Gender stereotyping :: Time to rethink the pink?

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I baptise thee Paris Hilton.  Oh, BTW,
the outfit is made from my mum’s wedding 
dress.  Very pretty.  And unisex. 
Though «you’d *have* to change
the ribbon for a blue one if it was a boy»…
(quote seamstress)

I know it’s coming.  The Pink.  Right now, Bolle wears mostly colours she looks good in, that is earthy colours and white.  She looks like a grim parody of a baby in pink.  But it probably won’t last.

On the Baby Led Weaning forum I frequent, a mother shared yesterday the following story from somewhere in the UK:

…at a boot sale on Sunday.

As I pushed the boy around in the buggy, I saw a lovely (boxed) pink keyboard which I know the boy will love as one of his friend’s has one exactly the same (but in red).

I asked the lady selling it how much she wanted & she told me that it was a present to her little boy from a friend but that she had not given it to her boy as it was pink & ‘…you know, it’s not really appropriate is it?’

I smiled and she continued to get it out of its box & show me that it was indeed unused.

I paid the £3 she was asking for it and passed it to my boy saying ‘…here you go son, bet you can’t wait to play with this when we get home..’

Other mothers (the forum is, perhaps inevitably but ironic given the topic of this post, predominantly female) piped up with similar stories, out of which this was my favourite:

I remember buying thick snow mittens last year when we had all the snow. They only had flowery ones left in the shop and the man said sorry we don’t have any. I think you’ll find you do and frankly my son would prefer warm fingers even with flowers on the gloves 

I’ve experienced similar things in Stavanger.  When Bolle was about 3 months old, I went into Sørbø, the Reflex retailer, and asked for a pair of tights suitable for this baby.  «Is it for a boy or a girl,» the staff girl asked.  Hello?  A pair of tights?  Turned out they only had pink and blue or something.  Still.  Aggghhh.

Much can be said about biological predispositions towards gender stereotypes, and my personal understanding of the issue probably falls somewhere between «autism is an extreme form of the male brain» Baren-Cohen and «gender delusions» Cordelia Fine, though nearer to the latter.

I was pointed to an article in the Guardian, extracted from the snappily titled Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by US Peggy Orenstein.  She quotes neuroscientist  Lise Eliot, expert in neuroplasticity and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, as describing toy choice as showing one of the largest life span differences between the sexes out of any variable apart from romantic partner choice.

But Eliot emphasises how this bias, arising at a fecund time for parents to reinforce, is heavily catered to by a child’s environment.

Eliot is quoted as saying:

«Think about language. Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds and grammar and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires itself up to only perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, it’s possible to learn another language, but it’s far more difficult.

I think of gender differences similarly: the ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. That contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.»

That does make a lot of sense, both intuitively and from what I know about neuroplasticity.  I think this above all emphasises the importance of offering my daughter options, even when she starts wanting to wear a pink tutu every day to nursery.

If you allow others to define what you should be,
with your task being to become that,
you lay the foundation for the development,
over a few generations,  of a more totalitarian regime
than the one we have today.
(Ulrik Malt, Prof. of Psychiatry,
University of Oslo, in Morgenbladet, 04.11.11)

Then there is the fact that when my generation grew up, toy kitchens came in more than one colour.  And judging from my experience teaching in high school, young women today are on average far more looks-obsessed than my peers ever were.  There might be a connection, there might not.

I heard today also that Audun Lysbakken wants retouched models to be labeled in commercials to give young people a more realistic apperception of looks.  But at the stage where glossy mags become your bible, I think it might be too late.  The teenage brain is way less plastic than that of a toddler.

If Bolle wanted to the same unhealthy and unexciting food at every meal every day, I wouldn’t let her, because I see it as establishing a poor and restricting habit for later on in life.

I see allowing girls to wear pink and twirly things and never suggesting they read a book about something other than Angelina Ballerina as doing something similar, except it affects their identity rather than their diet. 

She may reject dinosaur books every day for three years, but one day the pink phase is over, and I’d rather she turn out a balanced individual with some perspective, than a fashion blogger who is all surface, because it cannot be denied that a lot of the Pink Stuff emphasises the importance to a girl of looking «perfect».

So is it unrealistic to think it will have an impact?  Maybe.

Will it hit me in the face once she starts nursery and a boy yells «girls can’t have stuff with trains on» (a rather heartwrenching example from the forum)..?  Most likely.

However, if she turns out an adult exclusively dreaming of being a glamour model or Paris Hilton, at least I want it to be an informed choice not made on the basis of being allowed to grow up with increasingly constricted views of what her gender allows her to do.

I’m all for girls being allowed to wear whatever they want.  I just think that those desires should not be constricted to the pink pages of the toy catalogue.