Posted: Jul 18, 2013 7:00 AM
 
Did you know all kids used to wear dresses until age 6 or 7? Also, pink was considered a boy color because it was "stronger" and therefore appropriate for males. Blue, the more "delicate" color, was viewed as the more feminine color.

One of the great things about history is that it gives us insight into where we got our whacky ideas. For example, the whole color theory that taught us "pink is for girls, blue is for boys." First of all, it simply isn't true: My husband, a 6-foot-tall tattooed iron-worker with an unreasonable beard, wears pastel pink on a semi-regular basis (mostly to formal events (it's one of his only dress shirts), and he's about as "manly" as they come. Ahem.

And I'm pretty sure I'm a female, having birthed three babies and all, and yet, I'm wearing blue right now.

I'm 90 percent convinced it isn't diminishing my womanhood.

And yet, almost every time my son wears some pink garment or accessory, somebody informs him that pink is a "girl color" and I'm like "Whatever dude, it totally didn't used to be."

Maybe I don't say "dude." Or actually I don't really say anything at all. But I want to. So I'm saying it now: Pink was not always assigned to girls in this country. In fact, it used to be assigned to boys because it was considered a "stronger" color. Blue, considered a gentler, more "dainty" color, became the appropriate for color for girls.

So yeah, there you have it. Proof that societal expectations regarding gender are B.S. OK fine, I'll put it more eloquently: They are unreliable, ever-changing and arbitrary. There is nothing inherently "feminine" in pink or anything "masculine" in blue. These associations have simply become societal norms. They are based on nothing more than fashions and fads in history.

But man, are they powerful

I recently came across this article at Smithsonianmag.com and I was just tickled pink. (I'm sorry. That wasn't even vaguely amusing. My bad.). It shows a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1884, wearing a dress, shoulder-length hair, patent leather Mary Jane style shoes and a hat with a feather. By today's standards, he looks like a girl. The article explains, however, that he was actually dressed in what was considered a "gender-neutral" outfit: "Social convention of 1884, when FDR was photographed at age 2-1/2, dictated that boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, also the time of their first haircut." It goes on to explain that "for centuries… children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6" as a "matter of practicality — you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers [because] white cotton can be bleached."

Amazing, right?

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.

The article also explains that pink and blue came into fashion (along with other pastel colors) around 1850, but they didn't begin to mark gender until after the First World War. According to a 1918 article from the publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department (the article quotes), "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."

Well now, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

This is particularly startling considering some people now think if you dress your boy in pink, you're going to "turn him gay."

I can hardly get those words out without gagging (at the ignorance, not the idea of having a gay son). Seriously, how is it that these arbitrary social norms have become so ingrained that people actually think they will have an actual influence on a child's identity (or that a kid can be "turned gay" anyway, but I digress).

The whole thing is simply mind-boggling: The idea that boys won't grow to "be real men" unless they wear "manly" colors and girls won't grow to be "real women" unless they embrace tutus and pink and fairies. Beyond the heteronormative implications of the whole thing (we must differentiate ourselves from the opposite sex because of course we must be attracted to and attractive for that opposite sex), the idea that kids can be "perverted" into an insufficiently feminine or masculine identity is a powerful reinforcement of the patriarchal power structure.

But you know what the hardest part of this is?

I did it too. I had a baby boy once (he's almost 8 now). I dressed him in boy stuff. I mean I wasn't hardcore boy all the time, but I certainly didn't throw on the princess shirts. Why? Well, I don't know. I guess because I wanted people to know he was a boy (his long hair already confused the hell out of many people), and I noticed people getting straight angry when I would have him in gender-neutral clothing and they'd mistake him for a girl.

I didn't care. But they did. "Why don't you dress him like a boy?"

As if I was doing him and them some injustice for letting him wear green.

The horrors.

But now I have a toddler girl who loves bulldozers, dinosaurs and trucks. Also rockets, motorcycles, flames and cars. And you know what? I let her wear whatever she wants. People usually still know she's a girl (maybe the long hair again?). They seem to think it's pretty cute that she's all into "boy" stuff.

So here's what I've learned: Somehow it's acceptable for girls to cross into "boy" garb, but it's less acceptable for boys to cross into "girl" clothes.

'Male' qualities in our society are valued. 'Female' qualities are devalued.

What is that telling us about gender construction? Why is it more acceptable for girls to dress like boys? Well, obviously, because they're emulating power, strength and manliness. "Male" qualities in our society are valued. "Female" qualities are devalued.

So it's an insult to dress a boy like a girl. Why, you're stripping him of his power. You're making him weak, less than. And of course there's always a chance that he'll become so feminized by all that pink in his life he'll forget his "manliness" altogether and turn into one of those emasculated gay guys.

Of course I am saying that sarcastically, and it sounds utterly ridiculous, but you know that sentiment exists. You've heard it before. I heard it just the other day, in Old Navy, when a little boy chose some flip-flops with one single line of pink on them. His mother swatted his hand and grabbed them away, bitterly taunting him with words I choose not to repeat.

Janelle boy with bracelets girl with bulldozer shirt

I'm not suggesting we all dress our boys in fairy castle outfits (but OMG wouldn't that be rad?). One thing at a time, ya know. What I am absolutely suggesting, however, is that if our sons show interest in pink or "girl" accessories, we relax and take it easy, back him up, realizing it doesn't mean a thing. Or maybe it does. But it probably doesn't. Who cares anyway?

And of course, we do the same for girls.

And if we remember that colors and other gender expectations only have meaning because popular culture has very effectively invented those meanings, pulled a fast one on the world, we will also remember that a boy who chooses bright sparkly bracelets and a girl in a digger shirt are just as they should be, and as they should remain: free.

More on gender

Gender bending: When your son dresses like a princess
Teach your children to be flexible about gender
Coy Mathis, redefining acceptance by the second grade

Topics: