When Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper announced in 2012 that their child, Sasha, was a boy—after raising him for five years without revealing his sex to anyone—they received criticism from all over the world and all over the political spectrum.
Discussions of their parenting style occupied blogs, comments, and forum discussions for months. Laxton and Cooper were called “abusive,” “fucked up,” and most of all, “sick.”
Many people incorrectly assumed that they were a same-sex couple because of media’s use of the word “partner” to describe their relationship—I mean, after all, it’s not like straight couples have ever been unmarried, right?… and proceeded to declare that this is “exactly why lesbians shouldn’t raise children.”
I’ve heard much of the same feedback about my own queer, gender-deviant family: that we are sick and corrupting our children because we eschew the pink and blue. I have been told that my children will never know how to be boys or girls, and that my refusal to thrust gender stereotypes on them is evidence of—and I quote—“a deep perversion and a desire to indoctrinate them into the gay lifestyle.”
I’m guilty as charged of failing to teach my kids how to be boys and girls, if “boy” means “insensitive jock” and “girl” means “submissive prima donna.” My kids have known since birth that gender is about identity, and that should they ever decide that the labels “boy” and “girl” don’t fit them, I’ll gladly change the names and pronouns I use when speaking about them.
Meanwhile, parents who impose their children’s assigned gender with explosions of pink and blue—of sugar and spice, or snakes and snails—are seen as normal. The first messages their children hear are enforcements of extreme gender binarism and misogyny.
Before they can even burp by themselves, they’re told whether their destiny is to be a pretty princess or a tough superhero—and that all, they say, depends on what’s between their legs.
On the whole, people accept this as normal and even positive. Girls and boys are just different, they say. We should celebrate those differences instead of trying to erase them. No harm, no foul, right? As much as parents might giggle about heavily gendered onesies at baby showers and mommy meet-ups, these stereotypes aren’t harmless—far from it.
One study, published in the scientific journal Sex Roles, found that gender-restrictive parenting can cause severe emotional problems that often plague children well into adulthood. Children who deviate from their parents’ rigid ideas of gender tend to grow up to have problems like depression, clinical anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s telling (and disturbing) that some people raised by gender-enforcing parents have the exact same symptoms associated with child abuse, even if the parents were otherwise loving and nonviolent.
Good parents might think that they’re above gender-policing, but even those of us who wouldn’t go to the extreme of buying sexualized diaper-shirts still tend to treat baby boys differently from baby girls. One study got 42 adults to interact with a baby wearing a yellow jumper. One-third were told the baby was a boy, one-third were told that it was a girl, and one-third weren’t told anything at all. Not at all surprisingly at all, the adults encouraged the baby “boy” to play with a toy football while encouraging the baby “girl” to play with a toy doll.
The adults shown a baby whose sex wasn’t labeled tended to “know” the baby’s sex and said that they could tell that they had a boy because “he” was strong, or a girl because “she” was social or sweet. They were wrong just as often as they were right.
That’s not the first study that showed just how differently we treat babies based on gender stereotypes. Another showed adults several videos of babies behaving in completely developmentally typical ways and misled them about the babies’ genders. If parents thought they were observing a girl, they gave her labels like “social” and “happy.” If they thought they were looking at a boy, they called him “strong” and “aggressive.” It doesn’t stop there.
When watching their 11-month-old babies crawling and climbing, moms thought that their baby boys were impressively strong and adventurous, and that their baby girls were weak and needed more help. And even though newborn boys and girls spend the same amount of time looking at faces, it only takes four months for them to reflect the way their parents interact with them, with girls tending to spend more time making eye-contact with their parents, while their boys, deprived of the same sort of affection, begin becoming more withdrawn.
The natural consequence of parents’ gender stereotyping is that baby boys have plenty more opportunities to skin their knees and bump their heads, while girls have more opportunities to snuggle and socialize.
It would be ridiculous to think that this doesn’t have a tremendous impact on how the same children develop and behave when they’re toddlers, preschoolers, or even adults. It’s not a surprise when kids start conforming to the expectations of the society around them, nor is it evidence that men and women are born with different neurology.
A girl, with one “favorite” color thrust upon her literally from birth, becomes a preschool prima donna. A boy, given only footballs and dump trucks to play with, becomes insensitive and believes that his only value is in his physical strength.
