Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Why boys don't wear pink, and why girls do

Thanks to Arwyn, I skated over to "pink at the rink: some thoughts on children and gender" at small red house. It talks about how women and girls are allowed to wear masculine clothing but not the other way around — because the dominant gender (males, in case you weren't paying attention) is not allowed (culturally speaking) to be dominated.

Maria notes that every girl she sees at the ice rink is wearing an article of pink clothing. And I've noticed before how absolutely grim the boys' section of any major discount department store is. Since my big-boned (ha!) son from an early age has been in toddler clothes, I sometimes dispiritedly wander through those big-boy sections and sigh over the meager array of colors, if you can call them that: black, brown, khaki, olive, and a splash of red or navy blue here and there. And the prints are either something neutral like a stripe, or something gender-typed like a robot, tiger, monster truck, dinosaur, or toolset, the baby stuff often with slogans like "Daddy's Little Boy" or "Future Linebacker." Nowhere have I seen, say, a whisk with "Daddy's Future Cook" or a thermometer with "Nurse in Training."

No, once we're out of the womb and our parts have been audited, we are officially camped into pink or blue, and there we must remain.

I found this comprehensive answer to why pink is pink and blue is blue from AnswerBag, which offers the resources listed below.

For instance, one study suggests that the preference of women for pink crosses cultural (British and Chinese) boundaries and therefore might be innate.

HowStuffWorks notes:

"The researchers hope to support this conclusion with a revised version of the test modified for infants. A very young child, the scientists reason, hasn't yet had a chance to be socialized into a gender role by society. Therefore, any color preferences displayed by babies would have to be innate."

I would be very interested to see the results of that, because I'm unclear if the Chinese adult participants in the above study had any cultural color preferences that were already established.

GentleBirth has an article titled "Dressing for sexes," by Jo Paoletti:

"The practice of pink for girls and blue for boys was introduced into the United States from France in the mid-19th century; in Little Women [Editor's note: One of my very favoritest books growing up, despite the appallingly sexist title! H.M.], Amy tied a pink ribbon on Daisy, and a blue one on her twin, Demi, 'French-style, so you can always tell.' But the practice was not common until after World War II, partly because there was considerable disagreement about which color was appropriate for which sex. The Infant's Department, a trade journal, tried to settle the question in 1918: 'There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for a boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.'

"Clothing manufacturers complained that greeting-card companies were confusing the issue by using pink for girls and blue for boys in birth announcements. ... The debate continued for decades. ... The first children to be consistently color-coded by gender were the post-war baby boomers. Pink has been an exclusively feminine color for only about 40 years. (This explains all the sweet, elderly ladies who thought your son was a girl even when he was dressed all in blue.)"

Here's the conclusion that Paoletti's article reaches:

"In this liberated age, we don't like to admit it, but we believe that clothing has the power to teach gender. Advocates of nonsexist childrearing ardently believe that unisex clothing will teach children to be androgynous. Traditionalists put their girls in ruffles and their boys in suit jackets to teach them to be little ladies and gentlemen. Both groups react with confusion when the girl wearing overalls begs for a frilly party dress or when the little lady rips her pinafore while climbing a tree. They needn't be so surprised. There is no proof, historical or psychological, that clothing is as powerful as they think it is. When all American children wore dresses from birth until they started school at age six or seven, they grew up to be masculine and feminine in all the usual variations. Gender differences are either innate, or they are much more complicated than we think they are; my own inclination is to believe the latter. And either way, it isn't the clothes that make the man."

I'm going to agree with the idea that gender is much more complicated than just clothing since it's so bound up in all things cultural. Colors and styles can't have an innate and immutable meaning or there would not be such variation across cultures and over time (long hair perfect for men vs. short hair the only legitimate option, white for mourning vs. white for weddings, makeup for everyone vs. only for women, etc.) Instead, we learn the rules in a hundred different ways, starting from that first appropriately hued blanket wrapped around us at birth. At least within my own (sub)culture, there are also religious aspects to how we raise our children to be acceptably gendered, and then there are just routine and unexamined aspects. We reach for the blue romper for the boy without questioning, and we coo over the dress with the pink flowers for the girl.

I've taken a couple small steps in challenging my own narrowness on color and gender and what's allowed for whom. While I have no problem dressing myself in neutrals and prefer blues over pinks, I realize that Mikko has no clothing that could be considered anything other than boyish, save for one bright turquoise shirt. There are a few excuses for this. We didn't have an ultrasound while we were expecting him, much to the dismay of our parents, who bequeathed their unborn grandchild onesie after onesie in yellow and green. But after his birth, the gender-specific floodgates were opened (one reason why we didn't tell them ahead of time!), and I accepted all of the clothes for Mikko that they gave us, in boy-approved colors. We truly have bought only four or five pieces of clothing for him in his two years; the rest have been gifts from relatives who would never consider going frilly or flowery with a penis-bedecked youngling, and Mikko's been wearing the same size (4T) for about a year now. He's gotten taller but was so super chubby at 1 year old that only toddler clothing would fit him. So I haven't had much call to go out and buy him a dress. But...I made a couple choices recently:

     1. I bought him pom-poms at the dollar store. I wanted to play with them myself. They're fun. I've never been a cheerleader, but I love shaking my stuff. I was going to buy him fairy wings as well, but Sam thought that was getting extravagant. ($2 in one day!! I concur.)

