I do believe that if you look at all of the communications from the Clarks brand you will see that it is appropriate and relevant to the modern society we live in today.

    I was also sorry to read of your disappointment with the range of shoes and trainers we have at the moment in particular to do with the colours available.
    Each season our designers create a variety of styles to appeal to different tastes. Our range always includes some traditional styles as well as more modern, colourful ones. With our children’s shoes our top priority is to make them comfortable and well fitting. However, we also do our best to make them appealing and fun so children will enjoy wearing them, so I was sorry that the colours available are not to your liking.
    I have, however, taken the opportunity to pass on your comments to our marketing teams for their consideration when developing future marketing campaigns.

    We value all feedback from our customers as it does let us know our customers thoughts on the products and services we offer, therefore, on
    behalf of Clarks I would like to thank you again for contacting us with your comments.
    Regards
    Paul Spencer
    Customer Care Manager

  11. Completely agree. After some woeful children’s shoe shopping experiences I now buy most of my children’s footwear from nice European brands which offer sensible strong footwear in a variety of bright shades. Clarkes? No thanks.

  12. I agree a hundred percent. Well done. I will also keep telling Clarks these problems. My daughter is in ‘boys’ school shoes (although I don’t see why aliens and dinosaurs are only for boys) because ALL the girls’ school shoes are Mary Janes and she doesn’t like getting wet socks in rainy weather.

  13. I have already contacted Clarks about this too. I was appalled at the school shoes. The girls’ shoes are mostly sandal like (for Autumn/winter!!) and a few have heels. The boys are mostly trainer like. And we wonder why playgrounds often have boys running around and girls standing round the edge. I just get my girl’s shoes from the boys’ range but I am very disappointed they split the two ranges at all.

  14. Completely agree with all of this. And on the same subject, have you seen a Mini-Boden catalogue lately? Almost all the girls’ pictures are of them posing prettily indoors, or baking, or doing not very much in a velvet dress, while the boys are all shown outdoors, mucking about with autumn leaves and generally having a lot more fun and fresh air. It’s not that the boys’ clothes are inherently more practical (there are jeans, cords, and warm sweatshirts for the girls too) but that is the impression given, just as in Clarks. Depressing.

  15. It’s the same in Germany. I end up buying boys shoes for my daughter every time, cause not only are they often more stylish and practical – like you totally said: what the hell should my daughter do in white shoes??? Even on my (very sunny) wedding day I ended up getting my creme colored ones muddy! – they also are wider. And my daughter’s feet won’t never ever fit in shoes width 2 or 3. She needs most of the time a 5 or even 6 – you don’t even get girls shoes in that sizes.
    But on the other hand, searching for boys shoes isn’t that much easier. Whereas girls should wear pink, purple and white, boys should wear colors that I can only describe as “poop”, “rotten vegetables” and “looks suspiciously like someone puked it out again” 😦 Something I don’t want to get caught with 😉 So every season I end up swearing in every shoes store I can find searching for comfortable, stylish shoes in … ,maybe a dark blue?

    • My son’s first shoes were from the Startrite classic range, and were ones that are usually filed under girls, once you finally find a store that stocks them. Because it was the only way I could get a proper pair of leather buckle up shoes! They come in navy or red.

  16. I would like to see a reply from Clark’s? As a mother of boys and girls, a former employee of Clark’s I am hugely disappointed by the current range. my daughter
    Aged 5 chooses her shoes from the boys section as she doesn’t feel the
    Girls section relates to her at all. Shame on your stereotyping Clark’s.
    Girls like dinosaurs, rockets and blue too!

  17. I have never bought a pair of childs shoes from Clarks, i have been and looked on every occasion to compare price and styles but have never found anything suitable. I dont look at the advertising, i don’t read the slogans and it wouldn’t affect my purchase, what put me off buying a Clarks pair was as mentioned the lack of choice of colour. I choose to dress my children in a varitety of colours and a pair of cerise shoes is never going to look any good with a red or blue dress! and the ‘boys’ shoes are very male looking. Ive also found they have very limited stock for the more delicate feet, so regardless of what they have on the shelf the shoes that they can actualy offer are even more limited. My 4 year old has chosen pink as her new favourite colour (it was yellow) but i will insist still that her shoes (in most cases) should be a neutral colour.

    Therefore in her wardrobe you will find a stack of Startrite shoes, she has a string of red summer shoes and brown leather boots in winter, i have been known to buy Startrite ‘boys’ boots for her but because they were actualy just plain brown leather (rather than being covered in pictures of blue cars etc as would be the case in Clarks) they didn’t look like they we’re for a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ they we’re unisex and sensible.

    I have to say the straw that broke the camels back for me was this September when trying to find some school shoes, I tried the Clarks shop first as its on the High street and its more of a walk to get to the Startrite stockist. We took our ticket and waited for what to her seemed like a lifetime, she was measured and the assistant went off to get all available styles in her size she came back with one box! and in that box was a pair of shoes decorated with flowers and flashing lights!! For school…seriously???? I wont bother going back again.

  18. Thanks for posting about this! I also deeply dislike the implication that girls aren’t as “physical” as boys, or that they should care more about the appearance of their clothes than boys do. (From my experience so far, toddlers have a number of reasons for complaining about their clothing, but they don’t include how stylish it is!)
    I have a toddler son and baby daughter, and have no intention of buying shoes for my daughter that won’t withstand Scottish mud (that is to say, pale colours and non-water-resistant finishes). Once she’s old enough to have views I will take those into account, but until then, I want practical and comfy and that’s it.

