Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

(learn more about me).

Gender Normativity, Dystopian Underpants, and How the Kyriarchy Stole My Goat

Sundry undies

I don’t know many people well enough that I could ask permission to publish photos of their daughters’ underpants. Ailbhe is one of the few. It helps that she approves of my aims (revolution, sedition, subversion, etc.), and that we’ve known one another’s children since before they were born.

It probably also helps that I’m publishing the Oyster’s underpants too.

[N.B. I’m using “pants” here in the UK sense throughout, not the US sense. As you can see from the photo, this is underwear, not outerwear.]

The Revolutionary Horde: But Léan, which is which?
Léan: Well, the Oyster’s are the ones on the…

No, sorry. You know which are the girl pants above, don’t you, and which are the boy pants? Even though the girl pants aren’t actually pink with hearts and butterflies?

You know the same way I’d know if I were seeing these for the first time – because we’ve all been steeped in the gender binary since birth or before. Boys get aliens. Girls get lace. Boys get vehicles. Girls get flowers (ugh – that one still makes me queasy). Boys get violence. Girls get domesticity. It’s obvious.

I’ve written about gender normativity and kids’ clothes before, and I’m sure I will again, because it does not cease to get my goat. (O halp! The kyriarchy has taken my goat hostage! What shall I dooooo?)

A hard word

Now then, boys, girls, and points in between, today I want to talk about metonymy.

Unless you’re a literature geek – and possibly even then – you may be a little hazy on precisely what metonymy is. Bear with me, for I am about to explain.

(If it helps to imagine the little Muppet chorus popping up to sing “doo-dooooo-doo-doo-doo” every time you say it, feel free.)

Metonymy (doo-dooooo-doo-doo-doo) is when you call something not by its name, but by a concept associated with it. So, saying “the briny deep” instead of “the sea” is metonymy, and so is “London calling” or “Wall Street reacted”. It’s kind of everywhere.

But enough dilly-dallying! Back to the underpants!

In grown-up world, there’s a particular class of underwear called…

Delicates

That’s a metonym: it refers to the items in question (lacy, silky lingerie, for the most part) by an attribute they possess (delicateness).

Look at the waistbands of these underpants:

Sundry undies: waistbands

Notice how the boy pants have wide elastic, encased by cloth, while the girl pants have narrow, decorative elastic, right at the edge of the fabric. This goes for the leg openings too. (There’s no logical reason why boy pants should have wider elastic than girl pants. It’s just the way things are done.)

So. Boy pants use more material than girl pants, and their edges are more comfortable. They also offer better buttock coverage (you’ll have to take my word for this – I have limits). They are in general sturdier, less likely to tear.

Boy pants are not delicate. Girl pants are.

Kyriarchy in action

So you’re hanging your young daughter’s underpants on the line, or folding her sweet little slim-cut embroidered jeans before putting them away in her drawer, or pairing her white socks with the ladybirds, and you are unconsciously noticing all these “girl” qualities – smallness, delicateness, grace, neatness, skimpiness, prettiness, and so on – and associating them metonymically with the girl herself.

Meanwhile, your friend with the two sons is doing the same with the “boy” qualities – sturdiness, exploration, mess, strength, power, abundance, dirt, violence, etc. – and reflecting, possibly with some regret, that boys will be boys.

(Your friend with the children of both sexes is just irritated at how few clothes can realistically be passed down.)

You might be saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t do that. I’m not influenced by this shit.”

I think you are.

We all are. Everyone who lives in a given society participates to some extent in its thinking. The messages are everywhere – we’d have to be cultural hermits to avoid absorbing them.

And our children – all children, everywhere – look to their adults for guidance, for permission and restriction, for instructions both implicit and explicit about how to be in the world. How we think and feel about gender informs how they will think and feel, about gender and about themselves – how they will perform the gender or genders they assume throughout their lives.

(Yes, gender is a performance, like so much about how we present ourselves to the world.)

This stuff matters, is what I’m trying to say.

So, what’s to be done?

1. NOTICE.

Unconscious noticing is how this kyriarchal mechanism works. From birth, we are presented with information about gender. Most of it is implicit, not explicit. We know more about our society’s beliefs and norms than we ever articulate.

Conscious noticing can counter this effect – to some extent. I don’t believe it’s possible to erase it entirely. By looking squarely at how gender is codified, we can bring our implicit beliefs about boys and girls, men and women, out into the open and see if we really wish to stand over them.

2. SPEAK.

I’d never thought about the politics of knicker elastic until Ailbhe brought it to my attention. (Had you ever thought of it, before reading this post? Genuine question!) The more we speak about what we see, the more people will start to notice for themselves.

Tell your friends when you notice one of these patterns. Play that game where you get a point for every young girl you see who is not wearing anything pink. Blog. Have conversations with your children about gender normativity, and how restricted their colour and design choices would be if they stuck rigidly to their own “side”.

3. TRANSGRESS.

Dress kids in the “wrong” colours. Look for truly gender-neutral clothes. Make glittery fairy wings for your son, and a skeleton pirate costume for your daughter. Buy my T-shirts (hem-hem).

