As a mom to a three-year old, underwear shopping is a task easily accomplished: the kiddo and I pick the character du jour and order it with one click.
I’ve recently learned that these purchases are doubly privileged. First, on those rare days when I skip Amazon and shop in person, I arouse no suspicion when spotted in the “wrong” gender’s underwear section. But dads who do underwear duty often find themselves unfairly scrutinized. At least some of these dads are also hilarious writers, so there’s a whole sub-genre of stay-at-home dads terrified of underwear shopping.
All of these men in girls’ underwear sections have identified another source of privilege: boys get better underwear. Girls get pastels and princesses. There are no superheroes. There’s no Star Wars (even though it prominently features a princess!). There’s no Toy Story, which is truly baffling considering how universally beloved that film is. The disparity in inspirational underwear choices led one dad to shopping for his daughter in the boys’ section. But some dads aren’t comfortable making that purchase, arguing that girls’ underwear has to be qualitatively different from boys’ underwear because girls are physically different from boys.
Given the recent push for clothing with fewer gendered limitations, are these dad’s complaints leading to expanded underwear options for kids?
Old Navy is by many measures more sartorially progressive than its competitors, and that’s reflected in its underwear offerings. Although the fabrics used in children’s clothing traditionally tend to vary in quality by gender, all of Old Navy’s toddler underwear offerings are made from thick 100 percent cotton fabric. There are no princesses on offer for girls. Instead, there’s a seven-pack of aspirational occupations, which tell the wearer she can be an astronaut, doctor, ballerina, artist, superhero, scientist, or president. The boys’ offerings include a similar set that shares astronaut, doctor, superhero, and president, but adds fireman, musician, and teacher.
But Old Navy also has some surprising differences in its toddler underwear lines. Both boys and girls have a practical days of the week offering, with gendered font and design differences. But far more important than the cosmetic differences are the shape. The girls’ version features a narrow waist, lower rise, and skimpier elastic than the boys’ version.
Old Navy’s not the only offender in kid underwear sizing, nor is it the worst, as documented by incredulous parent Emily Gonzalez in “Toddler Underwear is Bullshit.” Gonzalez’ side-by-side comparisons of one brand’s underwear suggests that this is an ongoing industry trend.
Sizing it up
Our boys and girls are not yet physically different enough to explain differences in undergarment sizes. At 36 months, boys in the 50th percentile for weight are just under 32 pounds. Girls in the 50th percentile are just under 31. The same similarities exist for height: 50th percentile boys are just under 38 inches, while girls are a fraction of an inch shorter. These size differences don’t justify such drastic differences in underwear sizing.
Those height and weight differences, by the way, aren’t even relevant to underwear sizing at 10 years, when girls in the 50th percentile are a pound or two heavier than boys and just about the same height.
Arguments that a young girl’s waist might be slightly narrower than a young boy’s waist, or that boys need roomier fronts in their underwear than girls do, could be relevant if kids’ underwear was sold in highly specific sizes, but the typical categories of underwear sizing (2T/3T, 4T/5T) suggest that these garments are intended to stretch enough to fit kids over a multi-year period.
Arguments that toddler and preschool boys “need” a front flap surely stem from parents who have not had to constantly clean streams of misdirected urine off their bathtubs and counters.
There’s no physical need for the variance in young kids’ underwear sizes. Might there be a benefit to styling all kids’ underwear the same way?
The mighty boxer brief
Girls typically have more clothing options than boys: dresses, skirts, leggings, etc. But in the underwear department, they actually get less choice than boys, because boys generally have choices in style, including traditional briefs and boxer briefs. Although the additional fabric doesn’t seem to justify their extra cost (at Old Navy, boxer briefs cost $3.25 per pair, while briefs cost $2.57 each), toddler boxer briefs are vastly superior kid underwear.
The style features narrower leg openings, meaning that they’re more likely to stay put when peeling off CPSC-approved skin-tight pajamas. For parents concerned about modesty, the boxer brief offers more coverage under dresses. Kids determined to run around the house in just their underwear will suffer a little less chafing. There’s more room for whimsical characters and patterns, which is the primary motivation for kids’ underwear anyway.
But the main reason why all parents should welcome the boxer brief is that the primary function of underwear for the preschool set is to keep clothes clean from inexperienced toileting. When a kid demands to wipe herself, a thick cotton pair of underwear is vastly preferable to a flimsy lace-edged pair. When a few seconds make all the difference between an accident and a successful trip to the bathroom, a pair of underwear that’s easy to separate from pants is a parent’s dream come true. And when accidents do happen, the extra coverage and tighter leg opening contains holds messes long enough to avert disaster.
Some parents might be reluctant to purchase an item called “boxer briefs” for their daughters. That problem is easily solved by calling the girls’ version “boy shorts.” The name copies an already-popular women’s underwear style while also acknowledging the preferable coverage and performance of the boys’ styles.
Or we could just call it underwear.