Scientists have tried (and failed, miserably) to come up with justifications for continuing to perpetuate gender stereotypes and the heavily gendered baby clothes. In one laughably horrendous study, scientists found that little girls start gravitating toward pink when they’re about two-and-a-half years old. It’s not a coincidence that this is also when kids start learning the labels “boy” and “girl.”
Grasping at straws to justify their prejudices, the scientists concluded that girls naturally start to prefer pink clothes because of a “biological preparedness for masculine and feminine gender roles.” A preference for pink, they say, would enable two-year-olds to start finding ripe berries to feed their families, while their penis-possessing peers sit around sucking marrow and readying themselves for their role as rulers.
It doesn’t take much to find out how very wrong it is to think that these color preferences have to do with biological programming of any kind. When looking at boys and girls ranging from seven months to seven years old, we’ve found that girls don’t have a preference for pink when they’re babies, and boys don’t have an aversion to it.
It isn’t until they become toddlers, and start hearing and internalizing words like “boyish” and “girly,” that girls start gravitating to pink clothes—and that boys start shying away from them. That’s not a matter of biology. It’s a matter of children folding to the oppressive and restrictive stereotypes forced on them.
Not to mention, it’s only been recently that pink and blue were seen as feminine or masculine colors at all. For centuries, baby boys and baby girls alike were expected to wear white dresses: simple little garments that kept kids warm and covered while making it easy for their mothers and nannies to access their diapers. White was a color of cleanliness, a way for moms to show off who was the best at keeping her baby stain-free.
Thankfully for those of us who would rather slam our heads against a wall than spend hours at a washboard with a poop-stained white baby dress, dyed baby clothes entered the market in the mid-1800s—but babies still weren’t expected to wear gendered clothes.
Gendered clothing was strictly for older children who had already been indoctrinated into the gender binary. Parents picked out pink, blue, or any of a dozen other colors based on things like eye color, hair color, and even simply personal preference. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that anyone decided to dictate which sex should wear which color, and when it did happen, it was the very opposite of what we now expect.
Pink, labeled by a magazine in 1918 as “a more decided and stronger color,” was for boys, and blue, “which is more delicate and dainty,” was for girls. This was probably a reflection of the conventions of art and fashion at the time: paintings of the Virgin Mary, that bastion of chastity and femininity, almost always depicted her in blue, but soldiers wore red, the richer cousin of pink.
It sure is a wonder that Victorian-era toddlers were able to pick those ripe berries that scientists say they must have been looking for. I somehow suspect that, had we tested the favorite colors of toddlers in 1918, we would have gotten the exact opposite results of today.
Yet our myth persists: Boys are supposed to love the color blue and all the toxic, violent, sexualized images that go along with it. Girls are supposed to love the color pink and all things dainty and domestic.
In any given store, the selection of heavily gendered baby clothes is immense, but gender-neutral baby clothes, if available at all, are restricted to one tiny section for we freaks and feminists who corrupt our children with the twisted and radical idea that their identity is their own to determine, and has nothing to do with what’s between their legs.
The stores’ sections for nursery décor, toys, and even books are just as bad: pink or blue, take your pick. It is nearly impossible for parents to avoid the bombardment of sexual stereotypes surrounding their newborns.
Long before our children can read the clothes they wear, they internalize the deeply sexist messages on them and the cultural associations behind them. The message is clear: Boys, you’re fierce and tough and sexual. Girls, you’re sweet and delicate and pure.
The T-shirt that makes everyone at the baby shower giggle has far deeper, and far more serious, consequences than simply influencing a child’s future favorite color. It transforms everything about who they are, right down to causing organic changes in the shape and function of a child’s brain.
Gender stereotyping of babies is the reason for almost all differences we perceive and create in our children. The problem is pervasive and ubiquitous: It’s why boys like sports and girls like dolls. It’s why boys are good at math and why girls are good at language. It’s why boys are “natural” leaders and girls are “natural” followers. In other words, gender stereotyping of babies is the root of the entire system of patriarchy and sexism.
If we want to end the system that denies equal rights to women, we need to work from the ground up—by ditching the pink and blue baby clothes and teaching our children that their genitals do not define them and do not define their value to society.
Late at night, I watch the moonlight shine through the mint-colored curtains while I hold my baby in my arms. My little one wears a fuzzy cloth diaper with pastel-toned zoo animals on it, sighing sweetly while I rock him to sleep. In those moments, I am the parent not of a boy and not of a girl, but of two human beings.
I’d like to do my part to make sure that their mark on the world is for better—for themselves, for me, and for people everywhere.