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Yes, T-Shirt Messages Matter

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Yesterday, I came across a very interesting T-shirt design during my afternoon web surfing. The Children’s Place apparently forgot about the great “I’m too pretty to do my homework, so my brother has to do it for me” T-shirt debacle of 2011, and they decided to produce a shirt that reads, “My best subjects” and has checked boxes next to shopping, music, and dancing, but a noticeably unchecked box next to math. Underneath that, it says cheekily, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”


Of course, the overwhelming response has been complete outrage that a children’s clothing retailer could possibly have a lapse in judgment this severe. I was definitely angry about it, but more than anything, when I see something that so profoundly feels like a slap in the face, I want to talk to each and every person in the decision chain that led to the actual design and production of such a horrible shirt because I desperately want to understand the motivation behind such a thing. I want to know how supremely out of the loop they are about the current efforts to get more girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and math careers, how teams of people are working tirelessly to dispel the myth that girls are “just not good at math” and science and anything involving higher order thinking, apparently. I want to know if they have daughters and if they would honestly dress them in such a shirt, and what message they think it really sends.

On The Children’s Place facebook wall, people posted openly about their disgust, but a few choice citizens defended the shirt and its message. They contend that it’s just a shirt, that it’s just a joke, and that messages on T-shirts do not affect people, and will not disempower girls who wear it.

I (obviously) disagree.

Images are powerful.  The fact that this message is on a T-shirt doesn’t make it less harmful; it makes it far, far worse. For crying out loud, people are putting this image on their daughters’ bodies, literally wrapping them in a message about how they are destined by their gender to be a failure at something.

To make myself feel better, I found some T-shirts on Etsy that are the polar opposite.


THIS GIRL loves MATH T shirt by foultshirts

Girls pale yellow t-shirt with pi by MKKDesigns

I am Acute T-shirt by EllaKateBoutique

Ah, that’s better.

Katie McKissick About the Author: Katie McKissick is a former high school biology teacher turned science writer and cartoonist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her first book is called What's in Your Genes. You can find more of work at Follow on Twitter @beatricebiology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. beakgeek 3:31 pm 08/6/2013

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! In this day and age where Kardashian morals are being pushed down girls and young women’s throat we need someone to speak out.

    While we’re at it can we get rid of shorts with words on the back? A 12 year old wearing shorts with “can’t touch this” on the back is not funny, it’s scary that a parent would let their child wear that.

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  2. 2. The Dude 5:45 pm 08/6/2013

    In general I agree with you, Katie. But there is always the exception. My daughter has a shirt that says “To Do List: wake up. shop. eat ice cream. repeat.”

    She is ranked no. 1 in her high school class and plans on Ivy League/Oxford education. She is highly motivated and everyone in our small town knows it. So in this case it really is a joke. Chillax a little.

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  3. 3. Katie McKissick in reply to Katie McKissick 5:50 pm 08/6/2013

    I don’t see anything wrong with that shirt at all. I’m not saying that any t-shirt that says something about shopping is bad for girls.

    But besides that, your daughter is in high school, and the shirts I’m talking about are intended for much younger girls. Secondly, your daughter’s shirt doesn’t say there is something she can’t do. It’s not insulting. It sounds fun and cheeky.

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  4. 4. ImProventus 5:56 pm 08/6/2013

    We have one saying in our home. Practive makes perfect. My kids will say it to preempt me. I’ve drilled it into them.

    When I heard my 6 year old daughter say “I’m not good at math” I responded with “Math is only practice. If you don’t practice, you’ll never be good at it. Practice makes perfect.” Eventually, when I’d hear one of them say “I’m not good at “. I’d say “Everything like , only takes practice”.

    My darling little girl who found math so hard now enjoys being at the top of her grade 7 math class. Now I hear her tell her friends “Math is easy. You just have to practice.”

    While I think kids know what a joke is, they are what they see, hear and do. No “funny” t’s for them.

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  5. 5. ImProventus 5:57 pm 08/6/2013

    Now I have to practice my spelling. lol

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  6. 6. bwana 12:25 am 08/7/2013

    Much ado about nothing! Ridiculous article!

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  7. 7. Glendon Mellow 9:56 am 08/7/2013

    #6 Bwana: that would make a terrible t-shirt. Try again.

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  8. 8. Birric 12:15 pm 08/7/2013

    Why is this about girls and women? I suppose boys are expendable.

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  9. 9. Katie McKissick in reply to Katie McKissick 12:20 pm 08/7/2013

    This particular post is about girls and women because at this point in time, clothing retailers don’t make message t-shirts that tell boys what they can’t do. When I find t-shirts that tell boys about our culture’s ideas about their limits, I will happily slam that shirt as well.

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  10. 10. Glendon Mellow 2:24 pm 08/7/2013

    #8 Birric, seriously? You’ve never come across the disparity in how science is marketed to women and girls compared to men and boys?
    Start with these by Janet Stemwedel:
    Science kits…for girls
    Gendered science kits aren’t so great for boys either.
    How do we make room for pink microscopes? (More thoughts on gendered science kits.)

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  11. 11. 2:48 pm 08/7/2013

    To be fair, young boy shirts can carry similarly limiting messages, although maybe their sin is one of providing a narrow view of what’s valued rather than explicitly telling them what they should suck at. The incessant references to sports on boy clothes, particularly football, irritates me, as though that’s the only way little boys can be worth anything. Variations of “Mommy’s MVP” and “daddy’s all-star” are ubiquitous. But this one takes the cake: a friend actually received this shirt as a gift for her son – it said “lock up your daughters!” managing to be insulting to girls and boys simultaneously. Wowsah!

    I’m trying to think what a comparable shirt for boys would be – one that would highlight all the stereotypes of maleness that are silly and one-size fits all. How about:

    “Things I’m good at:
    x throwing things
    x breaking things
    x watching sports
    x monosyllabic answers
    o personal hygiene”

    Boom. I think we have a winner.

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  12. 12. Katie McKissick in reply to Katie McKissick 2:52 pm 08/7/2013

    Oh, completely. The societal expectations put on both sexes are limiting and horrible. That “lock up your daughters” shirt is absolutely horrifying.

    I was thinking of what the boy version of a limiting shirt would be too. I thought the unchecked box would be “express emotion in a healthy way” or something, since we don’t allow boys to do that very much.

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  13. 13. 3:11 pm 08/7/2013

    Yeah, that’s good. I was considering that, too. Do I sense a sarcastic cartoon in the making?!

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