There’s a limit here, of course, because children have preferences too – and particularly as they get older, they’ll be under increasing pressure to conform. In our household, sartorial revolution is mostly confined to the sock drawer at this stage, although we do look in the girl section whenever we go shopping.

4. PERSEVERE.

We won’t see the end of the kyriarchy in our lifetimes. (Boo! I wish I could say I believed otherwise, but there it is.) That’s not a reason to give up, though. Solidarity is important, and every action counts.

Good luck!

24 comments to Gender Normativity, Dystopian Underpants, and How the Kyriarchy Stole My Goat

  • I had considered the politics of knicker elastic before – thanks to a Dykes To Watch Out For strip in which Lois points out how much more comfortable men’s underwear is. To which I made the transition myself many years ago. It helps, though, that I’ve never been fond of the frilly or delicate – if I wanted some sort of happy medium, I guess it’d still be hard to find.

  • Oh. My. Not having any children of my own – and all the nephews or friends are male – I never noticed.

    But if I had noticed, I’d have a far less coherent rant.

    I have noticed – and despise – how this continues into adult wear – I bought a pair of women’s hiking pants (serious hiking pants) with no. F’ing. pockets. The men’s version had huge cargo pockets.

    As for Nine 😉 I may have to check out the men’s underwear myself.

  • Ailbhe

    My rant on this is really not coherent at all.

    A photo of the pants themselves, spread out by a ruler, will show that the boys have a more generous rear and gusset and the girls have higher-cut legs at the front.

  • sorenr

    I
    Love
    This

    -There. I’ve said it. String Revolution, a blog dedicated to (sorry to say) predominantly female-identified – socially speaking – crafts is queering underwear! Well, it is what you’re doing, and I love that you’re so unashamedly theoretical and ideological as well as practical. It’s been ages since I’ve heard or read of metonymy, and I applaud you.

  • As someone who grew up as a “tomboy” and hated all things girly, I wish I’d had a mom like you.

    I, also, hadn’t noticed the underwear thing (even when I do the laundry and have to sort out which black cotton undies are Joe’s manly pants and which are my “delicates.”) And now that I see it, the differences are glaring! Funny how we don’t see things that are right in front of us. Thanks for pointing it out – I love your rants on this subject. Next time I’m buying myself boy gitch – thanks for the idea, Nine! (and poor Joe, he’s only just gotten used to the pajama thing)

  • leannich

    @Nine: Yes – it makes sense that the comfort thing is mirrored in adult underwear. We train kids in what to expect when they’re older, after all.

    @Bullwinkle: Pocketless trousers give me the rage! As far as the function/form debate goes, I like form, but form without function is infuriating.

    @Ailbhe: Seemed pretty coherent when I heard it 🙂

    @Soren: Thank you! *applauds you back*

    @Patty: Yeah, I’m not much for the delicates either. And I’m also contemplating following Nine across the divide. Though of course, it’s depressing that in order to access (in this case) comfort, all we have to do is behave like men…

  • deirdre

    My Delicates mostly come from M&S and can be washed with my normal washing. I had some delicates from Maidenform which fell victim to my lax washing regime i.e. handwashing is for other people (getting seriously into knitting recently has meant that I do occasional bouts of handwashing) and my weight gain that accompanied cancer.

    I would like to also wonder about some “boy shorts” I found once that had the seam running down the middle of the crotch, point me at a non-masochist male who would wear them! Any underwear that has a center seam is uncomfortable.

    There are times when I have a feeling of female fail when I read fashionistas who wonder why you would wear anything other than g-strings. Items of wear that are pretty much guaranteed to ensure constant thrush.

  • Lilly

    Hello Léan,

    I have noticed for a long time, here in the USA, clothing for men is constructed with so much more quality than clothing for women. My husband’s clothing lasts SO MUCH LONGER! It makes me want to tear my hair out.

    There is one exception, a local(Swedish import, actually) clothing company that constructs both girls and boys children’s clothing out of heavy weight organic cotton, and it lasts a really long time.

  • I was just talking to Jo today about how most girlbaby clothes are far less practical than boybaby clothes. Less material is used, there are fewer buttons, faffy little straps that break or fall away, the whole emphasis is completely different (and it’s really annoying when you think you’ve just dressed your daughter in something nice and warm to bring her outside and discover that it doesn’t fasten all the way up, or it has a drop-shoulder, or something equally stupid).

    I think the only place I part company from your argument is that you seem to be sourcing the problem entirely in a cultural context. As I see it, the problem arises in very ancient pre-cultural instincts, which then became translated into the cultural crapness that you notice; but until you bring evolutionary biology into the mix you’ll never fully understand why, despite everything, despite all our education and all this time, and all the geniuses who have pointed all these social constructs out to us, we still continue to revert to them. Something in our brain finds them attractive, unfortunately, and rational argument does not eliminate it.

  • Trinker

    My son loves pink. I’m quite pleased by this. It’s not something I coached him on.

