Imagine you are walking down the street and see a family with two babies; one wearing pink clothes, and the other wearing blue clothes. Chances are you assumed their genders and you were correct. In America, gender stereotypes are pushed onto children before they are even born. Gender reveals shower pink or blue powder onto soon-to-be parents, rooms are painted, and toys and clothes are bought. Before children even come into this world, choices are made for them. The pink and blue issue is the damaging gender stereotypes in American society that tells boys and girls they need to be associated with certain colors, products and events. In a recent photography project by JeongMee Yoon, it is showed that children are stuffed into pink and blue boxes, with little to no room to figure out who they are as individuals. The pink and blue issue is something that’s been sitting in American culture for a long time. Certain things in media and advertising such as gender reveals and binary fueled toys and clothes limit choices for children. This issue needs to change and evolve as it confines development youths to small boxes and labels of gender conformity, limits opportunity for individualism and self-exploration, has major mental impacts on children, and discriminates against minority groups who see “gender” in a reformed and progressive way.
This issue began in the 1940’s when “manufacturers settled on pink for girls and blue for boys, so Baby Boomers were raised with wearing the two colors” (Hartmann 2019). Once parents could find out whether they were having a boy or a girl, they could design their nursery and buy baby clothes, toys, and other products suiting the gender in the “appropriate” fashion; pink for girls, blue for boys. This was quickly commercialized as the trend started to stick, and America hasn’t been able to crawl out of the pink and blue trap since. Stores line their shelves with pink dresses and blue shorts, pink dolls and blue trucks. After decades and decades of pink and blue, social media came into the picture and amplified the problem. Gender reveals immediately categorized the unborn child as pink or blue, with no room for the child to eventually decide for themselves.
The first major issue associated with pink and blue is that it confines developmental youths into small boxes and labels of gender conformity. This means that children are not given the opportunity to learn about gender, and what it can mean to them as an individual. Most children are assigned a gender at birth, but many confuse gender with sex. Sex is defined by the body that a child is born with and all the different parts associated, but this is not the same as gender. Gender lacks a definition as its meaning is something that the individual decides, but most children are not aware that this is something they can explore and a decision they can make. Most children take things at face value, as they do not know any better, this is why the adults of the world are to blame. The parents and adults decide what is acceptable for the child to have, therefore enforcing their views onto the child. As the child’s parent, it is of course their right to raise the child as they please, but they are suffocating their child in dangerous gender stereotypes. Only giving girls pink things, makeup and dolls, and only giving boys blue things, trucks and blocks, limits the other gender from exploring those options because it is not considered “appropriate” for their sex. Kids should be able to wear and play with whatever makes them happy, and when an adult makes them feel that it’s not okay to do certain things because of their sex, it causes serious damage.
In a study conducted by Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache, it is pointed out that up until the age of two, kids showed “no preference for the color of particular toys or objects of interest” (Pandey 2016). Preference for color is not natural, but learned as a child gets older. Babies who are born female are not automatically only attracted to pink and pastel toys and clothes, it’s enforced upon them as they start to experience the world and understand it. A great example of big brands trying to eliminate gender stereotypes is Target, who decided to get rid of “boys” and “girls” labels within their stores defining certain products as being for only one or the other. This gives children the opportunity to choose products based on whether or not they like them, not because they identitfy with the sex it is associated with. Target also released a gender neutral product line filled with quirky patterns and colors to fit any kid. The line is created by Toca Boca, who is “best known for games, like Toca Boca Hair Salon and Toca Robot Lab, that eschew the gender norms that are often built into children’s toys with otherworldly characters and wild, colorful settings” (Miller 2017). The preferences we push onto kids are ridiculous and unhealthy for their growing brains. Targets lack of labels and gender neutral product line gives children the opportunity to just be who they want to be, and enjoy what they want to enjoy, without the weight of labels.
The counter-argument to this issue is that labels are beneficial and keep kids from being overwhelmed. By having separate products, toys, clothes, etc. for boys and girls, it gives children “reasonable” amounts of choices. Some also say that gender labels “regulate our behavior and assumptions based on cultural norms combined with life experience”. Though this can be true, education on gender is more important. It has also been said that when “viewing gender as an innate sense of human identity, self-applied labels are important in conveying how others should interpret us” (O’Ryan 2018).
