Regular readers of my twitter stream probably know that I am the father of twin boys who are now crawling all over me and everything I own. I don’t generally blog about my family since I feel it is their right to leave their own data trail on the Internet, but I wanted to make an exception in this case and talk a little about how Americans dress their infants. Like many couples, my wife and I have purchased practically none of the clothing out children wear. Instead, we’ve been relying on hand-me-downs and gifts from family and friends — a pretty typical situation when kids are at an age when they outgrow clothes every couple of weeks, and families with older kids are desperate to get rid of all the stuff they accumulated when their kids were small. As a result of this, I’ve had the unusual experience of seeing what people have decided my children should wear (or, in the case of hand-me-downs, what they thought their children should wear).
I’m sure the sorts of things we’ve been given are marked by my demographics: educated, white, above average income, politically on the left, and so forth. So it’s not surprising to me that no one has yet given the kids a “gimme my shotgun” onesie or a “can’t wait to treat women as objects” shirt. Nevetheless, I still think some of the trends I see are generalizable for a lot of the country.
For instance: Why are kids so crazy about dinosaurs? Answer: because we begin covering our children’s bodies with them before their eyes can focus properly. I can’t count the number of items we’ve received with prints of animals and dinosaurs on them. Typically these are brightly colored and in graphic, even extremely abstracted form. I personally like the look. As a kid who grew up in the halcyon days before we knew dinosaurs had feathers, I sort of wish that it was acceptable for me to show up to class wearing a white blazer with red and purple happy/cute velociraptor faces all over it. Alas, apparently that is hors d’categorie for adults.
It might seem shocking that we so closely associate our children with carnivores, given our tendency to imagine children as innocent and non-predatory. The happiness of the animals seems to be essential here — the more carnivorous they are the more they are portrayed as harmless and friendly. It might also be that the presence of these dangerous animals near infant bodies is meant to have an apotropaic function — as does the frontlets full of spiders and scorpions that chinese children wear — but I really don’t think that is what is going on in this case.
This identification of infant and wild animal can be seen even more clearly in clothing where the child is literally dressed in animal costume. In the case of infants, reptillian identification seems to be key: I’ve seen hoods with ridges down the back, and we’ve also received green socks with three clawed toes, designed to make it appear as if my children had reptilian feet. The impulse seems similar to the trend (hopefully now extinct?) of hipster women wearing hoods and hats with small animal ears protruding from them: a riff on the ambiguous cat-as-cute cat-as-dangerous/agentive trope which seems never to get old in American culture. Much more common than dressing the children as if they were animals is putting animals body parts over their body parts, but in a non-homologous way. For instance, pajamas where the childrens feet are covered with smiling monkey heads (non-human primates are also a big theme in children’s clothing). In one remarkable piece we were given, the seat of a pair of pajamas has a large monkey face on its seat, giving the impression that my child’s GI tract terminates in the head of a large primate. Personally, I found this a little weird, but I think I do have a basic understanding of why people think it is cute to put non-matching monkey parts on baby parts — a sort of Bakhtinian carnivalesque aesthetic at work here, some sense that the mismatch of body parts is cute. but honestly, my grasp on this one is a little tenuous.
I think a major reason that Americans think that ‘culture is something other people have’ is because we do not look hard enough at our own culture. Many people see Americans — and perhaps all humans — as rational actors seeking to maximize their wealth/utility. But really — how many acultural rational actors choose to disguise their infants as giraffes? Because let me tell you something: that is something Americans love to do. You only have to quint a little, shift your perspective a bit, and you can see both that there is a cultural logic to much of our lives and that this logic is, if you stop to think about it for a second, pretty unusual. There is nothing natural and inevitable ‘in human nature’ that makes people put monkey heads on baby behinds. One of the great parts of being an anthropologist is the way an awareness of cultural logics enriches your everyday life — even if one of the downsides is explaining to people why you are so preoccupied with the fact that they just gave your child a pair of alligator socks.