The problem with pink: on gendered baby clothes and the patriarchy…

‘I like pink.’ Lucius sniffed. ‘It’s just red’s sorry, weak cousin.’
Beth Fantaskey, Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side

My new job requires a lot of paperwork. A lot. So as I’m a stationery addict and a wannabe organisational queen, I knew I needed box files. A lot of box files. WH Smith had a beautiful display of box files – pastel shades, pinks and greens and pale blues; and neon yellows and oranges; plus an incredible hot pink. A proper powerful Barbie pink. Amazing!

But I bought black, charcoal grey and red ones. I need them for professional purposes after all.

***

A friend on Facebook is showing off some pictures of her adorable baby girl. The baby is about 4 months old and looking so cute and squishy and smiley, wearing a dusty pink headband with a bow. ‘I never thought I’d dress her in a bow, let alone a PINK bow,’ her mother, my friend, writes in the comments. ‘Never again!’ she promises.

I’m reminded of EA’s sister who lets the family WhatsApp group know every time their son chooses something pink. I don’t really know if they’re doing it because they think it’s awesome or worrying, but they certainly feel it’s noteworthy.

***

Whenever I buy new running shoes, I end up in a feminist fury. Running shoes for men are blue or green or red or orange or gold or black; running shoes for women are pink or purple. I hate that there is such a limited selection, and I often end up further limiting my choices as I really really don’t want another pair of pink running shoes. It’s bad enough that my comfiest running shirt is pink, I don’t want pink feet too!

But I usually end up buying some pink ones and they’re always perfect. They’re just pink.

***

I’m at a parents wine tasting event, my absolute favourite part of maternity leave, and there’s a particular type of stay-at-home dad sat next to me who I find incredible annoying – performative in his parenting, loudly speaking to all the women around him with a tone that suggests he knows looking after his own child and letting his partner go back to work makes him an enlightened and modern dad, and is worthy of comment. (And I realise that it is worthy of comment but I wish they wouldn’t be so smug about it!) He’s telling me that he doesn’t believe in gendered clothing for babies, while bouncing his daughter on his knee who’s looking super cute in a green top and blue dungarees. Her whole wardrobe is full of greens and yellow and blues, he boasts.

‘If you had a son, would you dress them in a pink dress?’ I ask.

‘Well, no.’ he hesitates, ‘But that’s not gender neutral – a pink dress is for girls.’ He indicates the blue dungarees his daughter is wearing. ‘Luckily for any future son, blue is a gender neutral colour.’

‘No, isn’t not. That’s the Patriarchy.’ I respond. Perhaps a little bitterly.

He turns away from me and talks to the other mothers instead.

***

And so on, forever! Whether they’re examples of parents complaining about their child’s clothes being too girly or my own experiences of avoiding the colour because I’m worried what it says about me, there seems to be a problem with pink.

My baby is a girl so, of course, I am surrounded by bunnies and clouds and pink and sunshine and sweetness; my nephew is a boy so she also gets regular hand-me-down monsters and trucks and farmers. Baby and children’s clothes are for boys or for girls, and there really isn’t much of a middle ground – or if there is, it’s also found in the boys section. Maybe I don’t want to go ‘full boy’ with the tractors and cars, but even images that I would think are gender neutral like tigers and fishes are more common in the boy’s clothes. There are too many flowers and unicorns over in the girls section.

And when it comes to how best to dress my girl, I find it really difficult to know what to do and I get caught up trying to work out the right thing to do.

Trying to decide what type of parent I want to be and what type of messages I want to pass on to my daughter is one of the most interesting and terrifying aspects of becoming a mother. It feels both incredibly important, as so much of how we think is built on what we learn before we really know we are learning, and incredibly trivial, as we mostly got on OK when our parents didn’t spend so much time stressing over the lasting consequences of giving their daughter toy kitchen equipment.

A lot of what I want her to learn feels relatively easy – we can expose her to inclusivity and diversity through the places we go, people we meet and stories we tell her; I can help her be more instinctively emotionally fluent and mature than perhaps I am by letting her feel her feelings and trying to demonstrate better emotional maturity myself. (OK, so maybe this isn’t that easy!) We can help her to count and spell and read and play. It’s logical.

But the gender stuff? This feels like more of a challenge.