  19. Clarks…my problem with them is lack of choice, with a 8,6, and 2yr old, I have become aware that they rarely actually change the collection at all, the same shoe but in another color season after season after season. Having to tell the shop assistant that I can’t have that shoe as her sister has the same design in the same size, and the realization yet again that we will buy the only pair in the shop that is the correct size….thats not a choice; but a reluctance to go elsewhere as experience has taught me they have got one thing right…there shoes don’t fall apart like other makes.

  20. I have ended up buying my daughter black school shoes from the boys range since she was 8 as the girls’ ones she wore just wore out and were useless for the active running around she does at school and outside of school. They all have to wear dark shoes at her school but at Clarks the girls are presented with “party style shoes” which never fit her very well due to the shape of her feet and she chose boys shoes in the end and they suit her much better.

  21. I’m an expat Brit living in New Zealand. I recently visited the UK with my 10 year old daughter. I was looking forward to buying her Clarks shoes, like I had when I was a kid. Here in NZ, children’s shoes are not available in width-fittings, unless you’re prepared to take out a second mortgage to get them, and even then, it’s like, narrow, medium or wide.

    Imagine my horror to see the girls selection of school shoes in Clarks. They were all ‘fashion’ shoes – spindly straps, not properly holding the foot in, not designed for play at all. Research has shown that the type of school shoes a girl wears can have a severely limiting effect on her physical activity. All these girls wearing strapless pumps will not be playing footy in the playground.

    So, we went back to unisex lace-ups, bought here in NZ. Pity, my girl did want to have something with buckles or velcro, but there you go. I didn’t see any point buying Clark’s boy’s shoes – if it’s labelled as “boy’s” it makes her a bit wary of them unfortunately.

    I’ve noticed that all shoes and especially sandals directed at girls now are a) pink or something like it, b) strappy, high heeled or both. They’re not shoes for play at all, and I wonder how many girls are injured trying to run or even skip in them.

  22. This is great! We are talking, we are highlighting a problem. You people on Mumsnet, FB etc, are you talking about it there? Do. Anyone know or am a journalist? Methinks this will go huge but it won’t unless we keep talking. Keep up the good work!

  23. Hi and thank you for this wonderful blogpost and all your other fab writing. My daughter is fifteen now (and a feminist herself!) and I’m sad to say that things have got worse in the last 15 years in terms of gender stereotyping, pink/blue products etc.
    Anyway, I was at Clarks in Stratford at the weekend and they STILL have this signage. I actually let out a gasp of horror when I saw it and said ‘that’s so sexist’ in a loud voice (and one of the sales assistants agreed with me; her boss then tried to prevent me taking photos and told me I should erase them from my phone …. as if!)
    So, here’s my email to the CEO of Clarks (melissa.potter@clarks.com) today:

    Dear Ms Potter

    On Saturday 31 May I visited the Clarks store in Westfield, Stratford and was horrified to find these terrible, gender-stereotyped notices above the boys’ and girls’ shoes.

    As you may be aware, gender stereotyping has an important effect on children’s development. To suggest that boys engage in active outdoor play of the type that destroys shoes, while girls are interested in fashion and looking pretty, is to reinforce damaging social stereotypes and to deprive both sexes of the opportunity to become who they really are.

    I am sure you are already well aware of these issues but if not you can read more about them here:

    http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/why-it-matters/

    I seek your assurance that Clarks will change its signage as soon as possible, acknowledging the reality that—

    -Some children like to test their shoes to destruction, and this applies to both girls and boys.
    -Some children like to look stylish, and this applies to both boys and girls!

    I look forward to hearing from you. I should note that I have contacted your company on twitter but have had no response.

    Yours

    Emma Dixon
    @emmadixon_green

  24. Update: reply from Clarks
    04/06/14

    Dear Emma

    Thank you for taking the time to contact us and for your feedback about our in-store marketing material and product range. I was sorry to learn of the upset you have been caused, it was certainly not our intention to offend you in any way as we take the issue of equal opportunities and stereotyping very seriously at Clarks.

    For many years Clarks has regularly carried out research with parents and children to help us understand the factors that are most important to them in choosing shoes. The theme for our in-store display was based on some of the insight that for many parents durability is one of the key reasons for choosing boys shoes from Clarks whilst comfort and style is one of the key reasons for girls. The marketing material was designed to give a small snapshot into the lengths Clarks go to, to create perfect shoes for many different children. We recognise that these are not the only reasons for choosing shoes for either girls or boys, which is why in other communications we share many types of information about our products such as style inspiration, fit, materials and technologies.

    The current images used for our in-store displays form only part of our marketing material for the season, and I have included below some of our other imagery which I hope helps to illustrate that we are aiming to represent many different types of children and a range of different activities that they enjoy taking part in.

    [images]

    When we design our product ranges we do try hard to balance as many different requirements as we can, in order to appeal to as many children as possible. Our current Spring/ Summer range does include pinks and purples, but it also includes some stylish designs in navy blue, reds, mint greens, camouflage patterns and other colour combinations. It is possible that not all of these designs were available at the store that you visited, as the new season stock has been arriving over the past few weeks. If you would like to visit our website it is possible to see all of the new designs by following the page link below:

    http://www.clarks.co.uk/c/girls-new-arrivals

    On behalf of Clarks I would like to thank you again for the valuable feedback you have supplied and for taking the time to get in touch.

    Kind Regards
    Melissa Potter
    Chief Executive

  25. And here’s my reply to that!
    Dear Ms Potter

    Thanks for your reply. I imagine this is a stock reply since it spends a fair amount of time on the colour of shoes. I have not complained about the colours available! My daughter is fifteen and wears adult shoes in black*.

    I am asking whether you will remove the offensive posters which suggest that boys are active (testing their shoes to destruction) while girls are passively pretty (interested in style and comfort).

    Please let me know whether you will do so and if not, why not.

    Best wishes and thanks again for your reply

    Emma Dixon

    *Although she was also offended by your posters in the children’s section!

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