Never did I think magnets could stir up so many strong emotions.
A few months ago I wanted to keep my toddler busy while I made dinner, so I perused children’s refrigerator magnets online. I expected the choices would be kid-stuff: horses and sheep, stars and bicycles.
This is what I found instead.
These word magnets were labeled “girls” and “boys” because, you know, magnetism is soooo different based on your reproductive organs. (Company name cropped out to protect “the innocent.”)
Call me dramatic, but these make me want to pull my toenails off.
Chill, people say. What’s the big deal?
Can You Actually BE a Color?
When I was pregnant, my husband and I decided not to find out the sex of our baby. It wasn’t because we love surprises; it was because we didn’t want a personality and a life assigned to our child while still curled up in the womb. And now that our child is almost two years-old, I STILL don’t want a personality and a life assigned to her based purely on genitalia.
Now, listen. This isn’t just about the colors. A pink frilly dress and a sky blue sailor’s outfit are not the devil. It’s the messages hiding in the colors that are truly damaging.
And in fact, the messages aren’t really hiding. We give children a strict recipe for how to be a boy or a girl. And we deliver these instructions through colors; colors that we assign before life barely begins. Society isn’t satisfied if kids like pink and blue; we want them to BE pink and blue.
Why is our culture obsessed with color-coding childhood?
If the magnets could speak, this is what they would
loudly yell softly whisper…
Girls, Here Are the Top 6 Ways to BE PINK:
- You are a girl. Appearance is so important that you get 14 words about your looks! If you’re not obsessed with beads and perfume, you should be, because all other girls are, and you don’t want to pale in comparison. Literally. Get some self-tanner, stat.
- In nature, you must only focus on happy, pretty things like flowers, rainbows, and butterflies. Don’t get messy!
- Candy and sweets are most appropriate to eat, because haven’t you heard? Girls are sweet. And mystical things are cool, too, but only if they are also sweet, like fairies and angels.
- People in your life should be mostly royalty. Nevermind that the Kennedys are the closest thing we have to kings and queens. Study up, because this royalty thing isn’t just for history class; it’s never too early to start looking for an eligible prince.
- For hobbies, consider solo activities that mostly involve you being on a stage for others to watch, like dancing and ballet. No team sports for you.
- Even though you’re only four years-old, you must be unquestionably consumed with all things romantic: hearts, love, and diamonds. After all, that runny-nosed kid over there on the seesaw with raisins stashed in his pockets might be the love of your life. Think about it, cupcake!
Boys: Here Are the Top 5 Ways to BE BLUE:
- Hey boys, it doesn’t matter what you look like. No need to comb your hair or put on a shirt, just get those boots on so you can stomp around in the mud.
- Speaking of mud, you should spend most of your time outdoors, no matter whether you want to read or play music or something. Explore and get dirty: dive into those bugs, frogs, and ponds. Nothing’s too gross for you: not even worms or cobwebs, cause you’re tough and certainly not a sissy.
- People? Don’t bother with people and their feelings; just run and be active. You really only have time for sports: swimming and football; but also risky outdoor activities like climbing and swinging. Sky’s the limit, buddy!
- Romance. What’s that? Yeah, exactly. Don’t worry about it.
- Finally, consider getting a well-paying job one day, because money, treasure, a car, and a helicopter are on your to-do list. Show your worth, kid. Someone’s gotta earn the cash!
The Problem with Color-Coding Childhood
Some say, relax, they’re just magnets. It’s one toy. It doesn’t mean anything.
But this toy is symptomatic of a larger cultural failure.
We box kids into narrow categories with no wiggle room. All of us, children and adults, are much more complex and multi-layered than these one-dimensional tropes. Some girls excel at math and love to climb trees, while some boys prefer to read and play with dolls. These cheap definitions of boys and girls disrespect the brilliant and complex small people of this world.
And what about children who don’t feel they fit neatly into either category? Kids who don’t identify narrowly as a girl or a boy learn that they don’t belong at all.
These gender definitions also tell boys and girls who they are in comparison to each other. Beauty reigns paramount for girls, while boys will earn accolades for their accomplishments and skills. Boys climb and get dirty, so why ask a girl to help build a treehouse? And if girls automatically nurture, why should boys care about babies and raising humans someday?
Clothes, toys, games, advertisements, movies, books, and videos snowball into one massive cultural phenomenon that is bigger than any one parent.
Girls are still less likely to be the hero in books. Hearts and rainbows adorn girls’ clothes, which are cut short and fitted like teenagers’ styles, while boys get loose tees with dinosaurs and trains and bold sayings like “can’t stop, won’t stop.” Just last week, a mass retailer told boys they have “big ideas” and girls that they have “big smiles.” Even with campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys, which has been very successful in prodding U.K. retailers to remove “girls” and “boys” signs from toy departments, these messages persist.
The color-coding is loud and clear, and starts before birth. So, too, do the messages about their worth and potential.
A lifetime of exposure to these messages can impact children’s “career choices, self-worth, relationships, and ability to achieve their full potential,” according to research. In addition, girls are interrupted more than boys and think that boys are smarter, while boys absorb outdated norms for masculinity at a young age, which can impact their emotions and relationships.
The Problem for Adults
Color-coding, this pink or blue assignment, doesn’t end at childhood. In fact, the impacts are tangible and lasting. If you think it’s cute and innocent that “girl magnets” include dolls and cooking, while “boy magnets” say car and money, let’s reflect for a moment on adult life.
Caregiving falls disproportionately onto women at all stages of life, whether or not they work full-time. Child care isn’t valued as a necessity or as a career and costs about as much or more than most people’s rent or mortgage payments. African-American women earn 63 cents for every dollar that men make, but women are viewed negatively if they try to negotiate for better pay. Women are less than 7% of CEOs and about 20% of Congress, and if they do rise to power, still get interrupted much more than men in similar positions.
The U.S. expects most parents to go without a paycheck for weeks or months after bringing a new baby into the world, because adding a new family member isn’t expensive at all, right? And fathers who do want to spend more than four or five days with a newborn baby are viewed as less serious about their job. LGBT youth are much more likely to be homeless, and trans women of color experience dramatic rates of violence, because they don’t fit into our constricted versions of how to fulfill a certain gender.
Our children deserve more, deserve better, than to BE pink or BE blue. What does it look like to be orange, purple, or green instead? Let’s let our children find out for themselves.