Do you ever visit shops that sell pastel bunting and oversized cushions with initials on them? I do. On each return trip I slowly remember that I can’t really afford more than three packets of striped paper straws, and so I plod to the exit, defeated, again. But a few weeks ago, as I huffed down the stairs with an unscented candle in one hand and an empty wicker basket in the other, I stopped in my tracks. In the corner was a WIGWAM.
My family garden used to house a climbing frame that my brother had received for his fourth or fifth birthday, and in the summer holidays we’d cover it with old bedsheets and sit inside, among bamboo canes we’d stuck out of the top. We’d been the head honchos of an easily-invadable clubhouse, and here in front of me was what our efforts had looked like in my head, in playland. I sprinted towards the wigwam and grabbed its tag. But the product description, hand-written in marker pen, made my heart drop:
It wasn’t the misplaced apostrophe that got me. It was the fact that I’d been told the item was not for me.
I’m almost 26, so pillow forts and the like aren’t supposed to evoke the same excitement in my little heart that they did when I was seven (THEY DO THO, THEY DO). I could deal with being told that this was an item for kids – that’s fine. I’m an adult, so I can make the decision to ignore what I don’t like and buy what I do like. But children don’t have that luxury, especially if their parents are big fans of paying attention to the packaging of unnecessarily gendered playthings and purposeless dictator-tags.
After I graduated I worked in a toy store. I got to hand out stickers all day and ask children who their favourite Finding Nemo character was, which suited me perfectly. I am also now quite good at doing impressions of that octopus-thing that says “AWW, you guys made me ink!” (ask me if you see me). But what I remember more than anything is the number of times I had to hold my tongue when children cried as they were told they couldn’t have the one toy they wanted, because it “wasn’t for boys” or was definitely “just for girls”. One child (who resembled a mouse in a cap and I immediately wanted to adopt) screamed in frustration as her parents laughed at her for requesting a skateboard. “I don’t know why she doesn’t like those princesses,” her dad muttered at me, quietly requesting my confirmation that his daughter was weird. “I had a skateboard when I was your age,” I lied, “and it was SO much fun. This one you’re holding looks really cool.” The girl stopped crying, wiped the contents of her tiny nose across her tiny face and said “Really?”
The day after, a woman walked into the shop with her two sons. One ran around pretending his arm was a gun, while the other made a beeline for some peach-coloured fairy dolls with green hair and very small waists. His mum brought one over to the till ten minutes later and placed it down in front of me, next to a glitter-filled plastic cup. I asked the boy if the items were for him, taking extra-special care to reassure him how great his choices were. His mum smiled gratefully at me, as if she was shocked, then quickly said: “His brother loves boy toys. LOVES all that stuff. But this little one’s always liked this sort of thing, haven’t you?” The boy nodded proudly and I had to pretend my hayfever was playing up.
I loved his mum for allowing her sons to play with whatever they liked. I wanted to hug her. But when I replayed the scene in my head I realised how urgently I’d wanted to ‘okay’ the boy’s selection and how all that left his mother’s mouth in that two-minute encounter were words of explanation to someone she’d never met before. I was happy to have potentially been an accepting stranger in a sea of judgemental others, but I thought about the boy when I went home and wondered if things would be any different for him in the future. If the children being born as he played with his fairy doll would grow up with toy stores that weren’t made up of blue aisles and pink aisles. If the parents of the future would feel comfortable enough in their children’s playtime decisions to not give two shits about justification.
There’s always been something about pink that I’ve loved. Not because I’m a girl – just because. When I was eight years old I tried to pretend I wasn’t actually that big on it and asked for Action Man-themed plastic tat in my Happy Meal on several occasions, telling everyone who’d listen that I was “a REAL TOMBOY.” I was in fact a real liar. Why did I want to be a tomboy so much? I didn’t – I’d just picked up that liking ‘boy stuff’ meant you really had to put your back into BEING A BOY. I couldn’t grasp the idea of a girl who liked football and Hot Wheels as well as more traditionally ‘feminine’ things – it was all or nothing, I figured, so when the mood took me and I fancied a go on my brother’s BMX I suddenly felt a niggling feeling that in order to continue with this hobby I needed to out myself as a tomboy ASAP. After a while, I couldn’t keep up with the pressure and realised I missed Barbie, so declared I was “a real girly girl” at family dinners. It never occured to me that I could be both.
I could tell it had occured to the children I saw eagerly eyeing up the wigwam, pulling on their parents’ arms excitedly and “Pleeeeeease“ing. But one tiny piece of card on a string reminded half of those children, yet again, that adventure and excitement isn’t for them, and screamed to the other half: “Get used to it. This is all you’re allowed to like.”