Why Are We Still Telling Our Children That Pink Is For Girls?
I thought this whole division of colors and toys for boys and girls was a thing of the past. Turns out I was way wrong.
“Papá, is pink for girls?” asked Lorenzo, my oldest son, who is four years old.
Lorenzo usually listens very attentively to the stories we read at home. Sometimes it seems like a paradox to me, because the rest of the time he can't sit still (literally, I'm not exaggerating). I wonder if it is that while he listens to the stories his body is relaxed but his head does somersaults.
He often interrupts his night-time stories with the intention, I suspect, of stretching out the ritual as long as possible so as not to fall asleep. “I don't want to sleep anymore, I just want to play,” he told me last Sunday as we were walking home, at night, after having spent the whole day playing with his friends.
But back to pink. This time the interruption to the reading came with some concern, which was evident from his frown and his serious tone. He looked somewhat of a mix of sad and distressed.
Pink has been Lorenzo's favorite color for quite some time, I would say since he learned to say the colors. At home he chooses the pink plate to eat, the pink crayon to paint, the pink fork, the pink teaspoon. Even with food: “helado pink,” he says, mixing the word for ice cream in Spanish with his beloved color, which comes out faster in English (and it's easier than saying “de frutilla”, strawberry).
Do I need to say that I always feel a lot of tenderness towards him in those moments? He is both effusive and joyful, especially when it comes to asking for ice cream. The point is that everything was going well with the colors until Lorenzo encountered the world outside our home. And a question emerged in my mind: how long will he be able to feel comfortable choosing pink?
The book we were reading was The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. It's about a little boy who gets letters from each of his crayons. Each color has something to tell him: whether he used it too much or too little, whether he painted within the boundaries or not, or what the true color of the sun was.
Until the pink crayon’s letter appears, which refers to the fact that the boy's sister uses it (and that he didn't use it even once). That's when Lorenzo asked me if pink was for girls. “No, why? Here it says that his sister wears it a lot... and that he could wear it too.”
After talking for a while, he ended up telling me that he had been told so at kindergarten. And he seemed to take a weight off his shoulders, because evidently he had been carrying it around and he just had the chance to ask. And for him it was a serious thing: this was his all-time favorite color and apparently it was wrong. Was such a thing possible?
I immediately told him no, that all colors are for everyone. And then I added, trying to anticipate something that could happen — or guessing that it was not the first time he was questioned: “Well, there are people who think that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. But I don't agree... I think everyone can choose the color they like the most. If you like pink, it's perfect.”
There was silence. “Ah, OK,” he said.
As an article in El País points out, “we must not forget that conventions about the meanings of each color are arbitrary, as well as changing over time.”
The next time we have a conversation about pink, I'm going to tell Lorenzo something I've just discovered: pink was not only related to masculinity for a long time, but it has been “a girl’s color” for a few years only, something that started to happen in the United States after World War II and only consolidated in the 1980s.
What were the reasons? “I think both homophobia and misogyny played a role in denying boys anything associated with girls,” said U.S. historian Jo Paoletti, who has dedicated her career to studying the construction of gender stereotypes through fashion, in an interview with Argentina’s Clarín newspaper.
Pink, the tip of the iceberg
Let me add a disclaimer here: I am not making a big deal about a color, because it is not "just about a color", it is about what is behind these words and, above all, about the spiral they generate.
Because pink was the first episode of this type with Lorenzo, who in the weeks that followed was again questioned about his tastes and desires. First came the color, then came the toys and the games. Yes, they took down Barbies and Frozen (neither of which I'm particularly interested in or fond of, but it's not about my tastes here, it's about my son’s).
“The teacher told me I can't play with Barbies because they are for girls.”
Again, unnecessary discomfort. But the messages from the outside world are starting to pile up. And so I ask him the same question: “Do you like Frozen/playing with Barbies?”
“Yes, I like them but I can't play because they’re not for boys, they’re for girls.”
So, back to the same chat, to try to help him to do what he enjoys the most and that he doesn't feel at fault. But this time the talk is more difficult.
“No, papá, Frozen is for girls,” he says, a little nervous. He’s holding a Frozen folder he had bought a few days earlier.
“But do you like Frozen?”
“Yes, very much. But it’s for girls.”
Not choosing is not harmless
“If children are denied the ability to choose, their ability to choose becomes limited, because choosing is a learning process. If we limit this ability to choose, we limit citizens,” warns Argentine political scientist Esmeralda Siuffi, author of Todos los colores son tuyos (“All the colors are yours”).
Siuffi draws attention to the constraints of social pressure on girls and boys to “choose” toys and clothes according to the color assigned to their gender.
In the story, based on real events, a girl has concerns and seeks answers to questions that arise from what she is told outside her home about colors. “One of those concerns is linked to the differentiation of the overalls in the kindergarten, the difference in the bathrooms, the different games. Why could my cousins go play in the mud when it rained and I could not?" asks Georgina Salas, the story’s illustrator.
A 2019 report by the Argentine Center for Political Economy (CEPA) pointed out that 40% of toys aimed at girls are linked to care tasks, with baby dolls (with all their variations such as bath accessories, "learning to talk", breastfeeding, etc.) the most common toy categorized as “for girls”. In other words, since childhood toys have the mandate to create nurturing mothers.
When it comes to toys “for boys”, the CEPA report says 30% of toys are related to sports, 26% are associated with violence (mostly guns), 19% are linked to cars and accessories and 9% are brain teasers.
“If 40% of the toys for girls are designed to make them perform domestic work, for boys this type of toy represents a resounding 0%", the report concludes. This is not only an Argentine reality. It is enough to take a look at the press in Spain to see that there are often reports and articles about it (oh, and we, I mean my family, we live in Greece, in the outskirts of Athens).
In the end, as Siuffi pointed out, I believe that “colors are the starting point to be able to think about a topic that may seem to us as abstract as inequality and make it understandable for children, not only to describe what generates inequality, but to transform reality.”
“Many of us learned to make choices based on restrictions, which also closed off other possibilities of thinking and living our lives. This restriction of our world began with a nodal phrase such as 'don't wear pink because it's for girls' and 'don't wear light blue because it's for boys' [...] and extended unlimitedly to condition our entire lives, from don't play this, don't study that, don't work there, don't think like that, don't practice that sport and an endless list of refusals that began with an apparently innocuous initial prohibition,” says Siuffi.
And the point is just that: what might seem a simple color, if we stop to think about it, is much more than a detail. And it is not innocuous. So, Lorenzo dear, use the colors and toys you like the most. But when you're done, please tidy everything up, okay?
I’ll leave you here. Thank you very much for reading.
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See you in a few weeks.
🙏 Many thanks to Worldcrunch for translating and editing this newsletter.
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