A lesson in laundry

One night, after I’d brought down a laundry basket overflowing with clean articles of clothing, my eleven-year old tripped happily down the stairs to come claim the wardrobe items belonging to him. He pawed through the pile as he is wont to do, extracting clothes that are so familiar as to be comforting, if not borderline beloved. He’s very possessive of and particular about what he wears, preferring a nearly outgrown T-shirt he’s had in his rotation for three seasons to a new one awaiting use in a cold drawer. Often I have to enforce retirement on a piece of clothing, declaring that anything size 7 or smaller must be relinquished and replaced with his choice among the sartorial selection prêt-à-porter in his room. He’s gotten better about accepting this variety of change, now enjoying the novelty and agency of choosing the next garments to work into his short list of favorite outfits. But he still relishes the reclaiming of clean laundry so he can arrange it in anticipation of days to come, instituting order and intention by pairing shirts with their self-assigned pants in semi-neat piles on his carpet. For him, I think it feels like turning to a new page on a calendar: here we are, ready and equipped to move through another set of days.

That particular night, standing at the bottom of the stairs with an armload of laundry, he said, “You know, it’s weird. Some of Summerly’s shirts look even smaller than Arlo’s in a way, even though she’s the same size as I am and a lot bigger than he is.” I responded that the reason for that is that tops intended for girls are often cut differently than those intended for boys. I had to explain what “cut” meant, of course, and then he asked why this is, to which I said that I thought there were two main reasons. One is that manufacturers and retail companies aim to increase their market by obliging people who have more than one gender of child to buy separate closets full of clothing under the supposition that the items aren’t interchangeable among children of different genders. I pointed out the pink ribbon inside the uniform shorts that Arlo wears, saying that those were probably intended for girls but the only difference between them and the other ones he wears is that coral stripe of grosgrain. We briefly talked about how pink was originally thought to be a color associated with baby boys and how colors really have nothing to do with gender, fundamentally or practically. He was still standing there clutching his clothing. “What’s the other reason that girls’ clothes are cut differently?” he asked.

I said, “Every individual person’s body is shaped differently than anyone else’s, so there’s no such thing as a typical body shape for anyone of any age. But they cut girls’ and boys’ clothes differently based on the assumption that girls’ and boys’ bodies are shaped differently from each other, even though that’s not always true or even relevant.” He turned then, apparently satisfied with the explanation, though obviously disgruntled at this erroneous generalization. “Well, that’s an unseen stereotype,” he said, heading up the stairs to his room. I heartily agreed.

I wrote down what he’d said, intending to ask him later on where he’d learned that term, but forgot until the next day after he’d gone to school, so I did a google search but didn’t turn up any leads. That afternoon as we pulled up in front of the house, I remembered to query him on the origin of the phrase, asking if it was from a book, or maybe one of his teachers had introduced the concept. “No,” he answered, “I didn’t hear it anywhere. It just seemed like a good way to describe what you were talking about.”

“Wow,” I said. “Nice! That’s really smart. I thought it was so cool that I googled it to see where it had come from!”

“You GOOGLED it?” He doubled over, laughing with comedic mirth. “You googled ME?! Now THAT is hilarious. A mom googling what her kid said! Now there’s a proud moment.”

Oh, my son. You have no idea how proud.

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