If you’ve tried to buy baby clothes lately, you might have noticed that the selection is, let’s say, interesting. I first noticed this phenomenon when shopping for my nephew, who was born in 2019. As I wandered through the racks at my local T.J.Maxx, I was confused as to why more than a handful of these onesies declared a baby’s apparently raging sexual prowess. These days, the situation is much the same at big box stores and smaller online retailers alike. You can signpost that a baby is a “ladies’ man,” that “ladies love him,” and that he is a “lady killer.” You can put a baby in a shirt that says he’s a lover boy, too. OK…noted.
Predictably, items designed for girls are even more cringe. While baby boys can unknowingly boast about how well they will be cleaning up with women, baby girls get to convey that they are off-limits, because they are under the control of their fathers. Stay away from me! This baby is not allowed to date, EVER, because I already found the man of my dreams, and it’s my DADDY. (Gross.) While baby boys get to be their dad’s teammates, girls must be kept under lock and key. Even Saturday Night Live has noticed the phenomenon, mocking dating-themed infant outfits in a recent sketch.
If you venture over to Etsy, things get even more WTF. What proud dad doesn’t want his infant to wear a onesie referencing his sperm? Or the fact that he impregnated his wife during the one brief moment he gave her the time of day? Or the speed with which he did so? Or…you know what, I’m not even going to describe this one.
Then there’s the whole genre of boob merch for babies. Breastfeeding is, of course, extremely common and shouldn’t be stigmatized, but it’s a little jarring to see a baby’s onesie emblazoned with a joke about how many “tits” they suck. There are some gifts for an infant who aspires to be a milk-drunk mess or appreciates their mom for her, um, attributes (dad likes them too!). And what could be more fun than picturing your infant and your partner fighting over them? While these jokes are mainly harmless, many of these clothes also reference a stereotypical view of high-libido, protective men and the hapless women who are mostly useful because they are both sexy and a source of food.
Jo Paoletti is a researcher and educator who has been studying gender expression in clothing for more than 40 years. She has also noticed the proliferation of sexually suggestive clothing for children, and told me that when examining what it all means, it’s important to remember that infant clothing is ultimately a type of expression for the child’s parents, or whoever bought the item for the baby.
In this case, she speculated that by dressing an infant in provocative clothing, a parent may be trying to signal to the world that they are rebelling against the culture of parenthood that pretends everything is all sunshine and rainbows, or the idea that people get boring once their kids are born.
“It’s like [a] reality check, I’m not taking this parent thing all that seriously,” she said. Some parents may relate more to this type of irreverent humor than the parental aesthetic centered on what a blessing a baby is, she added.
The baby apparel market is a big one. It brought in about $62 billion in 2019, and it’s growing, expecting to top $82.54 billion in sales worldwide by 2027. The people who are making and selling these clothes say they are doing so because of customer demand. One Etsy seller, a woman named Jenn Pickar who runs a shop called BrainJuiceTeez, told me she only started selling what she called “innuendo” onesies about nine months ago and did so because she noticed how popular they were on the site.
Pickar, whose shop includes onesies that read “I came from nuttin’” and “I’m proof Daddy isn’t trucking all the time,” said that since she started selling these items, sales of these types of clothing have risen by about 300%, and she has also noticed a glut of shops that have appeared on the platform selling the same thing. She isn’t sure why these clothes have skyrocketed on Etsy, but she suspects that one popular shop made them and started a trend. As to why some parents like them so much, she speculated that it’s “just going against the grain.”
“Putting something that is slightly inappropriate on a canvas that is worn by something that is so pure...it’s kind of like spitting into holy water."
“Putting something that is slightly inappropriate on a canvas that is worn by something that is so pure...it’s kind of like spitting into holy water and I think that’s edgy and appealing for some people,” she said.
It certainly seems like people are buying these designs for the shock and humor factors, and that other adults are the main target of these slogans. In the reviews of one Etsy shop, buyers raved about a onesie that reads: “My Daddy Only Plays With The Box I Came Out Of!”
“Great gift for my baby! My wife was not amused! I received this in a timely manner and am happy with this company!” wrote one customer.
In another review, one aspiring mom laid out her plans for a onesie with the same “nuttin” slogan Pickar stocks.
“It’s so cute! My honey and I will be trying for a baby within the year and when I saw this onesie, I knew I found what I was going to surprise him with! … we have a joke between the two of us that this fits perfectly ♥️ I’m so happy with it!” she wrote.
Another seller, Janet Smith of LittleLillyBugDesign, also told me she has seen sales of irreverent baby clothing spike in recent months. Her shop sells children’s clothing, including a onesie printed with a drawing of boobs and the slogan “Eat local.”
“There seems to be a trend of doing couples baby showers so people like to buy a gift that will also include the new daddy,” she said via direct message on Etsy.
It’s likely that major retailers like Buy Buy Baby are similarly stocking these types of clothes because of customer demand (a spokesperson for the store didn’t respond to inquiries about these items).
I’m not a prude and I believe in free will. If you want to dress your baby in a shirt that declares they are a boob man, more power to you. (My baby will only be wearing neutrals, like an Instagram baby.) But what are we supposed to do with the cognitive dissonance of seeing this kind of hypersexuality signaled to us while culture wars are raging under the guise of “protecting children”?
Multiple states are introducing anti-LGBTQ legislation, and last month Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, which bans discussion of LGBTQ people and their rights, among other provisions, in public school classrooms from kindergarten to third grade. It’s clear that many people have no problem with “sexualizing” children, as long as conservative gender and sexuality norms are firmly reinforced.
Social media is full of screeds claiming that affirming the identities of LGBTQ people is somehow exposing kids to sexual themes before they are ready to understand them. Yet, popular baby stores are chock-full of apparel that proclaims these same children to be raging balls of heterosexual lust, or that warns off potential suitors for literal infants.
Paoletti said that ultimately this type of apparel, and other hypermasculine or hyperfeminine clothing (trucks for boys, bows for girls), serves to reinforce the gender binary so acutely that it may subconsciously play into gender stereotypes as the child grows, especially if it’s part of “lots and lots of messages that this child was getting over the first several years of their lives.”
“We’ve accelerated the gendering of infants well before birth,” she said. “And we’ve been doing that for 40 years. So it’s not surprising that what happens is, when the little boy starts acting up and being aggressive and the little girl starts acting flirtatious or shy it’s [like], Oh, well, yes, because she’s a girl; that’s because he’s a boy, never imagining that you had anything to do with it.” ●