It was late July and far too hot for me to take my preschool class outside. The kids were starting to get rowdy, so I offered up a question to regain their focus: “If you were a Jedi, what color would your lightsaber be?”
The chorus of colors hit my ears almost immediately: oranges, greens, blues, purples and reds.
From one lone boy, Russell, came the excited reply of pink. Benjamin immediately turned to him and exclaimed, “That’s stupid! Pink is a girl color!” As Russell’s face fell, I was crushed.
How could children so young already have assigned gender to colors?
Where does this pink versus blue idea come from?
From the moment a child is brought into the world, we start imprinting the idea that genders have assigned colors.
From the balloons in the hospital room to the cap the nurse places on his or her tiny head, to the first outfit he or she wears home, everything is divided into one of two camps: pink or blue.
Why? As it turns out, these two colors weren’t favored for babies until the mid-19th century, and not promoted as gender cues until just before World War I.
Most surprising is that, originally, the colors were switched.
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” -- Earnshaw's, June 1918
Our current color mandate wasn’t chosen until the 1940s, and like so much of our culture, it was a direct result of manufacturer' and retailers' interpretations of American preferences.
That’s right; this whole idea is based on what marketers think we want.
Why is it a problem?
As a country, we’re moving toward becoming an all-inclusive society.
Every day, our ideas on race, religion, cultural norms, gender identity and sexual orientation are changing, yet we still find ourselves raising our children to be subconsciously sexist.
By reinforcing negative gender stereotypes, we’re doing far more harm than we might imagine.
When children are forced into certain gender roles in order to fit in, they lose the ability to determine their own interests and skills.
It discourages young men from participating in cleaning and childcare, and restricts women from choosing roles seen as traditionally "male" such as engineering and science.
The negative effects can go deeper than emotional harm. There are physical expectations connected with these stereotypes, many of which are unrealistic.
The dolls and action figures our kids play with, the cartoons they watch on television and the Photoshopped models they see on the covers of magazines, all can have a profound effect on the idea of what the “perfect” stereotypical human should look like.
If you think it’s not harmful, look no further than the actors who play live-action versions of popular characters and the physical change they undergo to do so.
Lily James said this of the corset she had to wear to achieve Cinderella’s impossibly tiny waist:
“I couldn’t untie it. I wasn’t able to enjoy a lovely lunch or tea. If I ate food, it didn’t really digest properly and I’d be burping all afternoon ... I’d have soup so that I could still eat and it wouldn’t get stuck.”
Chris Evans speaks of the routine it took to get Captain America’s super-soldier muscular physique:
“I’m very skinny naturally. I’m kind of a little bony kid, so getting big is tough, you know. It’s hard to keep the weight on. "The second you stop filming, you pull the plug, and I don’t even think about the gym for months. It’s a really daunting task gearing back up.”
When children unconsciously try to live up to the standards of these stereotypes, they can do physical and emotional harm to themselves.
How can we change?
Getting rid of gender stereotypes starts with how you personally view gender and the conversations you have with your children.
“We need to take a hard look at the way we think and the messages we give to our children. When I was growing up it wasn’t cool for girls to be good at numbers. "So when I had the opportunity to learn to code I didn’t take it. That was something boys did.” -- Leyla Seka in an article from Desk.com
Children learn by imitating their parents, so avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes when you’re at home. Split chores evenly, rather than on the idea of what is “men’s work and women’s work.”
Your daughter is more than beautiful, and your son more than strong; compliment your children on their behavior, intelligence and spirit as well.
Most importantly, point out and discuss the instances of sexism you see when watching television, reading books or wandering the world at large.
Toys and Clothing
It’s also important take a look at the toys and clothing you’re buying for your children.
Although the aisles in most toy stores are more gendered than ever, try to offer a mixed bag for play. Lego sets, baby dolls, toy kitchens and science sets can usually be found in a gender-neutral form.
“More meaningful change will require toy companies to think outside of the gender box — and beyond the limiting colors that signify gender. "Instead of more pink weapons and building sets, toys should be made using a full spectrum of colors (including pink) and with diverse themes, and they should be marketed to both boys and girls.” -- Elizabeth Sweet, in an article from the New York Times
However, if you’re more of a brick-and-mortar shopper, there’s no reason you can’t shop the whole store. As a giant comic book geek, I find most of my favorite t-shirts in the men’s section.
It’s not necessary to go completely gender neutral. For instance, if your daughter loves lace and ribbons, and your son wants some camo cargo shorts, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to have them.
There’s also nothing to say your son can’t wear a tutu while your daughter rocks a motorcycle tee.
Ultimately, getting rid of gender stereotypes -- and this ridiculous idea of pink versus blue -- starts with us.
The more of us who take a stand and push aside these outdated ideas, the more likely the companies manufacturing our children’s clothes and toys are to change the way they do things.
After Benjamin told Russell that pink was a girl’s color, I knew I had to step in. I put my hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye and said quietly, but firmly, “There is no such thing as boy or girl colors. Colors are for everyone.”