Beyond Pink and Blue

Samantha Hedwall’s toddler, A.J., knows what she wants.

The Mankato mom tried putting her in pink, but the two-year-old denied her. 

“She did not want bows in her hair and she did not want to wear a dress,” Hedwall says. 

A.J. wanted a tool set like her dad’s and only wears her “princess shirts” when she feels like it. It was frustrating then to find clothing and shop for toys that appealed to her daughter in a polarized and gendered market.

“She loves tools and Thomas the Train. I didn’t raise her to be that way,” she says, “I just accept her for exactly what she wants.”

Hedwall and other parents, educators, and advocates have grown frustrated with the gender binaries they say limit what children — especially girls — can do and wear. 

Children don’t need to be told what to like or how to act, they simply internalize the messages from toys, clothing, media, and role models around them.

In a 2006 Girls Inc. survey about gender stereotypes, 84 percent of girls said they are under a lot of pressure to dress the right way, and 57 percent said parents want girls to play with dolls, not trucks and action figures. 

Nine in 10 girls surveyed said people think girls care a lot about shopping and 35 percent of them said people don’t think girls are good leaders. 

“They’re so pigeonholed in their beliefs about their role and who they are,” says Deby Ziesmer, who directs early childhood programs for the YWCA of Minneapolis. 

Ziesmer said she sees very young children picking up on sexist remarks and innuendos and re-enacting them during dramatic play. Children will also often “gender police” each other when someone isn’t following perceived norms. 

Ziesmer speculates those biases come from the adults in their lives. “I’m just worried about the generation living this now,” she says. “They’ll grow up and not be able to think outside these boxes.”

The ‘backward’ market

Toys lay out expectations for children about the roles they’ll fill later in life, says Laura Harrison, a gender and women’s studies professor at Minnesota State University Mankato. Toys for girls still teach baking, cooking, cleaning, and nurturing even though women do not adhere to those narrow tasks.  

Toys marketed toward boys emphasize active role-play and more physicality than girls’ toys, Harrison says.

Subtle and softer messages are further emblazoned on the clothing available for girls in mainstream stores where color choices and images are limited to pink, purple, puppies, and princesses.

The themes on the clothing in the girls’ department left Sharon Choksi, of Austin, Texas shopping in the boys’ section for clothes that would appeal to her three-year-old daughter.  

“The messages about what girls are supposed to like are so limited,” she says. 

In 2013, Choksi founded Girls Will Be — a clothing line that focuses on girls clothes in colors “beyond pink” without girly embellishments that also showcase a wide array of interests like nature, space, and sports.

“It’s okay for a girl to like robots and outer space,” she says. “The brand name is ‘Girls Will Be.’ We’re trying to send a message to girls that it’s okay to like these things as well.”

Childhood has changed since Melissa Wardy grew up in the ’80s. The Wisconsin resident says she played outside most of the time and she and younger brothers were dressed alike. 

Today, she said the market is “extremely gendered” and “almost backward.” She struggled to find a onesie with an airplane on it for her infant daughter, Amelia, in honor of the groundbreaking female pilot Amelia Earhart. “Surely there’s more we can give our daughters,” Wardy says.

Wardy launched Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies clothing company in 2009 to fight against gender stereotypes and sexualization of young girls. 

Her “Redefine Girly” T-shirts celebrate different paths for girls while poking fun at tropes from typical girls’ clothing — like an image of a girl directing on set that reads, “Act like a lady.”

“I don’t believe in ‘tomboy’ or ‘girly girls.’ Girls can be so many different ways all in one day or all at the same time,” Wardy says. 

 Valued for appearance

When her 15-year-old daughter was approached by a modeling agency in a Target store, Susan Walker, a self-identified feminist who worked for many years with women with eating disorders, was surprised. “For the way that I raised my daughter, it was kind of this cruel twist of fate that she would potentially work in that industry.” 

Walker, now a professor of parent education at the University of Minnesota, said she didn’t raise her daughter to be as body-conscious and focused on appearance as the modeling industry is. She started a the blog Model Mom to track her experiences as her daughter started working in the Twin Cities modeling industry.

As the parent of a pretty girl, Walker says it’s important to tell girls they’re valued for many aspects of themselves besides their beauty. “I knew that society was going to tell her that all the time and she was going to be continually reinforced for her looks. I didn’t want that to be the only way she defined herself.” 

Educators and caregivers in Ziesmer’s YWCA program are careful not to compliment students on how they look or on their outfits. “It sends the message that who they are is how they dress,” she says. 

She also takes issue with girls’ clothing as many of the current trends: skinny jeans, short skirts, and bikini tops to name a few, make them look like miniature adults. Furthermore, the clothes are too restrictive for girls to run, jump, and play.

That’s another reason why Choksi founded Girls Will Be. She says it’s like “searching for a needle in a haystack to find a regular cut pair of pants” among the skinny jeans available now. “Already at the age of five you’re trying to fit in skinny jeans?” 

She cites the Girls Inc. survey: 37 percent of girls between third and fifth grade said they’re worried about their weight. By the time girls reach high school, it’s 62 percent. “We don’t need to be starting that young.” 

Boys are limited, too

Parents and experts say this gendered messaging hurts boys, too. 

“This isn’t just something that parents of daughters should be concerned about. It affects boys and men as well,” Harrison says. “Boys are limited if they are receiving narrow messages.”

The options available for boys — like being a pilot or a superhero — have more value in our society, Harrison believes. When girls eschew gender roles and play with trucks or don a cape, it’s considered an “upward status move.”

“When a boy is painting his nails or wearing a dress, that’s not going to be celebrated in the same way,” she says.

It’s very important to show boys that men can have nurturing, caregiving roles to prepare them for later in life.

Ziesmer said the YWCA’s male teachers help children of both genders see that. “Unless we are teaching boys to be nurturing and loving men then we’re not making any progress at all.” 

Wardy, who has a five-year-old son, says kids could be missing out on meaningful relationships in their youth and grow up unable to understand and relate to those of the opposite sex, further impacting friendships and romantic relationships.

“Kids see pink and blue and that’s an awful thing,” she says. “When we raise them to think that way, they’re less likely to have cross-gender friendships.”

Pushing back

Parents don’t have to start their own clothing line or toy companies to fight against the messages facing their children.

For pushing back against companies, Wardy said online petitions and campaigns on Facebook and Twitter can help parents affect change. “Companies are realizing they have to respond to consumers,” she says.

Parents should present children with a range of images — not just the conventional standard of feminine beauty that pervades magazines, television, and advertisements, Walker says. 

She says to teach kids to be critical of the messages they’re receiving and “advocate that they are more than what people see.”

If parents don’t like the messages in the girls’ department or in the toy aisle, find something else. Harrison says it’s simply a matter of actively seeking out alternatives.

Parents should create an environment where “kids are kids,” Ziesmer says, with a variety of toys and play options and support whatever the child likes.

“They should be thinking about being a kid — exploring, learning, and growing,” she says.