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Do children books really need gender labels?

In January this year the Pretty Foundation launched its first book in the Charlie’s Tales series. As the focus of the Pretty Foundation is building body confidence in young girls the book was primarily promoted to parents with preschool aged girls. Soon after launching the book, we had to ask ourselves, should we just be promoting this to girls?


In recent weeks, the media has been rife with discussions around whether educators should remove gender labels, which is a result of new research being released by Australian National University. The research found that “prejudice along race and gender lines can be observed in children as young as 3-4 years of age”.


This has opened up a discussion around labels having an implication on gender stereotypes and as such, it has been proposed to remove gender labels from spaces such as libraries, schools and kindergartens.


Terms such as boys’ and girls’ is a natural part of life however minimising distinctions on the basis of gender can help reduce bias, stereotypes and discrimination.


Research suggests that a way to reduce gender stereotypes and build inclusive relationships in children is to make individual skills and attributes a priority. This includes emphasising your child’s qualities that are not related to their appearance, such as their personality traits, or helping your child to develop confidence in their skills and abilities.


Using a library as an example, gender labels are simply assuming that certain books will be more appealing to one gender over another and doesn’t take into consideration their personality or interests.


So if a young girl is reading only books in the ‘girls’ section of a public library, then ultimately she is being guided to believe that she should only read in that section and in turn, she may potentially learn that she will not enjoy books that are only in the ‘boys’ section.


This same inequality extends for boys as well, why should they feel like they need to read certain books over another?


When a young girl reads a book, the kind of characters within the book will naturally act as an influence to model her own behaviour.  For example, if a girl reads a book with princesses who are portrayed as positive feminine characters wearing dresses, then she may form a positive association with wearing a dress.


So what does this mean for Pretty Foundation and more specifically the Charlie’s Tales book series? Prior to launching the second book in the series we changed our focus on who we promoted the book to. Why shouldn’t boys also read the books? What we soon realised was to truly see change in our society with regards to body image we had to get men and boys involved too. It’s just as important for boys to see female characters in books with different body shapes and sizes as well as seeing them in roles other than that of a princess. Additionally, the sad reality is that negative body image is not something that just impacts girls, boys need to build body confidence from a young age too and we hope Charlie can have a positive impact on both boys and girls.


At the end of the day, children are ultimately going to read books that they enjoy, so a label might not seem like an issue. Yet we should also question why we have put them there in the first place and whether children need the labels to be told what they should or shouldn’t enjoy.