It is a semi-infamous fact that I do not have children. With every passing year, I become more okay with the idea that my life might reach its inevitable conclusion without me ever having been non-ironically called “Mom” by anybody.
I mean, it may still happen -- while my conviction against growing my own may be fully entrenched, I leave space for adoption to be a maybe-someday thing for us. Who knows how I’ll feel in the future? I am not a person who says never.
But generally the course I seem to be on is one that does not include offspring of my own. So I have the luxury of ignoring a lot of the pressures kids and their parents face -- pressures that wind up making me seriously, seriously enraged.
I spent the holidays with my husband’s (gigantic) family this year. Among them, I have a 4-year-old nephew, and he is pretty rad. Smart, meticulous, and with his own ideas about everything. His parents are pretty rad, too.
When earlier this year their tiny kid learned that meat was animals, and then tearfully declared that he no longer wanted to eat it for this reason, they did not tell him he was silly or that he needed to eat meat to grow up big and strong. Instead, they have complied with his wishes -- even though they themselves are not vegetarians. His mom has said she wants him to grow up having courage in his convictions, and while I know that many folks would argue that trusting a four-year-old to make such decisions is absurd, I think it’s probably good parenting in the long term. How will a kid learn to trust themselves and have confidence in their beliefs and abilities, if nobody else does?
His parents don’t buy their son much, as they have a huge family to give them stuff, but every once in awhile they make an exception, and recently they allowed their kid to pick out a pair of slippers. He chose slippers meant to look like pigs, and which were, naturally, pink. Because pigs are pink.
What’s weird is that I saw these slippers earlier in our trip and thought nothing of them. I saw them and thought, Aw, pigs. That was it.
Christmas Day we all were in attendance at a (gigaaaannntic) family party at the house of one of my husband’s cousins. I’d forgotten it was a take-your-shoes-off house, and OF COURSE I was wearing very old tights with a couple runs in the feet, but I just sort of balled up the worn-out bits underneath and hoped for the best. My nephew had his slippers, because his parents are smarter than me and prepared for shoe-removal, so he changed into them upon arrival.
Within the first 10 minutes of our being there, three separate adults had made comments about my nephew’s pink slippers -- because HA HA HA HE IS A BOY WHY IS HE WEARING PINK BOYS DO NOT WEAR PINK HA HA HA.
I know that this sort of reaction is not unusual; hell, Somer literally just wrote about a situation in which a boy was ridiculed on Facebook for wearing pink sneakers. I think and talk often about the oppressive nature of gender expectations, for everyone. I know this is a thing.
But I wasn’t prepared for my reaction when it was members of his own family making comments about my nephew. My defensive rage bordered on the irrational. I wanted to punch everyone who made a comment. I wanted to wrap the little dude up and tell him people suck and he can wear whatever freaking color he wants to wear.
I was mostly shocked by the reality of it; I had thought of these comments as things that happen from strangers on the Internet, because that’s usually the context in which I am hearing about them, whether it’s the boy with pink zebra sneakers or the kid whose dad wears skirts in solidarity with his son’s gender-busting sartorial choices. Many of these stories explicitly state that nobody who knows these kids in their real-world lives has said a word against them, which makes it seem like all the criticism is coming from faceless and cruel Internet commenters reveling in their anonymity.
And yet, nobody who made any comments about my nephew’s slippers seemed to second-guess speaking them aloud in the slightest -- they made their chuckling surprised observations as though anyone would respond in the same way, surprised and amused by this silly kid’s lack of knowledge about the very important matter of totally arbitrary culturally mandated gender-specific color. Even four year old boys should know they’re supposed to hate pink, because pink is for girls, and girls, well, who wants to look like a girl if you don’t absolutely HAVE to?
Meanwhile it hadn’t even occurred to me that the pig slippers were pink, because that aspect of their design seemed to be dictated by the fact that they were pig-colored.
The very short history of gender-specific colors for babies has become more widely known in recent years, and although it’s fun to respond to adherents of rigid color division with the information that the association of pink with girls and blue with boys only began to spread in earnest by the 1940s, the real story is more complicated than that. While it’s true that printed materials of the era would sometimes advocate pink for boys, the truth was that clothing for kids under the age of 7 was pretty consistently gender-neutral. Although pink may have been advocated for boys, it was not done to the exclusion of girls, as pink was also suggested for babies of certain hair colors or complexions, regardless of gender.
The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.
For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department said, “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.”
I remember seeing pre-WWI baby photos of my grandfather when I myself was very young, and being baffled by the images, as he was wearing frilly white dresses well into toddlerhood. This was utterly bizarre to younger me and I was haunted by it for a long time; I knew it meant something, to be able to look at a child and instantly know that child’s gender by the clothing they wore, I knew it was incredibly important for there to be no confusion on this point, but I could not say why.
I also knew that it was incredibly humiliating to be constantly mistaken for a boy myself, which I very often was. When I was young, the bakery in our local grocery store would give out one free cookie to kids who asked nicely (in later years they would issue plastic “cookie cards” that had to be presented to get your cookie, which sort of took away from the charm of the whole deal).
I remember one elderly gentleman who would give me my cookie with a kind, “There you go, son,” every time. I remember buying pink sneakers as an effort to avoid this continued mistaken gender identity, and striding up to the counter with purpose the first day I wore them, feeling reassured that the pink shoes on my feet would quash any further errors.
And the old bakery guy gave me my cookie with his usual, “There you go, son,” and I almost cried, my hopes of being recognized as a girl -- by this man but also by other random strangers who mistook me for a boy -- utterly shattered. BUT MY SNEAKERS HAVE PINK ON THEM. Am I still doing it wrong?
I know that my nephew will learn about these gender norms soon enough, and too well; his peers, who learn these expectations from their parents, will make sure that he comes to understand the superficial social signifiers, and why girls’ stuff is not for boys and boys’ stuff is not for girls. He’ll eventually learn that most people think pink slippers are embarrassing on a boy, and he may feel the same despair and confusion between being free to like what he likes while also wanting to be recognized as the person he imagines himself to be. I know that trying to fight that is like trying to grab the wind and stop it from blowing.
But I wish everyone would let him be -- would let all kids be -- whatever they want to be, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, because there is nothing intrinsic to pink or blue that imparts some mysterious gender magic to the wearer. Wearing a certain color out of a lack of cultural knowledge of that color’s significance does not endanger a child’s long-term social development and personal identity, but imposing humiliation and guilt on that child for making the choices that appeal to them very well might.