A recent shopping trip for school shoes has opened Lance Witten’s eyes to the genderedness of children’s shoes. Picture: Lance Witten
A recent shopping trip for school shoes has opened Lance Witten’s eyes to the genderedness of children’s shoes. Picture: Lance Witten

Editor’s View: The genderedness of children’s shoes is why representation matters

By Lance Witten Time of article published Oct 21, 2021

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For boys. For girls. What’s the difference? Should there be? Why not “for kids”?

The genderedness of shoes for little kids is ridiculous.

About a month ago, we went to get my youngest daughter new shoes because she’d torn through her three pairs at school. We went into a few stores, but what I found in many places was startling.

Not only are “boys” shoes more robust, especially around the toe, with better bolstering, but soles are hardier too.

I've tested this out – last time, we bought her two pairs of “girls” shoes, and one pair of “boys” shoes. The “girls” sneakers were worn through at the toe and the sole started pulling away at the foremost point. But the “boy” pair is still presentable, and she still wears them when we go running or walking the dog.

I say “boys” and “girls” shoes purely by the design and colour selection – those tired tropes that blue is for boys and pink is for girls; helicopters and police cars adorn the boys shoes, while sparkles and unicorns adorn the shoes for girls.

The shoes we settled on eventually came from a very robust collection. Sturdy, tough, leatherette uppers, hard-wearing thick soles. This pair feels like it'll last. And guess what the whole section was labelled?

“Shoes for boys”.

The additional promotional materials stated proudly that “boys are tougher on their shoes” and “need a sturdier design”. My littlest monster is as tough and rough and tumble as they come. But I can’t get nice looking shoes “for girls” in this rough, sturdy design?

Gendered shoe construction for little kids must fall. The youngest daughter – a 5-year-old non-verbal autistic child – is a mixed bag of likes and dislikes. She loves dinosaurs. She loves GI Joes. She loves playing with her kitchenette set. She loves playing football. She loves boxing and martial arts pretend-play. And she also happens to like cute, pink, sparkly shoes.

Why do I have to send her to school in shoes that look like they’re prison-issue, when there’s a very pretty, but weakly-designed pair she’d rather be wearing?

And this got me thinking about how this happens and why, again, representation matters so much. I can imagine the executives of the companies that make these shoes are all men. And these men had notions of how boys should behave and how girls should behave. They see their sons running around the playground kicking stones and pieces of wood in lieu of balls, dragging their feet while roughhousing. Unlike the girls who play hopscotch or sit quietly at break time playing with their dolls or making puzzles or whatever. And because there is no representation in the boardroom, there is no representation in the products.

I, as the end user, have to be forced to make the decision between hard-wearing and pretty. And that’s not fair on me.

Representation matters across the board, from superheroes to executives. Black girls, coloured girls, Indian girls, mixed race girls, trans children, trans men and women, all members of the LGBTQIA+ community, need successful, powerful examples in all industries and spheres of life, movies and streaming series, they can see and look up to and think to themselves: “Yes, that could be me.”

And it’s our job as a media organisation to highlight and crow about these examples. We have a story about a researcher at Stellenbosch University, Dr Erna Blancquaert, who is one of only two recipients (in the world!) to receive the 2021 Taylor’s Port Golden Vines Diversity Scholarship. We have the story about Candice Nassen, who’s been selected to be an assistant to seasoned winemaker Stuart Botha. Young girls of colour can look up to these women and see what they too can become.

Representation matters.

Even if it’s just so that I can get pretty-looking but hard-wearing shoes for my littlest monster to wear to school.

* Lance Witten is chief audience officer at the Independent Media Group and editor-in-chief at IOL.

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