Because I am so aware of how my own upbringing and the pressure of the patriarchy has had an impact on me and on what I can and will achieve, and I do not want my daughter to suffer the same limitations. I almost wish I hadn’t devoured so much feminist media over the past few years as I now see quite how clearly I have spent my life bowing to these pressures, except for the fact that I feel so much better for recognising them. We can only fight against something if we understand it and recognise it as a threat.

The Guilty Feminist episode on Male Privilege is one that I think about almost every day, and is at the heart of what I want to change for my daughter. It brought home to me the differences that I have seen so many times but just assumed was because I personally lacked confidence, rather than because society had conditioned me that way.

As an example, I am not comfortable in interviews. I’m not good at talking myself up and really pushing why I’m the best candidate because I’m never 100% certain that I am. I’m good enough to apply, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it, but the best? I assume that I need to prove myself worthy and worry that I am not. Similarly, it takes me time to find my place in new jobs – I walk into new offices and new rooms and don’t know where to sit or where to stand. I don’t want to be in the way or cause too much inconvenience. I apologise a lot and ask a lot of questions, while apologising to asking a lot of questions, until I feel settled and have found my place. In short, I tend to assume that I am in the way and not quite right until I have proved myself otherwise. Once established, I have no problem accepting that I am really good at my job and an invaluable member of the team but I need to get established first.

If my understanding of male privilege is right, men don’t generally have this problem. They will quite happily stroll into a room full of people they don’t know and sit down, accepting that it is their right to be there and be heard, whether or not that is the truth. They will talk up their achievements, they will give their opinions, they will not apologise. And I know. #NotAllMen. And I know that I am once again succumbing to that gender stereotype of always apologising by getting in ahead of any complaints from those privileged men who will feel slighted by my lived experience but, you know, it’s easier that way!

And I don’t want my daughter to feel this way. I don’t want her to ever, ever doubt herself. Doubt that she has a right to be in that room or doubt that she is the absolute best candidate for that job. I don’t want her to feel less important or less heard than her male peers.

Essentially, within the construct of the patriarchy, I don’t want her to be too much of a girl. I don’t want her to be girly, to wear pink or unicorns or flowers. I won’t let her wear bows or dresses – she can wear dungarees and trousers. I won’t buy her dolls or kitchen playsets, she won’t be allowed nurses uniforms or princess outfits. She can be a doctor! A queen!! We’ll play with cars and tools and we’ll get muddy outside and play with boys toys like diggers and dinosaurs.

And I’m afraid I did fall into that trap early in my baby’s life. I didn’t buy any pink clothes; I resisted buying dresses, choosing onesies or leggings instead. I picked most of her clothes from the boy’s sections and I consciously didn’t buy her pink bowls or sippy cups.

It’s taken me a worryingly long time to realise quite how wrong this attitude was and how I was not doing my daughter any favours by ‘protecting’ her from being a girl. In fact, it took this tweet to really bring it home:

Fuuuuuuck. Is that really the message that I want my daughter to learn? That being a girl is wrong?

Because I realise now that this only serves to emphasise exactly what I was trying to avoid – I don’t want her to think of women as inferior, and teaching her that everything traditionally associated with being a woman is bad can only make her look up at men and masculinity as the ‘better’ option.

This doesn’t just apply to baby clothes either. This realisation has opened my eyes to all sorts of examples of times when I’ve been angry about gendered products and colours, and how perhaps my anger was misplaced.

The WTA Finals in Shenzhen this year had a pink tennis court. It looked great! It was admittedly an unusual colour for a tennis court but it was new and exciting and the ball was easily visible against its surface. But there was a lot of talk of how this was a bad choice of colour for a women’s tennis tournament; that it was somehow sexist to have given the women a pink court.

When asked about it on a recent episode of the Tennis Podcast, Catherine Whittaker was very short in response. Why is it wrong to be pink, she asked, unless you are implying that women are lesser for being feminine. The logical endpoint of complaining that pink is wrong and sexist can only be that it’s wrong and inferior to be a woman. We should stop complaining about the pink court and complain about the actual real inequalities in sport!

The same can be said for so many pink products branded for women. Our complaint isn’t that they’re pink. We’re angry because we’re charged more for them because they’re pink. We’re angry because someone thought we could be persuaded to buy their product simply because it’s pink and they haven’t looked into what women actually want and what features would actually be useful for a female market. A famous example of this would be how Apple brought out a pink iPhone in 2015, long before they thought to include a period tracker in their health app – something only added this year in iOS 13. Thanks for that.