The second major issue associated with the pink and blue problem is that pushing binary-fueled events, clothes, toys, etc. limits children exploring their individualism. The “rules” say that it’s appropriate for girls to like princesses and dolls and boys cannot, and it’s appropriate for boys to like trucks and blocks. Products and events rooted in genderism create a mindset that a child can’t be more than “pink” or “blue”. Gender stereotypes belittle children. By enforcing stereotypes that girls and boys have to like separate things, kids are not given the opportunity to explore their own likes and dislikes. By making children feel that it is only appropriate for them to like certain things, if they do not fit the specific criteria of their sex, they could end up feeling inadequate and isolated.
In a quote from Mia Mercado at Bustle, “if being told a color is ‘for’ a specific gender can cause a shift in mindset, imagine the effects of telling kids character traits, skills, and school subjects are ‘for’ a specific gender. It’s not a far stretch to say that qualities like being caring and being strong are equally as gendered early on as, say, pink and blue.” This quote perfectly embodies how damaging color bias is. Children have extremely malleable minds, and will take everything someone says as truth; so if you tell a boy that it’s “girly” to be kind and compassionate, then that boy could be left feeling inadequate for not fitting his gender stereotype. It is not okay that we make children feel this way. Gender associations warp kids into thinking they can only do certain things. Mercado also says “it’s easy to track how these ‘gender-appropriate’ rules can carry on throughout our entire lives: if girls are told to like pink and pink toys are primarily related to caregiving and fashion, who is being taught, early on, to value household chores and appearance?”
A related issue is the division of the sexes at a young age. Young children are almost immediate split up in a very “one or the other” situation when it comes to activities. When it comes to sports, there’s usually a boys team and a girls team. There are even certain sports and activities that are labelled as girl sports of boy sports, completely eliminating any chance of someone of the opposite gender taking an interest or trying the activity. Dancing, gymnastics and figure skating, traditionally a “girls” sport, and football and wrestling, traditionally a “boys” sport, enforce the idea that the sexes should like separate things. Any and all sports should be open to any child of any sex who takes an interest in it. Gender labels are so damaging as they limit the individualism of every child; some can feel that if something they’re interested isn’t appropriate for their gender, that maybe something is wrong with them, as they don’t fit the stereotypes that society is forcing on them. Along with the division of the genders in sports is the division of genders in clubs and societies. The main culprit being the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America. The two societies basically do all of the same things; they do the same activities, they teach the same values, and they want kids to learn. But, by keeping the sexes separate “gender stereotypes become increasingly rooted in children’s minds, so does a certain mysterious ignorance about the opposite sex. Their lack of firsthand experience not only leads to children and teens becoming fascinated with, or even frightened by the opposite gender, but allows stereotypes about them to persist” (Boulifi 2018).
It can be said that by pushing certain products, events, sports, clothes, etc. on children, that it gives them “comfortable” constraints and causes less complications. By giving children parameters of what they should wear, play with, or do in their spare time, some may believe that it limits confusion for the kids and makes it easier for them to fit it.
The third problem with pink and blue is the mental strain that it has on children. By dividing the genders, and telling children that their gender should aline with their sex, many children may feel confused and bad if their sex and their gender don’t aline. By dividing the genders between pink and blue, and pushing certain products, events, etc. onto kids, if a child feels that don’t completely identify with their assigned gender, children can feel “pressure to conform to culturally sanctioned gender roles; [this] has been posited as an explanation for the emergence of the gender difference in depression” (Priess 2014).
