Opinion: Cultural norms of gender colors harmful to children, their identities

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Our culture is obsessed with classifications. The easier we can package something up in a neat and tidy box, tie it with a bow and set it on its proper shelf in the scheme of society, the better. One of the most discernible ways we do this is by assigning genders.

Even before a baby is born, we need to know how to label it. We go to extremes with announcements and gender reveal parties to make sure the world knows “what” it is. Why? Because obviously, before we can even begin to think about shopping for an infant, we have to know whether to dress him or her in blue or pink.

“Gendered” color assignments for boys and girls are just one of these classification rituals we use on a daily basis to ensure everyone stays in their proper place. However, this decision we make for youngsters in choosing the way they identify can potentially have negative side effects as they translate into other aspects of life.

Historically, using colors to gender children is a fairly recent practice. According to an article published by the Smithsonian, for centuries, both boys and girls wore white dresses until age 6. This was not only considered gender neutral, but practical: white cotton was easily bleached and therefore a simple solution to the infant state of being.

Just before World War I, pastels began to make an entrance as acceptable colors for babies. However, the roles were initially reversed. Pink, seen as a muted shade of red and therefore the bolder choice, was the appropriate color for boys, while blue, a delicate and pretty color, was assigned to girls.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the current standards of “boys are to blue as girls are to pink” were established, and it’s safe to say the phenomena has exploded since then. Now, it’s more than merely shades of rose and azure, but rather ultra-feminine and ultra-masculine products marketed for youngsters from the time of birth, from footballs and trucks plastered on boys’ onesies to lace- to flower-covered headbands for girls.

While this may seem to be a harmless tactic to help parents avoid being asked hundreds of times what sex their baby is, there are possible negative side-effects to these practices as children grow up and enter elementary school.

For example, the continuation of gendering practices often carries into childhood, where kids are given respective toys based on what they “should” enjoy. Girls are told to play with pink princess dresses and Barbie dolls, while boys are given building blocks and model cars. Not only is this detrimental in encouraging girls to pursue interests in science and math fields due to the lack of stimulation these “girl” activities provide, but children who choose to venture across these established gender lines tend to receive harsh criticism from their peers. For example, an article by CNN highlights the story of a 7-year-old girl from Chicago who was bullied by her classmates for bringing a Star Wars thermos to school, because “Star Wars is for boys.”

Another important element to take into consideration is the fact that gender is, at its core, a socially constructed idea. Through the institutionalization of femininity and masculinity within our culture, we’ve come to accept gender as a biological entity, when in reality, it’s just a practice we’ve deemed “appropriate” based on the sex of an individual. Gendering children from such a young age can be particularly confusing later in life for transgender individuals who may identify differently than the societal norm.

Many of these issues could be avoided completely if a concept of gender neutrality was readopted for children. By allowing kids to choose their identities rather than forcing them to conform to strictly gendered standards from birth, we will not only create a more accepting culture for boys and girls alike, but also enjoy a world where colors can just be colors.


Kaitlyn Dewell is a senior in mass communications. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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