But I’ve realised that I too had made the same mistake as those misguided marketers, just in reverse. I still want my daughter to break away from the patriarchy and recognise her worth. I still want her to do anything and everything she wants without limitation or restriction. But I can’t give her the confidence and sense of self-worth needed to do that by banning pink or by accidentally belittling or criticising femininity.

The problem isn’t pink; the problem is the message behind the pink.

Because there is a problem with clothes for children, and it is about more than just their colour. There was a viral thread on Twitter recently that got so much attention that the author has now protected their tweets so I won’t share it as I had planned, but it demonstrated the key difference in gendered clothing – essentially that boys are monsters and are encouraged to be wild, and girls are angels and encouraged to be kind. Boys clothes say ‘I’m awesome!’ Girls clothes say ‘I’m pretty!’

It seems so simple but, to me, this difference completely sums up the root of the problem. Boys are taught to be loud; right from the start, they’re taught to take up space and make a noise. Boys are encouraged to be naughty and out of control, and they are encouraged to demand attention. It’s what their clothes tell them!

Girls, on the other hand, are encouraged to be sweet and kind and, importantly, quiet and well behaved. Good girls don’t make a fuss and good girls are responsible for making their parents happy. I’ve literally bought pink baby clothes that say that – ‘I make Mummy smile.’ (In my defence, it was in a pack with vests decorated with watermelons that were too cute to resist!) What a responsibility to put on a baby! What an introduction to the maternal caring, nurturing role; all while her male peers are having a riot.

I realise that we are in a financially privileged position that allows us to dwell over what clothes we buy her and gives us access to a wide choice of shops, but I’m so pleased that I have been overthinking this subject recently because I feel like I have so much more clarity on the issue now and a much greater understanding of how I can help my daughter become the best child and adult that she could be!

Because she’s much much too young to know what kind of woman she will be, and even if she’ll be a woman at all once she’s old enough to make her own decision, and it’s very presumptuous of me to try and decide for her. The best I can do is make sure she knows that everything is OK and dress her in every colour and style under the rainbow, and then let her make as much noise as she wants!

I don’t need to worry if she wants to be a princess with a big pink Cinderella skirt and glitter in her hair, as long as she knows she’s allowed to be a princess with attitude! A princess who demands to be heard and leads her teddy bear minions with authority and conviction. Equally, I’m not going to force her into monster jumpers and throw her into the mud if she’d rather stay inside and read or make cakes. She is beautiful in pink and beautiful in blue; she is perfect when she’s quiet and just as perfect when she’s loud.

My baby wearing a vest that says ‘Smash the Demon Lizard Patriarchy!’

I can’t smash the demon lizard patriarchy by making her feel bad for liking pink or being a girl. In fact, I can’t crush generations of gender disparity with anything as simple as an aggressive wardrobe plan. It’s much harder than that! I need to show her how to be a strong, independent and powerful woman, just as I need to show any future sons how to be compassionate and empathetic men. And if I feel like it, I can show her that while wearing pink.

But I will keep shopping in the boy’s section – my daughter sometimes needs to be told that she’s awesome too!

4 thoughts on “The problem with pink: on gendered baby clothes and the patriarchy…

  1. What a wonderful considered post! I too got angry at pink and put my daughter in lots of other stuff including her brother hand me downs but as soon as she could chose it was often pink. What’s great now is she’s definitely making her own decisions. (Shes 11 now) and rarely wears anything pink but has a unique style. I love how you want to raise a confident human and I can see you Have made a brilliant start. Thanks for making me think about my anger with pink.
    Missy x

  2. Love this. I struggle with the same concerns for my daughter’s but I hadn’t thought of it in this way. I’ll need to reread a few times to properly digest it!

    I have also noticed that unless my 16 month old daughter is dressed head to toe in neon pink (which she never is!) most people just assume she is a boy. :/

  3. Love this post. I struggle with the same concerns for my daughters but I hadn’t thought of it in this way. I’ll need to reread a few times to properly digest it!

    I have also noticed that unless my 16 month old daughter is dressed head to toe in neon pink (which she never is!) most people just assume she is a boy. :/

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