    I’m having an ongoing tussle with Grandma about the girliness of girlchild’s next garments. I contend that it’s a horrid thing to do to her, Grandma wants to sew cute stuff like she did for me. We’ll see how that goes. So far, girlchild (who is just 1) is a rambunctious adventurer who’s usually taken for a boy. I mean to keep it that way until she comes and tells me *herself* that she wants to wear girlyness. I’m already annoyed long before time that she’s likely to get roped into rounds of “let’s have a girl party, put on makeup and nail polish!” (Likely to be degendered chez moi with a son who’s currently fascinated by hair flowers and ponytails.)

  • Ah yes, I think you know I know. My firstborn wore “boy” pants for years, but now insists on “girl” pants, and consequently spends noticeably more time pulling them out of crevices that boy pants do not find their way into. Which, considering that girls have more crevices around there, seems particularly unkind.

    You are very welcome to photograph my kids’ underpants, too. But as you know, shoes are the epitome of this kyriarchical hobbling of kids for me.

  • Emma

    As a person whose children range in age from 23 to 6 I can also tell you that this has got worse in the last 10-15 years. I comb Sydney for undies for my little girl that will fit her bootylicious body and will be comfortable. There is one brand here that makes ‘boyleg’ little shorts for girls, in marl grey and I am their best customer.

  • Rachel Walmsley

    Underwear is one of those areas where there really are legitimate reasons for differences in design. Clothing designed to effectively cover a vulva really should be a different shape to clothing designed to cover a penis and testes, because of the different shapes of what they’re covering.

    I’m a transwoman and have possessed both flavours of genitalia in my life, and can say from experience that some designs work much better with one, and other designs work much better with others.

    However! This does not excuse a lot of the differences in design. Width of elastic definitely has nothing to do with anatomical differences. Frilly lace has nothing to do with anatomical differences. Pictures of green aliens or pink hearts have nothing to do with anatomical differences.

  • Ailbhe

    Standard little boy pants do a much better job of covering a vulva than standard little girl pants. Standard little girl pants expose the vulva at the slightest opportunity. The difference in small-child anatomy is slight enough that a *very* small amount of extra fabric at the front, not gusset, of the boy-pants is adequate — and those same pants do fit little girls just fine, with a tiny looseness at the very front if the pants are a little large.

    Also, at the back, little boys and little girls do not have very different amounts of buttock, pre-puberty. But little girls’ pants are cut on adult women’s lines.

    None of which references anything like the comparative weight of the fabrics, of course.

  • on top of all the wonderful points made my everyone here, that lace elastic comes off. It seems incomprehensible to me that one cannot make clothing that will not fall apart before a kid grows out of it. Geez. They grow pretty darn fast.

    I agree with Lilly that men’s clothing, in general, is better made than women’s. Cheaper, too, for the same quality usually. I noticed this many many years ago.

    The pocket thing also enrages me. Even when women’s clothing has pockets they are useless shallow ones that anything sensible will fall out of, compared to the nice deep pockets in men’s trousers, and those handy inside pockets in men’s suit jackets.

  • Ailbhe

    Emma: My mother says it’s worse in the last 10 years, too. It’s like, the closer we get to having adult women with a little bit of equality, the harder we work on the infants.

  • Betsy

    Great post! I agree with the whole men’s underpants are sturdier than women’s. What gives? But, will note, my knickers from M&S and H&M? Both hipster cut cotton blends, both still standing in good shape for years now!

  • Yes! Yes yes yes. I probably should start looking at men’s undies, as my butt is, well, an actual butt. And it would be nice to have clothes that didn’t fall apart.

    Have you ever had to deal with “plus-sized” women’s clothing? It’s even a step more shoddy and more falling-apart. They claim it’s because of the greater amount of fabric, but they’re already charging ridiculous amounts extra. I don’t see the same thing with bigger men’s clothing.

  • It drives my wife nuts. She hates the non-covered elastic on British knickers and always buys hers from the States (where she’s from).

    I think it’s got worse since my son was a child. He’s nearly 18 now & I’m buying small people clothes again because I became an aunty last year and it’s SO gendered now. You used to be able to find a lot more neutral funky stuff. I notice the toys have got a lot more pink too. Lego used to be fairly gender neutral and now it’s not.

  • Leanne

    This was a great read, Léan – and all very true, of course!

    I am always curious about what motivates you to despair so much when you have boys … surely you have far less to worry about than if you had girls?

  • Ailbhe

    I hate to be the one to say it, but… the Patriarchy Hurts Men Too.

  • Leanne

    Yes – you are right, Ailbhe, come to think of it – in some ways the Patriarchy could be restrictive to men, but mostly it was set up for men, by men, to make life easier for men… in general.

    But when it comes to underwear choices, the odds are all against women and girls!

  • Andrea

    Interesting read!

    Reminded me of when I was a six year old – I got sick of my uncomfortable girls underwear that had elastic that was always snapping, and swapped to boys. I had a much more comfortable time after that.

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