Shopping in a Gendered World

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?

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10 Responses to Shopping in a Gendered World

  1. Dan says:

    i actually have a major issue buying jeans and trousers because, as you state, ‘boys don’t have curves’…except when the ‘boy’ is me, and my ass is pretty ghetto-booty curvy. i have never owned a pair of trousers that actually fit me well. they’re either falling off of my waist because they fit my massive ass, or they are unbearably tight around my bottom b/c they fit my waist. the worst is when they somehow, somehow fit my bottom well, and cut in to fit my waist, but then are just too tight to fit my waist, b/c my butt is just TOO big, and thus makes me feel fat. why can’t i find a pair of trousers that will simply recognise that i have some pretty dramatic curves? or this: i have never found a button-down shirt that fits. if you have a big neck, with a lot of back/shoulder muscle, you should have a big barrel chest. that’s considered ‘manly’. or, if you have a skinny chest/stomach, you’re a skinny man and thus should have a correspondingly skinny neck. not so with me. i have a strong, ‘manly’ neck, but haven’t bothered to bulk up below there. so, according to fashion, i am a freak.

    then again, i think that skinny jeans are just a conspiracy to destroy my man parts in a strait-jacket, and MUCH prefer skirts. yup, i wear kilts b/c DAMN are they comfy for a man. gender expectations be damned. but, i don’t want no frilly, ‘girly’ skirt. i just want something to cover my legs, and not wrap my manhood in tight fabric, giving it no space to move or breathe. yet, even though for thousands of years men wore skirt garments, and were considered real men (roman soldiers, anyone? try and impugn their manhood, and watch them beat you down with their unmanly fighting skills of doom). many eastern cultures still wear skirts b/c THEY ARE COMFORTABLE, ESPECIALLY IN HOT WEATHER!!! anyway, i’m looking for more male skirts. until then, i will wait until it gets cooler, and then put my kilts back in regular rotation.

  2. Dan says:

    you’d be surprised!! remember, many kilts are made with 8 YARDS of thick material, folded up on top of each other. if the wind’s not blowing, it can get PRETTY toasty up in the crotch region.

  3. Do you recognize the picture Dan?

  4. Dan says:

    maybe…is that in baltimore? i think that’s you standing in a painted labyrinth…but where, and when, aren’t entirely clear…

  5. h2466trainmaster says:

    So did you actually buy anything? If so, what and where?

    I don’t know the situation in the women’s department, but men’s sizes have been reduced in number in recent years, presumably to reduce inventory. For example, sleeve lengths that used to be either 32″ or 33″ are now 32/33″, which, I assume, is really 32-1/2″. If you’re lucky to be a standard size (in one or more dimensions), you are blessed indeed. Otherwise, you either have to wear clothes that don’t exactly fit, or you have alter all your clothes or have them altered.

    Of course, Spandex and elastic can be helpful.

    • There are different sleeve lengths too? God you’re lucky. Everything comes to my fingertips!

      I did get a black fleece and green rain jacket/windbreaker from Columbia. I would like to have gotten the jacket in a darker color, it’s light green. It was a very good deal and however ridiculous the color it’ll shed water the same way.

  6. audare says:

    Sara, I just discovered your blog through facebook. I love it! Keep up the awesome writing. I also wonder if there are stores online or on places like etsy that make clothes that are at least more customized. I do laugh every time I look at Northface fleeces in every shade of “girl” color. Too often I’d rather take the “boys” colors. I hope you are doing well. I still have fond memories of visiting you with Q two summers ago 🙂 – Rory

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