Next week I start a job as a harvest intern in a winery. This job entails being outside in all kinds of weather, getting wet, and working with heavy machinery and serious chemicals. So before harvest began in earnest I needed to get a few items of clothing so I could be dressed appropriately for my job. I headed out to our local outlet mall.
That was my first mistake. You see, I’ve accidentally allowed myself to be dragged into the “Gender Wars” and the last place you want to be if you’re still reeling from Post Traumatic Bic-Pens-For-Her Disorder is where ever people are trying to sell you stuff. Because I was looking for work clothes we stopped into three stores: Columbia, Under Armour, and Old Navy.
The work I will be doing this harvest is neither delicate or clean, qualities that Columbia believes must be part of every woman’s activities. You can’t believe how many of their coats were white. A white coat would quickly become a splotchy pink and brown coat on me. And practically every coat/jacket/fleece iteration came in some shade of pink, because how else would we know we were looking at women’s clothes? In the men’s section the equivalent color was black, universally appealing and doesn’t look filthy ten minutes after you put it on. Men’s clothes are designed to get dirty, women’s clothes are designed to stay clean.
Columbia also believe men want pockets in their pants while women primarily want a special flap on the back that prevents gaps that show your underwear. Men carry stuff while women are modest. That’s ok Columbia, I don’t need pockets in my pants, because I can simply require the men around me to carry all my personal items in their copious pocket space. That’s what being a woman is all about.
I was prepared for even worse things in the Under Armour store. However, I was deeply pleased to see that, unlike Columbia, they sold traditional camouflage to women. Granted, it had hot pink stitching instead of safety orange like the men’s, but it’s a pretty good sign. But it makes me wonder, is hot pink considered, by safety and legal standpoints, the same as safety orange? I mean, safety orange exists so that hunters don’t get shot by accident. Does hot pink help you not get shot? I’m not sure I’d risk it.
The last shop was Old Navy, a favorite standby for me. Old Navy was one of the first stores (in my experience) that began carrying women’s pant sizes in different lengths for the same waist size. Maybe women’s pants used to be sold like this or perhaps in stores that I’ve never stepped into are still sold waist and length measurement independent. But I hadn’t seen until just a few years ago. Why is this important? Because women’s bodies are waist and length measurement independent. I am short. Very very short. And in most of the shopping world I need to have a tiny waist, size zero or two, to find pants that don’t have five or six inches of excess length. Even then I often wear out the bottoms of my pants from walking on them.
When my husband buys pants he knows the inseam he needs and then tries on a variety of waists to find what fits. The clothing industry acknowledges that he may gain or lose weight without gaining or losing height. Men’s pant sizes come in increments of 2 inches. Women’s pants, when you are lucky enough to find inseam variation at all, tend to come in three vague sizes: short, regular, and tall. A man might feel judged by having a certain measurement on his pant size but they are a direct response to his actual size. A 38 inch waisted pant is for a 38 inch waisted man. But what does it mean that my pants declare me short, regular, or tall? My inseam determines if I’m regular or not? What does it say to me when my “short” pants drag on the ground? Can’t I just buy pants that are the right length that don’t label me with a slightly derogatory term (imagine men’s clothes being sold as for short men, would that sell?)?
This really gets me going, the suggestion that women come in exactly three heights. I have moaned and complained about this for a long time. Yesterday I decided to throw off convention and shop the men’s department for pants. Size 16 in boys is the right length and waist for me. The pants came down to the middle of my shoes, but not under them. Beautiful. Buttoned without an issue. Lovely. But through my hips it looked as if the pants had become a tourniquet they were so tight. I couldn’t zip them. Boys don’t have curvy hips, but I do. But the length was so perfect and so rarely available for women that I had trouble recognizing how deeply unwearable they were. I thought, “If I wear a long shirt, no one will see that I can’t zip my fly.” That’s the level of crazy women’s sizing has brought me to.
Anyway, the takeaway is that we still live in a highly gendered world where expectations for men and women (also the assumption that there are only men and women) are expressed in even the basic process of buying winter wear and pants.
Have you experienced gendered retailing that makes you upset? Or that you like? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen retailed as gender specific?