I was online looking at infant clothes, and I happened to browse through the boys section in search of something that was not a pastel colour and had an animal that was not a bunny rabbit. I did, but I also found clothes that I found disturbing because they were meant to be cute, but really were not. Onesies said things like “sun surf and babes” and “my mommy is hotter than yours”. There were tiny camouflage pants and the usual superhero logos floating around. As the mother of girls I find myself constantly struggling to stem the tide of the princess rubbish by giving a little (the dress-up cabinet includes bejeweled plastic high heels and fifteen kinds of sparkly wands) and pulling back (no Cinderella frocks and absolutely no princess themed birthday party ever). But what about the little boys?

Why do clothes like camouflage exist for tiny babies? What business does a six month old have wearing what is essentially, fundamentally a symbol of the army? Why should a baby be wearing a onesie that says “little man”? He is not a man, he is a baby. He is supposed to do what all babies do—eat, sleep, and be cuddled by the people who love them. There are (thankfully) no onesies that say “little woman” for girls, largely because girls are girls until they hit their menarche and then turn into women, and nobody likes to talk about dirty nasty (utterly normal and sometimes life-consuming) periods. But I digress. The inherent danger of the fact that clothes with strange misogynistic and violent undertones exist is what is important here.

It’s meant to be cute to dress your baby in a t-shirt that calls him “stud muffin”. The t-shirt exists because market research has told the manufacturer that it will sell, and parents in focus groups thought it was cute. But it really isn’t cute, not at all. A stud is the pinnacle of masculine machoism; technically the best, strongest and most virile male animal in the herd that is then used to breed more bulls or horses or what-have-yous. Colloquially a human stud is meant to display the same characteristics of physical superiority and sexual swagger. A mewling infant with a soft little head and tiny fingers is not a stud. He is not a player, a champ, a fireman or Superman either. In fact, he is really nobody except pure instinct and a name, and should be allowed to just be for as long as possible before we start poking and prodding and distorting them into the people we want them to be.

“Mama loves me” and “handsome like daddy” are perfectly acceptable, if clichéd, slogans to plaster on an infant’s clothing, but to foist a stereotypical, hyper-masculine identity on a child barely big enough to occupy a bassinet properly is disturbing. More so because parents and relatives buy clothes, and clothes are marketed a certain way to get them to sell. It seems a chicken-and-egg scenario: do these things exist because people buy them, or people buy them because they exist, and are marketed as desirable? The argument for designer baby clothes is self-explanatory; some parents want the prestige of their tiny tot wearing a tiny Ralph Lauren horse on their little polo shirts. Raising an entitled child is one thing; raising a child you are unknowingly putting into a certain box of acceptable identity and gender traits is quite another. There is absolutely no reasonable explanation for a bib that says: “I drink till I pass out”.

Does every little boy want to be a superhero? Probably not. Some might want to be the evil scientist or the robot or the princess. But we insist that they wear the Batman t-shirt and play with dump trucks because that’s what boys are supposed to do. We call them stud muffins in the same careless affectionate way we call our daughters princesses. What we are actually doing is subconsciously delineating what kind of role they are expected to play. When we constantly tell our little girls that they look pretty, they begin to think that the only compliment they are worthy of is one related to their looks, so they will start doing things to ensure that they are pretty as much as possible. When we tell our boys they are studs or soldiers or a superhero, we’re telling them that boys are supposed to be macho and tough and possess some kind of otherworldly powers that help them fight people. We’re telling them violence is manly and therefore good, so they will try to do what they think is going to win them more praise.

I worry more for the little boys because even sensible parents who wouldn’t foist all things pink and pretty on their daughters wouldn’t think too much about the impact of the Avengers on their boys. We don’t let our kids play with toy guns any more, but it’s still perfectly acceptable for them to play video games where the women are hyper-sexualised, fantasy versions of real women (Lara Croft, anyone?). Inwardly we quail at the thought of effete boys who won’t get out and play cricket on the street and act like the rough-and-tumble kids in the Surf Excel ads, and then wring our hands when they grow up to be self-absorbed men incapable of empathy or loving relationships. That’s on us—Bruce Wayne, whose alter ego is Batman, is a deeply lonely, haunted man who can’t connect to anyone around him and so seeks a self-destructive refuge in violence tempered by the satisfaction of it being inflicted on the bad guys. He has nobody to come home to, so he puts his life on the line regularly because he doesn’t really care. That’s not the kind of son anyone envisions raising, and yet we don’t think twice when we buy our little boys those t-shirts with the little capes.

That’s not because we’re insensitive, stupid parents. It’s because we have been conditioned to expect a very particular set of acceptable gender traits from males and females, and it is always difficult for us to deal with behaviour that falls outside of them. Difficult, but not impossible. So stop calling newborn boys studs and princes and don’t buy them clothes with “little trooper” emblazoned on them. They are not soldiers, vigilantes or prize bulls. They are small people who are full of potential and wonder. Buy them ice cream and a colouring book, and praise them for being intelligent and kind. The world is mean and judgmental enough, and will knock our sons sideways sooner or later. Let’s at least help them hit the ground running, knowing they are loved for who they are, whatever that may be, and that they don’t have to swagger and boast and hit to be good enough.