As soon as Mercer Island, Wash., parents Marcy and Kyle Naismith discovered they were expecting a boy and a girl — twins — in 2012, their world turned pink and blue. A stream of gender-specific clothes, toys and gifts started arriving, clearly intended for one twin or the other.
Although Marcy Naismith preferred more gender-neutral tones, such as red and orange, she couldn’t always fight the pastel-hued tide. After Tate and Lucy arrived, the new mom sometimes used color-coding to keep things like bottles straight. “We tried to steer clear of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ things, but often our options were pink and blue,” she recalls. In other words, some gender symbols were all but impossible to avoid.
Society’s ideas about gender shape how even the tiniest babies are dressed, perceived and treated; in the famous Baby X experiment in 1975, adults handled girl infants more often and offered them more gender-stereotyped toys, while boys were handled less.
Even parents who want to avoid gender-themed toys and clothes, like the Naismiths, find that the traditional colors have a way of creeping in. If parents aren’t vigilant, they end up staring down a playroom full of pink sparkles or blue trucks with either horror, resignation or both.
So what’s the problem with the pink/blue paradigm? What’s the harm in letting grandparents buy the baby tiara or the truck-themed bedroom set — do these choices really matter when the child in question is still sporting diapers?
The problem with pink
Jo Paoletti, Ph.D., associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, calls this phenomenon “pinkification.” And yes, she says, it matters.
Pinkification isn’t about pink (indeed, Paoletti notes that its history as a feminine color in our culture is less than 100 years old), but about reinforcing a gender binary that validates only certain gender expressions and the people who embody them: namely, those at either end of the gender spectrum — hypermasculine macho men or ultrafeminine girly girls.
Paoletti, who also writes the Gender Mystique blog, notes that pinkification goes beyond the use of pink for girls’ things; it also narrows choices and excludes gender-neutral options. Kids’ clothes and toys are becoming increasingly gender-specific, and researchers at the National Association for the Education of Young Children report that gender-typed toys are less educational than gender-neutral ones.
Pinkification also teaches and reinforces stereotypes and limits the way children perceive themselves and others, Paoletti says. And, perhaps most troubling, it excludes children who don’t fit society’s gender mold.
Kids who don’t slot into the strict frills-or-football gender framework can feel left out in the cold, says Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., director of mental health at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center in Oakland, Calif. The second of her two grown children was “a very gender-nonconforming” little boy, she says, with little interest in trucks and other “boy” toys, while her daughter embraced dolls, pink and all things stereotypically girly.
“I was committed to gender expansiveness for both my children, with a mixture of all types of toys for them to choose from,” says Ehrensaft, author of Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children. “They took it from there.”
Exercising free choice
As babies grow into toddlers, they begin choosing their own clothes and toys, often along gender lines. A 2010 study by the British Psychological Society found that by 9 months of age, babies already prefer gender-specific toys and colors, with girls gravitating toward dolls and stuffed animals, and boys choosing balls and cars. Similar results have been seen in studies with monkeys, suggesting that preferences for so-called stereotypical playthings might be innate.
So there’s nothing wrong with letting a little girl wear frills and ruffles if she wants to, says Ehrensaft. The problem with pink “princess culture” isn’t necessarily that it limits girls — it’s that it excludes boys. The fact is, she says, most children love shiny, sparkly things. Who wouldn’t? Girls should have access to sparkles and frills if they want them, but boys should, too.
Parents sometimes cut boys off from this type of self-expression for misguided fear that their child will “turn out” gay, Ehrensaft says. Her response? That’s nonsense. “Gender is gender and sex is sex. Think of them as railroad tracks. They’re completely different tracks — don’t make them be the same track. You’ll be confused and lose focus of your child.”
There’s no way to tell whether a toddler boy who skips Army figures in favor of baby dolls will be gay, Ehrensaft says. “What you have is a gender-creative little boy. It’s not a sexual identity.”
Trying to quash a child’s early gender expressions is a losing battle. “Parents can suppress it, but they can’t shake it,” she notes, and doing so can cause lasting psychological harm.
The power of parents
The antidote to limiting gender stereotypes is parent power, Paoletti says. “Parents can insist on more choices for their kids.”
For babies and toddlers, more choices mean a more expansive view of themselves and others. The key is offering a spectrum of options, then standing back and respecting the choices kids make, says Virginia Rutter, Ph.D., senior scholar with Miami-based nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. It’s also essential to understand that you can only engineer your baby’s social world so much. “You can’t raise your child in a completely gender-neutral world,” Rutter says. “Some of those influences are going to come in.”
Marcy Naismith is fine with that. Despite having access to both “boy” and “girl” toys, her twins gravitate toward things associated with their own genders: Lucy loves hairstyles and her stuffed bunny; Tate is into trucks.
Even so, their mom says, “I want them to know that no matter what gender they are, they can do anything they put their minds to.”
Reading up on gender
The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, Rebecca Hains (forthcoming)