Start-wrong

Now that little Bobbin has finally got the hang of walking, we all toddled off to our local independent shoe shop to buy her some proper shoes: we wanted to support local businesses, we thought we’d have better choice in a non-chain shop, and we wanted to get the shoes properly fitted rather than trying to shop online. The staff were very helpful and friendly, and amazingly patient when Bobbin decided that the foot-measuring gauge was TERRIFYING and OH NOES WHY ARE YOU PUTTING MY FOOT IN A THING; the shop assistant even measured Teddy’s feet first so Bobbin could see that the gauge wasn’t going to cut her feet off or anything (we eventually managed to determine that she was a 3½G). So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the shop in question seems to stock only Start-Rite (at least for ‘first shoes’), who are very much in the pink-for-girls-and-blue-for-boys mould; the shoes we were offered for my daughter (dressed at the time in navy denim trousers and a green flowery top) gave us a choice of pink suedette moccassin-style shoes, purpley-pink mary-janes with pink flowers, or black mary-janes with little pink hearts. All very pretty, and two of the three pairs fit nicely, but… suede? Who gives a toddler suede shoes? And the mary-janes both had buckles which looked frankly flimsy: I didn’t rate their chances in the hands of a marauding monster who can shred the Guardian into ribbons in the time it takes me to drink half a cup of tepid coffee.

“They’re all a bit… pink?” I said, rather awkwardly, not wanting to be fussy after they’d been so helpful. “She doesn’t tend to wear much pink, to be honest.” The shop assistant looked a bit confused.

“Do you think perhaps we could see the boys’ shoes too?” asked my husband. “Oh! Er… yeah,” said the shop assistant, looking even more confused. She went away and came back with a pair of sturdy navy-blue shoes with a bit of red detail, and a pair of sturdy navy blue shoes with a bit of red and lighter-blue detail (ringing the changes there). It seems the boys have just as little choice, but in a different direction. Anyway, we tried them on; Bobbin seemed just as happy in navy-blue as she did in pink (to be fair, she almost certainly doesn’t care either way), clumping cheerfully up and down the shop floor; we established that there wasn’t a significant price difference, and eventually went for the plainer navy-blue pair:

Picture of my daughter's first shoes (bought from Start-Rite's range 'for boys'), sturdy navy-blue shoes with red detail.

Elmer shown for scale.

Do they look like “boys’ shoes”? Yes, but only because we now have such a ridiculously polarised idea of what “girls’ shoes” and “boys’ shoes” can look like. Here’s a selection of Start-Rite’s offerings, from their website. You don’t need me to tell you which set is allocated to which gender:

Screenshot of a grid of shoes 'for boys' from Start-Rite's website; all are brown or blue-and-red.

Shoes will be shoes

Screenshot of grid of shoes 'for girls' from Start-Rite's website. All are pink, red, or black with pink detail.

Shoes and spice and all things nice

Let’s see what they say about their shoes:

Once your little boy starts walking confidently, Start-rite has a wide range of first walking shoes in a choice of styles and colours. Start-rite shoes give protection and support and are available in whole and half sizes with different width fittings for your little boys first steps and beyond.

Our girls’ shoe collection comes in a beautiful choice of styles, colours, sizes and width fittings. All girls footwear is designed to look pretty and feel great, whatever the weather brings, for all kinds of activity. From girls pre-walker shoes to girls school shoes, out-of-school, trainers and wellies, there are Start-rite girls shoes and boots to suit every little princess.

So your boy will walk “confidently” and the shoes will give him “protection and support” (in all those rough-and-tumble things he does), while your girl (sorry, your “little princess”) will “look pretty and feel great”, and the shoes will “suit” her. (Admittedly the girls are allowed to do “all kinds of activity”, so long as they look attractive while they’re doing it.)

My daughter is not a princess. She’s a normal toddler — I would say “a normal little girl”, but her sex and/or gender really doesn’t enter into it. The things that are important in her life at the moment are: mummy; daddy; her grandparents; milk; biscuits; bananas; going on the swings and the slide; and obsessively watching and re-watching Bagpuss and Peppa Pig DVDs. Looking pretty isn’t even on her radar. To be honest, “feeling great” isn’t something she’s consciously pursuing. Owning and wearing clothes that make her look attractive (to whom?) isn’t going to make her feel “great”; as far as I can tell she’s more or less indifferent to clothes unless they’re uncomfortable (e.g. some of her bibs with velcro at the back seem to scratch her neck, and she takes them off as soon as she can) or they have something exciting like LIONS (grr!) or TIGERS (grr!) or DOGS (bow wow wow!) or CATS (meow!) printed on them.

Am I weird for being more concerned about her comfort and happiness than about her looks? If so … well, fortunately, I’m also more concerned about her comfort and happiness than I am about my weirdness. I can live with being weird.

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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.