Colors and Gender Bias: The History Behind 'Pink it and Shrink it' by@roxanamurariu

Colors and Gender Bias: The History Behind 'Pink it and Shrink it'

Until the late 19th century, young boys and girls were traditionally dressed in white dresses until five or six years. Around the 1920s, magazines started to advertise pink for boys and blue for girls aggressively. The reason is that pink is a strong gender identifier, and blue is the default color for male babies. In the 1950s, the First Lady of the United States in the U.S. was fond of pink clothing that happened around the 70s – perhaps not pink, perhaps because pink, became more suitable for boys, and girls.
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Roxana Murariu

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More often than not, marketers rely on a simple concept to create products designed for women, “pink it and shrink it”. This strategy involves taking an everyday product, paint it pink, and making it smaller: razors, clothing, earbuds, technical gear, toolsets, notebooks, pens, etc. Then we have the Pink Tax, gender-based price discrimination where identical products are priced differently based on the targeted gender. 

This study compared different industries, such as toys, clothing, personal care products, or health care products, and discovered immense discrepancies between prices. A side-by-side comparison of a scooter showed that a red scooter cost $24.99 and a pink scooter, identical in all ways but color, cost $49.

As a satire of the pink tax, the adult party game Cards Against Humanity released a special edition, Cards Against Humanity For Her, the same as the base game, except that it was $5 more expensive and pink. This special edition of the Cards Against Humanity was held in support of electing female pro-choice Democratic candidates to office.

Anecdotally, I started to notice the pink tax while shopping for my daughter’s clothes. For example, in an international retailer shop, the same jogger pants were x euro for boys and x + 1 or 2 euro for girls. Now multiply this difference with items sold in a day across all shops across all cities across all countries. And this difference would be for one type of item sold in one day by only one company.

As we all know, not only pink is a strong gender identifier. Although men or boys are wearing pink more frequently (with a notable mention for the pink kits of football players), blue is the default color for male babies. Imagine the shock would ensue if adults gifted pink clothes to a young baby boy. I know this firsthand as I still remember the perplexed looks when I referred to a baby dressed with blue accents as my daughter.

So, when and how did colors become associated with genders? To answer these questions, we would have to go back in time. 

Until the late 19th century, young boys and girls were traditionally dressed in white dresses until five or six years. White was easy to bleach and launder, with no color fading, and cheaper to buy than dyed clothes (at least until cheap chemical dyes were invented). Caregivers chose dresses for practical reasons: it was much more accessible to change dirty cloth diapers in dresses than pants. Also, dresses were easier to adjust to children’s rapidly growing needs.

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Franklin Roosevelt, US president, when he was a toddler. Image credit: Wikipedia

It’s not unusual to hear modern people describe Victorian babies as being dressed like girls; this is an error. To its own parents and grandparents, a child wearing the traditional white dress looked like ‘a baby.’ This convention could be explained in practical terms of diapering, hand-me-downs, and laundering, but that is a partial truth. An equally important explanation is that gendered dress was considered inappropriate for young children, whose asexual innocence was so often cited as one of their greatest charms.

Jo B. Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America 

In those times, pink and blue did not hold any gender connotations. That would change as Freud and other psychologists’ theories about child development appeared. Parents began to differentiate between girls and boys, with each gender wearing clothes associated with either men or women from a younger and younger age. Around the 1920s, magazines started to advertise pink for boys and blue for girls aggressively. 

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 colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl. - June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department

But why would magazines care about gender colors? Perhaps if parents followed such color schemes, they would have to buy different wardrobes and baby accessories if they had boys and girls, rather than reusing the same gender-neutral color set. 

Around the 1940s, manufacturers and retailers shifted perceptions again, with pink for girls and blue for boys. Stores found that people were buying pink merchandise for girls and blue for boys. Supposedly, this might have happened because in Nazi Germany, prisoners identified by authorities as gay men were branded with a pink triangle during World War II.

As such, pink, “a more suitable color for boys”, became unpopular and was transferred to girls. Or this change happened because Mamie Eisenhower, the First Lady of the United States in the 1950s, was very fond of pink, launching a national trend for pink clothes, houseware, or bathrooms.

Paoletti discovered a short wave of unisex clothing that happened around the 1960s – the 70s, perhaps not coincidentally around the time of the women’s liberation movement. For example, the Sears Roebuck catalogue displayed no pink toddler clothes for two years. 

This movement didn’t last long (notice a trend?). By the 1980s, gender-oriented clothes became once again fashionable. Paoletti believes that prenatal testing was a significant reason. Expecting parents found the gender of their unborn child and prepared the nest accordingly. Pink and blue became default colors for sleepers, cribs, diapers, strollers, car seats, toys, etc.

Once again, consumerism was in full bloom, with pink decorations for a girl and another spending on blue if the next child was a boy. “The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell”, Paoletti says. Only this time, as retailers became more and more international, the pink versus blue divide spread like a fire across cultures and countries. Perhaps this explains why there is still a color separation four decades later.

Nowadays, although there is demand again for gender-neutral children’s miscellaneous items, we still abide by the fashion rules. To show how perfidious these rules are, next time you are invited to a boy’s birthday party, try to gift him a pink birthday card and pack his gifts in pink paper. There is a slight uncomfortable feeling, isn’t it? This blue versus pink trend highlights how quickly something can become the new truth. 

Parenting in the 21st century is undoubtedly more evolved than parenting centuries ago. But we can learn from those times, when children were not dressed as girls or boys, but simply children.

So, why not let children enjoy all colors of the rainbow, with less stereotyping, sexism, or prejudice? And if a girl wants to wear pink or blue, so be it. And if a boy wants to wear pink or blue, so be it. 

Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/when-colours-are-biased-the-pink-versus-blue-debate/

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