     2. Since Mikko has so few potty misses and so goes through at most one pair of undies a day (like the rest of us!), I've resolved to fully cancel our diaper (now training pants) service once we move into our new place with the washer and dryer (our first!). To that end, I've had to stock up on our own stash of undies for the little guy. It turns out it's really hard to find Gerber cotton training pants in 4T, which is what the diaper service uses and which work and fit really well for Mikko. Plus, they're cheaper than the fancy pants out there. (Tiny little review of them: The all-cotton ones are not terribly absorbent so are better for when the kid in question won't be wetting them often, but the extra padding does offer a touch more security for those rare accidents.) On to eBay I went and they had all of one pair of the cotton Gerber pants in 4T — and they were pink with flowers. I won't lie to you; I almost shrugged in resignation and closed the window. And then I came to my senses. My boy can, too, wear girl undies! I won the auction, dear reader, and he will.

Photo courtesy melbia at stock.xchng


Rachel said...

I stumbled across JeongMee Yoon's fascinating exploration of the cultural and commercial associations with these colors while stuck for several hours in the San Francisco airport. The ubiquity of gender-coded stuff can be overwhelming.

maria said...

dear hobomama,

it was so nice of you to link to my post! in case you hadn't deduced the gendered-children's-clothing nepotism at work, jo paoletti is my mom. i promise this was not a conspiracy! thanks for bringing some new blood into the discussion :)

maria said...

p.s. you're right; i didn't mention it in my post, but the colors for boys are so disappointing. i have not yet met a little boy whose favorite color was navy blue, olive green or khaki.

Unknown said...

And for what it's worth, the most recent pink clothing I have found for boys is a 1977 snowsuit for a "baby brother" paper doll. My book on gendered baby and toddler clothing is in progress, look for it in 2011 (fingers crossed).

Arwyn said...

I am ridiculously tickled and proud I played a role in this bizarre twist of the internetz.

Also, excellent post Lauren, as usual. :)

Lauren Wayne said...

This is so cool! What a fun conversation.

rachel: Thanks for that link. The photos are astonishing. I was wondering that about that Chinese vs. British study: how ubiquitous have these cultural color identifications become? Because apparently pink vs. blue has reached (e.g.) South Korea.

maria: Oh, cool! That makes sense. I saw that your mom was commenting on your post but didn't connect the names. I'm glad you figured out I'd linked to you even though I hadn't gotten my butt over there to comment yet...

jo: Really loved the article, and can't wait to read the book!! I have a fascination for historical clothing and have always been intrigued by the white-dress trend that lasted so long in the West for young kids, plus the long flowing hair. (I remember, as a child, arguing with my mom that an antique picture of a toddler in a white dress with long blond ringlets could not be a boy; it just wasn't possible.)

arwyn: Thanks again for recommending such good reads. I'm always finding something tasty.

Ok, now a a little update on pink vs. blue: I went to an outdoor concert last night and stared at as many kids as I could without seeming creepy. :) My discovery: Every girl under 5 was wearing at least some pink (usually a lot). From 5-8 there was about 90-95% pink compliance. From 8 years old on, it was hit or miss, a lot of blues and greens. I thought it was interesting that it was the very youngest girls who had to have their femininity emphasized — maybe it's the lack of hair on young babies that scares people into delineating with clothing colors instead? Boys were wearing more variety than I'd feared (red, navy, orange, green, white, and some pastels), but I still wasn't drawn to the beauty of their clothes. I think maybe it's just male styles in general nowadays are kind of limited. Oh, for the 18th century, when men could be manly and wear velvet and lace and makeup! :)

In other news, my son picked out some barrettes at the store and is sporting three in his curls today: two ducks and a bear. People we've talked to have still recognized that he's a boy. Maybe it's the orange dump truck shirt and camo shoes.

Lisa C said...

This article is fascinating, especially the part about how it was decided that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. I don't care for the color baby blue and was so sick of it before my son was even born. If I had a girl, I'd be afraid of all the pink I'd get. I'd rather dress them in what looks good on them, what colors appeal to me, or what colors appeal to my child. I avoid overly stereotyped clothing as well. I was pleased to see my niece wearing cars and trucks underwear the other day. One time I had my son in a pink pouch and someone thought he was a girl, and another time he was wearing some green beads and someone called him a girl. It bugged me--those are the only times people we confused on his gender.

Anonymous said...

Yeah the gender based color system pretty well sucks! I have a 2 1/2 year old boy -- with beautiful curly blond hair, that is long like his uncle and dada. Brown eyes with long eyelashes, and is quite fond of hot pink. ~shrug~

I don't worry about what people say. I hear "oh what a pretty little girl"... sometimes I"ll respond with "he's got great hair" sometimes I don't bother.

Realistically, though I think the color cued clothes are quite gender biased and if this next ones a girl (two weeks to go!) I suspect it'll wear the same hand me downs that the first did... white onsies and jeans. LOL That what we have the money for these days.

Lauren Wayne said...

lisa: It's weird how everyone has to identify each baby by gender, isn't it? As if it matters when they're babies. My mom always used to get annoyed because my little brother had really long eyelashes and was quite pretty so was mistaken for a girl all the time -- even though he was dressed in primary colors, which she thought should be obviously boyish.

anon:I'll join you in the long curly hair on a boy trend! I can't bear to cut my son's sweet ringlets. I just love watching them keep on growing.

And I think white onesies and jeans is quite a chic look, for either gender. :) Best wishes on the next little one!

Martica said...


I completely agree.

I'm pregnant now with my first, and I dont know the gender, partially because I dont want to have to tell other people and have them start assigning the poor kid roles. That's what we do when we dress our children gender-specific, no matter what the conventions happen to be at the time.

We are signaling to other adults and already-socialized children how we would like them to treat the child.

It's not that babies acquire gender-specific behaviors when they experience a certain color, but that dressing in a certain color tells the people around how to genderize the child while socializing it.

I'm more comfortable with my child having a sexuality than a gender!!!


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