I saw them only out of the corner of my eye, but I knew there was something terribly wrong at the mall. I jerked to a stop and turned my head slowly to focus on the sale rack.

Infant neckties.This had to be a joke, I told myself. The ties hung stiff and angry, like strips of overcooked bacon. Two young mothers walked by, cradling what appeared to be tiny, boneless babies.

"That's a good price, but LaSpencer already has so many ties," said one as they passed.

Shaken, I found a bench and sat down.

Who would force a sweet little baby to wear a tie, I wondered. And why? Wouldn't there be enough time for uncomfortable adult clothing when the kids became uncomfortable adults? Why would anyone want to start the torture sooner?

I stood and wandered aimlessly through the mall. Didn't they want their babies to be comfortable? Most men I know hate ties, so why did parents buy them for their infants?

My feet stopped me in front of a baby-clothing store. Maybe the sales-woman could answer my questions. I walked past the infant tuxedos and leisure suits, then past the ruffled pastel infant dresses and handbags.

"They put ties on the infant boys so you can tell they are boys," the saleswoman said. "Just like the infant girls wear bows on their scalps."

She showed me some tiny pink bows and explained that a drop of Karo syrup would anchor them through even the longest church meeting. I had always wondered how those bows stayed on those tiny, bald heads. I just assumed mothers used staple guns.

I asked her why proclaiming gender was so important at one month, and she just stared at me. I roamed the store for a few more minutes, checking out the toddler high heels and shoulder pads.

I began to feel very lucky. Sure, as a child, I had worn my share of pastel dresses, but no one had ever smeared baking ingredients on my head. I took my first steps in flats. My hair was curled only once, and it stayed curled just long enough for my parents to take 100 embarrassing album pictures. My early life was reasonably comfortable.

Except for the tights.

I have a sister three years younger than I, and although we were different sizes, my mother always tried to dress us as twins. This made people ask what had happened to one of us. Each of us assumed we were the defective one.

I am convinced my mother bought tights in a size halfway between mine and my sister's to economize. When I dressed for church each week of my childhood, I would pull and strain to get the crotch of the tights up to my knees, then do the "knee walk" to the car. My little sister would roll up the ends of her stockings, reach down the neck of her dress to adjust the waistband, and bound to the car.

As soon as church ended, we were ready to play. My sister always wanted a foot race because she knew my legs were joined at the knees. I always wanted a crawling race because I knew her tights wouldn't crawl with her.

As I stood in the mall, I suddenly understood why I have always felt a little claustrophobic in tight skirts; why I could not bring myself to wear pantyhose for the first 10 years of my adult life. Why, even now, I always feel compelled to tuck a pair of emergency-exit hedge clippers into the waistband of my pantyhose.

As I remembered those evil tights, the hostility began to well up inside me. I wanted back those lost years of running and jumping. I had been cheated.

As I headed for my car, I passed a photography store called Kiddie Kandids (a name so kute it makes me kweasy). A little girl, about 4 years old, posed in a short, pink, smocked dress with shoulder pads.

Her scalp was red where her hair had been pulled into a ponytail and her bangs were moussed into place. Her earlobes were pierced and her nails polished. Her smile was beauty-pageant perfect. I'm not sure, but I think she was wearing makeup.

And in her eyes was a look of pure rage.

I thought again about the infant neckties. Maybe they aren't quite uncomfortable enough. The baby boys they are intended for will grow up with today's little girls. The girls will have the definite hostility advantage.

Maybe, just to even things up, we should dress our little boys in infant tuxedos, with formal shoes that pinch. And cummerbunds three sizes too small.

It's for their own protection.