In a study completed by Heather A. Priess, Sara M. Lindberg, and Janet Shibley Hyde, the three studied how gender identity affects the mental health of children. They analyzed the gender intensification hypothesis, proposed by JP Hill and ME Lynch in 1983, where it was proposed “girls and boys face increased pressure to conform to culturally sanctioned gender roles. These pressures come from a variety of sources that convey messages about appropriate gender roles, such as parents, peers, educators, and the media. In the face of these pressures, adolescents are thought to become more differentiated in their gender-role identities, which presumably will be adaptive for their adult roles as women and men” (Hill and Lynch 1983). They also proposed that their theory affected children’s psychological well-being, mental health, academic and career aspirations, and parent and peer relationships. Along with Priess, Lindberg, Hyde, another proposal includes that “health risks are shaped by behaviors rooted in gender roles that can be well-established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old” (Mmari 2018). Some of the risks observed “for girls, those risks can include child marriage, pregnancy, leaving school early, sexually transmitted infections and exposure to violence. Boys suffer, too, from increased risk of substance abuse, suicide and shorter life expectancy than women — especially if they try to challenge masculine norms” (Grinberg 2018). Children are put under enormous pressure by society to conform to their expected gender and the roles associated, and fear that if they don’t conform they’ll be rejected.
The pink and blue issue and the mental effects it has on children are tremendous; they have lower self-esteem and confidence, are more likely to become depressed, are significantly more stressed, have a harder time coping with issues, and had a harder time connecting with others. Having gender immediately pushed on a child as they come into the world can have major mental health impacts, if a child ends up not being cis-gendered, they can end up feeling “wrong” inside, which can lead to mental illness and a serious internal emotional struggle. Understanding the difference between sex and gender, and being understanding of a child choosing to identify with a different gender than what they are assumed with, will ultimately help children understand who they are and how they want to identify. This will hopefully also help decrease mental illness associated with gender pressure.
The counter-argument for this issue is that children are just confused, and that they could be going through “phases” as they grow older and figure out more about themselves. Many parents immediately associate their childs sex with gender, therefore forcing gender upon their kids. This comes with certain colors, clothes, toys, events, etc. and if the child doesn’t “like” what’s “appropriate for their sex, then adults can assume that they just aren’t interested in the particular things they’re given.
The last and maybe most prominent issue with pink versus blue is the way it discriminates against new views on gender. In society today, many people view gender in a much more fluid fashion. Some parents do not even observe gender before and after their child is born. By treating children with neutrality, kids are able to figure out who they are and what they want as they grow up. But sadly, many still have rigid views on gender discriminating against new and progressive ways of interpreting gender.
As it is for all things when it comes to children, it is the decision of the parents. Many parents choose, whether knowingly or not, to push gender conformity onto their kids; but some parents have decided to break the mold and raise their children gender neutral. A liberating decision and experience for both the parents and the child, going gender neutral gives the child the opportunity to decide almost every aspect of themselves, a privilege not every child has. Some find gender neutrality to be threatening, as it doesn’t conform with the binary society that many find comforting. Choosing not to live as a cis-gendered person is very hard when society doesn’t accept you or understand your needs. Many public restrooms are either “womens” or “mens”, so which bathroom does a non cis-gendered person go into? The sex they were born with, or the gender they identify with? The same goes for any gendered facility; a locker room, dressing room, schools, etc. Many people who don’t identity with the body they were born with are discriminated and are forced to disassociate with the gender they identify with. Though more facilities are becoming more gender neutral, such as having all gendered restrooms, many facilities are still extremely binary based. This is extremely harmful and can be very mentally unhealthy for those who aren’t cis-gendered.
The counter-argument for this issue is controversial to many. Some people believe that, because of certain religious texts, that the world is only supposed to have one or the other, male or female. Those who break this vision or claim they were born in the wrong body, for some reason may threaten these people with more conservative views. Many put a lot of blind faith into religions, as that is mainly how religions function, but discriminating against people because it does not go along with your religion is wrong.
Having children observe gender stereotypes is a very slippery slope. Adults should be open to children deciding what they like and dislike, and who they want to be. A company bringing a flicker of hope for the future of a less binary world is Mattel, the company that created the iconic Barbie doll. In September 2019, Mattel released the first ever gender-neutral doll, allowing kids the pleasure of playtime no matter how they identify. The dolls feature “genderless” faces, with no features to imply whether they are a boy or a girl, customizable hair, neutral clothes, and a positive message. With such a big brand as Mattel releasing a line eliminating the issue of “one or the other”, hopefully other brands will follow suit so we can live in a world where children decide who they want to be, not based on pink or blue.
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