The Pull Power of Pink
Posted on 31 May 2015
Research indicates that at birth, girls and boys are actually not that different. The chasm starts appearing soon after, due to the way they are treated and the different gender expectations placed on them. These factors mean that girls and boys experience childhood in very different ways. Years ago as a psychology student I read the studies illustrating these differences, but as a parent, it has been fascinating to observe this first hand.Over the past few years my (non-scientific!) research has involved me deliberately dressing my toddler daughter in outfits ranging from very 'boyish" to very "girly" when we go out. The difference in the way she is treated is astounding. When she is dressed in the most 'girly' clothes, numerous strangers comment on her clothes, her sweetness and her beautiful eyes. When she is in 'boy' clothes, she gets comments about how strong she is and what a rascal she must be. I have noted that when dressed in 'boy' clothes, no one has EVER commented on Nina's eyes. In 'girl' clothes, there is about a 50% chance she will have the beauty of her eyes pointed out.
I want to share an interesting example that I documented over numerous visits to a particular hardware store over the summer. At this particular shop Nina adores pushing the mini-trolleys round the store. When she raced round with the mini-trolley in 'boy' clothes, I fielded comments about what a handful he must be, what a rascal, "what a typical boy" etc etc. When she raced round with the mini-trolley in a sweet pink dress I got comments about what a great helper I have, and comments on her beauty and sweetness. My child hears all this, observing, listening, making sense of her world and her place in it. I learn that boys with mini-trolleys are little rascals, girls with mini-trolleys are mummy's little helpers. I wonder what messages Nina is absorbing?
Society's reaction to Nina as a 'girl' and Nina as a 'boy' have shown me, on a very small scale, how differently the world interacts with children solely based on their perceived gender. My son and my daughter are gaining very different messages about their place in the world as they interact with the people in our communities. Regardless of the way that we parent, my children will come up against strict societal rules about what is valued and not valued based on their gender.
Up until recently, Nina had been reasonably sheltered from gender limitations and expectations. We have been very careful with the language we use and the toys she has. We don't have a TV, so her exposure to advertising is minimal. Her clothing is a mix of hand-me-downs from her older brother, and items gifted to us from friends. There has been a mix of colours, and I have been careful that pink takes up only its relative share of the clothes - unlike most retail stores whereby 'girls' clothing is about 90%. Or, as illustrated in this photo I took in the summer - Kmart doesn't even offer non-pink toddler swimwear in their girls range.
But of course I always knew that at some point, the cultural influences we are all immersed in will have a very strong effect on Nina and her sense of gender. It was just a matter of time.
Nina started kindergarten a few weeks ago and what really struck me was the highly gendered clothing her classmates were clothed in, and also the number of gendered statements made unwittingly by parents and staff. This situation was normal: it is how our society operates in 2015. I realised just how much of a rare bubble Nina had existed in until then. I wondered how long it would take until Nina started absorbing the gender messages she was now being exposed to. (NB: I ADORE this kindergarten, the staff are WONDERFUL - the gendered stuff is simply reflective of the highly gendered way childhood is portrayed these days).
Two weeks after starting kindergarten we were in a big department store. Nina came running towards me with a pair of pink headphones in her hand, begging for me to buy them for her. (She called them earmuffs - her only reference point being the earmuffs she wears when she helps mow the lawns!). I was really interested in her insistent tone that she MUST have these particular "earmuffs", so I quickly turned on my video to capture the conversation I was going to have with her. Up until that moment, any conversation I had had with her about colours, she had been quite firm in her opinion that her favourite colour was orange. This is the raw unedited video I took:
It really blew me away. How much she had suddenly absorbed that pink, and only pink was for girls. She identifies as a girl, therefore out of all the colours available, only one was suitable for her. Up until this moment, Nina had never clearly differentiated between "girls" things and "boys" things. But at 2 years 7 months and two weeks into Kindergarten she had suddenly developed a very strong sense of The Rules: what is for girls and what is for boys.
Soon after I stopped videoing, my seven year old son told Nina in no uncertain terms that "colours are for everyone". I gave him an imaginary high-five, as Nina adores him and thinks his word is law. The three of us stood there for a while longer and chatted about the colours and emblems on the headphones. Nina announced that definitely the pink pairs were the ones she would have, and she knew I was fine with that. (The kids are used to me deconstructing every consumer choice we make :) )
Now, I am not anti-pink, I am simply anti-limitations on our kids. And suddenly my two year old has realised that out of all the colours available, the only one she is actually able to choose is pink. Sure, in one sense she is "free" to choose any colour she wants. But how much of a free choice is it?
Just as we as adults don't live in a cultural vacuum, and all decisions we make are based on years of 'society' telling us what we should be doing, Nina's decision about what colour headphones she can choose is based on what she observes and what is marketed to her. Girls are not hard-wired to simply adore pink. The pink addiction happens purely because society has constructed girlhood around that one colour.
Granted, a daughter with a penchant for all-things-pink is hardly the end of the world. As a busy parent trying to do my best raising my kids, it's way down my list of things-to-worry-about. But what does concern me is the potential of this being the tip of the iceberg. You know, that big visible chunk of ice sitting squarely on top of the ocean. We see it and laugh about little girls obsessed with pink. But what lies beneath it? What other values are our daughters soaking up? What else is society telling them about what they should look like, who they should be and how they should act? For Nina now, it was a simple thing of "only pink headphones" - but what about when we are talking about bigger choices? As she grows up, how many of her choices will actually be non-choices, solely based on her gender?
I just want my kids to have the freedom to be who they are. The freedom to reach their potential without society's limitations placed on them. And that is a big challenge to take on in 2015.