The fear of being unfeminine has been with me for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are of a bedroom filled with pink bedding and a closet that contained more than one pink tutu and maybe even a pair of plastic play high-heels. As I chose outfits for my Barbies and baby dolls, I longed for the day I would finally have a daughter to dress all in pink. Now that she’s here, I’d like to think I know better.
Our family isn’t stubbornly against pink. If she gets a pink shirt for Christmas, of course I’m not going to throw it in the trash. But looking back on my own pink, girly childhood and how I put pressure on myself to avoid “boy” shows or “boy” sports in order to maintain what I now see as an impossible and prohibitive feminine ideal, I don’t want those labels on anything in my daughter’s life except the restroom.
This issue has come sharply into focus for me lately because of the choices involved in expanding Nerdy With Children’s clothing brand. A lot of our early arguments focused quite a bit on whether or not to include pink in our “Real Heroes for Real Kids” line, which spotlights famous figures from STEM. The whole point is to give all kids of all genders an access point to history and science, and some kids do genuinely love pink, so I didn’t want to rule it out. In the end, however, I think deliberately avoiding it was the best decision.
To illustrate the problem with pink, let’s have a look at this soccer uniform.
Karen Alpert explains on Baby Sideburns that upon receiving their new pink uniforms, the kiddos were pretty pumped. This little boy “likes pink. And purple. And My Little Pony. And he is SUPER excited to be playing soccer on this team and absolutely LOVES his new uniform.”
But apparently some of the parents weren’t excited to see their boys on this co-ed soccer team wearing pink, so they forced a color switch. Kids’ soccer politics aside, the problem here is pretty clear: kids live in a world that’s gender-coded by adults.
This is why, as a kid, I always stopped myself from liking something because it was “for boys.” And that is why only 13% of engineers and 25% of professionals in the field of computer and mathematical science are female. Gender segregation starts out innocently enough with things like colors, toys and TV shows, but that’s what plants the seeds for the socially ingrained belief that empathetic professions are for girls and logical professions are for boys.
As Beverly Turner said in The Telegraph: “Like policing sugary drinks and too much TV, what your kids wear is your responsibility. It starts with our purses and can only end with them too. Pink is political. Although, I admit, avoiding the proliferation is extremely hard to do.”
It’s true, avoiding pink is hard, but kids learn early to both express themselves and label others using clothing. Anyone who’s ever taken a baby girl out in a blue jacket sees exactly how this starts, even from birth. In fact, many of my shower gifts prove that it happens even before.
Because everyone simply must know her gender before forming an opinion of her, my daughter is as risk of seeing herself as a little girl before she sees herself as any of the other things she is, and that’s terrifying. What’s even more terrifying is that our gender-coding of early childhood teaches everyone else how they should be treating her, which leaves her open to accepting the potential inequalities she’ll face at her future workplace, or even within her own future family.
Going back to the soccer uniform example, little boys aren’t safe from gender-coding either. As girls are being primed to be domestic goddesses, boys are being constantly conditioned to eschew their feminine sides. I can’t speak from experience on this one, but I’m guessing I have a lot of male peers out there who were forcing themselves to avoid things that were “girly” as they grew up, which makes it tougher (but certainly not impossible) to ever see the genders as equal.
So that begs the question: Do we ‘force’ boys to wear pink soccer uniforms, or do we simply stop buying pink things for our daughters?
We decided to avoid pink completely in our new campaign because we didn’t want our clothes to be coded for gender, but I’d be the first to admit that I’d much rather have a world where we didn’t have to worry about that at all.