If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I’d ever wade into the debate about girls and pink, my response would have been an unequivocal ‘no.’ Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have a view; rather that the issue is both thorny enough and dull enough to put me off, so while I avoid pink for my own daughter, I’ve failed to rouse the energy to develop any sort of argument.

So why the change of heart? First, having boy/girl twins who are now capable of (forcefully!) expressing preferences of their own has sharpened my focus on what kids seem drawn to, how I feel about it, and how it gets reinforced or discouraged by friends and strangers. Then I came across a terrific piece by Allison Benedikt in Slate who articulated a feeling that’s nagged me for some time. Benedikt writes, ‘[i]t is a given that if you are a mildly feminist mother (or father, but more mother), you are going to do everything within your power to steer your daughter away from anything that has the stink of “girly” on it.’ The emphasis on ‘stink’ is mine of course, but here’s the bit that resonated loudest: ‘[mothers’] reflexive disgust [about girls wearing pink] has always struck me as some sort of weird female self-loathing.’

Parsing the so-called literature it strikes me that the case against pink rests on two notions. First, the insinuation that there’s something inherently undermining about the colour itself, that it suggests the first stages of an alarming and flighty vanity. Then there’s the simple fact that lots of girls like it, which apparently exposes an equally ominous herd mentality, a preoccupation with what others think and do that’s in turn exploited by cynical marketers. In response to these provocations, we frantically flip flop between the ironies of judging and objectifying our daughters, and victimising them, all in the name of equality.

I confess that I struggle to grasp what’s so great about blue or any of the other dreary colours boys are consigned to, and why we should want our daughters to prefer those shades. (Red for boys is an exception, but I’m guessing that’s because it’s suitably aggressive, and – like blue – reassuringly primary, not some watered down mongrel.) In fact, one article I came across reported the findings of a study of under-3s that showed boys and girls both prefer pink, which squares with my observations about my own son – but more on that later.

Now let me pause for a moment to acknowledge the hackles of the anti-pink brigade springing to attention at the idea that this issue is ‘thorny’ at all, for I’ve read enough to know that some folks think it’s pretty clear cut. Simply put, pink is a ‘gateway’ colour that leads inevitably to low self-esteem, body image disorders and binge drinking. What’s more, girls clad in pink are apparently destined for mathematical ineptitude, a disinterest in learning computer code, and a university degree in a putatively soft subject with no practical applicability.

If this sounds dismissive or disparaging that’s not my intention for many of these difficulties cause significant distress. But the question is whether they arise because some girls like pretty pink things, and how on earth any single colour could bear so much cultural and psychological weight.

What’s interesting, too, is how this love of pink is subject to forensic, hand-wringing scrutiny, whereas boys’ putative preferences are taken as normative. Indeed, there’s a curious double-speak at play here wherein boys’ conformity is celebrated, while girls doing ‘what other girls do’ is denigrated as evidence of an inability to think for themselves.

For instance, I often hear women lamenting their daughters’ insistence on dressing up as fairies or princesses, but rarely do I find parents of either gender complaining that their sons want to dress up as fire fighters or Spiderman. Conversely, girls’ love of lorries and trains often elicits a smug, indulgent shrug, whilst boys who want to take ballet lessons tend to embarrass and worry. Now Benedikt might argue that’s because our society sees ‘girl culture’ as a blight on the very socio-cultural landscape that shapes it, but I think she’s only half right. The other half of the picture is the pressure boys are under to just, well, ‘be boys’.

Benedikt tells us that she’s tried to interest her son in princesses, but ‘so far, it’s a losing battle.’ ‘And no wonder!’ she adds. ‘Most of the adults around him also think that the stuff that girls like is lame.’ It’s convenient that her son mirrors society’s contemptuous view of girl stuff not to mention the theme of her article, but I’m not so lucky. Sure, my son adores his fire truck and his favourite colour is orange but he also ‘loves’ (his word) pink, and constantly nags to wear my daughter’s dresses and nighties. Sometimes he does, and why not? They’re far more comfy than trousers, and her clothes are certainly more fun to look at than most of his. He loves flowers and butterflies, along with his zebra top and the one with the Mini Cooper on it. At 2 ½ he’s too young to know what he’s ‘supposed’ to like so he follows his nose, and my husband and I haven’t seen fit to set him straight. Once he starts nursery and sees the same kids day in and out, he might begin to sense what’s expected of him but by then I hope he’ll be comfortable enough with his choices not to care.

As for my daughter, she does love pink and I confess that I braced myself for the first hint of it. I hoped she’d be one of those apparently free spirited girls who wants to dress up as a monster for Hallowe’en and learn tap dancing rather than ballet, and a preference for pink made these possibilities seem remote. Looking back, I’m quite certain my anxiety was fuelled by a deeper (and still unresolved) question about where a sense of agency comes from – how we become the subjects of our own lives – instead of a conviction that its lack is caused by a particular colour.

My children don’t watch TV and don’t go to nursery yet so I’m unsure where their choices come from. But I’ve come to accept through the sheer force of her iron will that my daughter believes she’s making a choice, that pink is her ‘special’ thing just as my son is obsessed with orange. Whatever the feminist in me says, I’m unable to rationalise valuing one of those choices and not the other, rejecting her delight while embracing his. More importantly, turning the issue into a battle of wills between me and my daughter – and presuming she’s just a patsy for the Disney marketing department to boot – does nothing to enable the sense of agency I wish so fiercely for her.

The other troubling aspect of the anti-pink stance is the way it implicitly accepts a profoundly dualistic view of identity. A couple of years back I’d see young girls at the park gussied up in party frocks and plastic tiaras and think of their parents, ‘why on earth would you let her come out to play in that outfit?!’ My (rhetorical) question is reinforced in Steve Biddulph’s book Raising Girls when he says that a first step in bringing up confident, competent girls is dressing them in tough-wearing tops and trousers, and sturdy shoes for playing.

Over time, though, I’ve come to see that Biddulph and I were both missing a key observation: wearing party clothes does nothing to inhibit girls from climbing, tumbling and playing in the sandbox, on the slide or on their scooters along with the boys in the park. Sure, they might get upset about a ladder in their favourite tights, but that won’t slow them down, nor will it persuade them that they ought to wear something a little more practical next time. For them, it’s not either/or; instead, it strikes me that they’re exploring myriad sources of pleasure and outlets for their enormous vitality.

As for boys, I’m not convinced they have it much better. Sure, society unquestioningly embraces the things they’re meant to like, and a plethora of sweaty and macho cooking shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef means it’s now ok for boys to play in kitchens. But I was struck by this ‘parent tip’ which appeared on a Babycenter e-newsletter a few weeks ago: ‘my son plays with his sister’s dolls all the time. I think it’s perfectly fine and teaches that boys can be nurturers, too.’ So it won’t make him gay or a nurse, then? Phew. I mean, not that I’d mind if he were gay or a nurse because, you know, I’m really open-minded. But, uh, phew.

Here in the UK, there’s much talk these days of extended parental leave that would allow fathers more time off work when their children are born, and how men’s desire to embrace this opportunity is undermined by cultural messages that tell them it’s ‘unmasculine’. In fact, this social pressure begins long before their children are born. As long as boys opt for the colours and toys and jobs we prize so highly, we don’t take much notice of their choices. Anxiously obsessing about our daughters, what we miss in all senses are the choices our sons don’t feel empowered to make.

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