Let’s start with the basics:
Sex: (Biology.) Sex is the two categories that we are born as, male or female, and what humans and most other living things are divided into on the basis of their reproductive organs. This is followed by secondary sex characteristics, at puberty, such as developing breasts and menstruation for girls/women.
Gender: (A social construct.) Gender is a set of ideas in society about how men and women should look and behave. These ideas are predominantly based on traditional cultural ideas and will be different all over the world. Gender refers to the social and cultural differences rather than the biological ones.
Have you ever found yourself in the children’s section of a shop, be it toys or clothes, and wondered why it is separated into girls and boys? Take a closer look and you’ll notice the majority of items for girls are pink, purple and sparkly, and those aimed at boys are blue, green and black.
From such a young age, products for girls and boys are divided by gender marketing into limited colour palettes and specific characters, typically unicorns for girls and dinosaurs for boys. This limits the choices that children have over how they want to dress. Furthermore it can carry harmful messages about gender roles in society, having a huge negative effect on children’s self-esteem and future aspirations.
Who is to say that a young girl cannot wear a t-shirt with a NASA print on the front of it? In reality, probably nobody, however, retailers everywhere would have you and your children believe that a t-shirt of that sort would only be for boys. Why is that, I hear you ask? Well because you’ll only ever find a t-shirt with a print like that in the boys section of a shop. So, are we teaching our young females that science is purely for boys? Are we steering them from a potential career path before they’re even old enough to understand what one is?
For example in 2019 a survey was conducted within NASA that found that ‘women make up only about a third of NASA's workforce. They comprise just 28 percent of senior executive leadership positions and are only 16 percent of senior scientific employees.’
Could this be a consequence of not actively promoting this career path within girls’ fashion from a young age? Could fashion stereotypes at this age really impact that much on career choices? Let the statistics speak for themselves.
Science is attention-grabbing to every child, both boys and girls, it’s a fascinating, new and interesting topic for them. We shouldn’t be setting the standard that it is a boys profession so early on in cognitive development.
In addition to this, how are we expected to increase the number of women entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) professions if from the moment they are born, girls are told STEM designs are not for them? How do we address high male suicide rates if we tell boys to ‘man up’ and not seek the help that they need?
The stereotypes we see in children’s toy marketing form a route to the inequalities prevalent in adult life. By early primary-school age, studies suggest children already tend to have ideas about the jobs that men and women do. These stereotypical concepts can then be very hard to change and can, for example, feed into the low numbers of girls taking STEM subjects (leading to careers in companies such as NASA) and men entering professions such as childcare.
These types of slogans and graphics should be carefully considered so that they do not install harmful stereotypes into young children that could be detrimental later in life. Let toys be just that - toys.
Now most children, including my younger brother who is nine, would automatically think this was the standard and wouldn’t question it. I once asked my brother if he would wear a t-shirt that was pink, his response:
“No, pink is for girls.”
I queried how he came to this conclusion and he honestly could not give me a better reason other than “it just is.” Children are indoctrinated with this categorisation from such a young age in all aspects of life that they are conditioned into believing it, despite not fully understanding it. I can guarantee you not one person in my family has told my brother this information, he would be encouraged to wear pink if he so chooses, so I do wonder where he picked it up from? I could put money on it being from advertisements on children’s television that pop up with their bright colours, enticing them in, yet only showing girls playing with dolls surrounded by pink and glitter and calming music, and boys playing with monster trucks accompanied by heavy music, dark colours and the odd explosion.
In this modern day and age no one has the right to tell a young child that “no sweetheart you can’t play with that car because you’re a girl” or “no that dolls house isn’t for you because you’re a boy”. Let children be children and express themselves in whichever way they please. If we start suppressing these expressive instincts from the get-go, then we subdue their cognitive development and stop them being who they truly want to become. We enforce and implement toxic gender roles such as suppressing emotions in males, that if not conquered from a young age may unfortunately always be present.
Back in the 70s, Lego worded this statement perfectly:
“The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A doll’s house or a spaceship. A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.”
This entirely contradicts the whole ‘pink is for girls and blue is for boys’ argument - exactly what we need. We need brands to stand up to marketing techniques and do something for the good of children, not for the good of the profits they make from marketing ploys aimed specifically at different gender ideals and concepts.
Before the early 20th century, gender identification by colour was unheard of - pink and blue did not hold any specific gender connotations. However, during the early 20th century in the Western world, just before the 1920s, something surprising happened. Pink was deemed by many to be the appropriate colour for boys due to its strong nature, and blue was deemed suitable for girls due to it being more of a dainty and delicate colour. Additionally, most babies were dressed in white rather than pink or blue as it was easy to bleach and keep white, you know how messy children are!
In the wake of World War Two, blue and pink were flipped and suddenly marketed for the opposite gender. Pink became the perfect colour for women and blue became manly and masculine. This was purely down to American preferences, and it could have gone either way depending.
Fast forward to the present day and retailers still advertise that some colours are gender specific. But this is a sales tactic on the retailer’s behalf and one that draws the majority of people in as it is widely accepted that blue is for boys and pink is for girls.
Even though there is a demand in the market for designs to be tailored specifically to boys and girls, and there is a bank of imagery all put into categories for boys and girls, we need to be mindful of the impacts of this on childhood personality development.
We need to give girls the opportunity to build spaceships if they want, we need to give boys the opportunity to wear pink without any judgement, because in reality, what are the negative connotations to wearing pink? Pink isn’t even a real colour on the spectrum (it requires a mixture of red and purple light, which are from opposite ends of the visible spectrum. These two lights can’t get together, therefore the colour pink is an act of wishful thinking… a made up colour), but that’s a whole other article for you!
Let’s not allow gender ideals to be forced upon children through their fashion and toys. This directly impacts upon the makeup of society when these children, who are influenced now, become adults and enter the world of work. We can see this link through the statistic discussed earlier that women only make up one third of the workforce at NASA. We see this link in issues relating to male mental health and toxic masculinity which consequently limits the emotions boys and men may comfortably express and heightens other emotions such as anger.
As a society we need to allow children to be children and use their imaginations as they wish to express themselves however they please, to ensure happy and healthy adults in the future.