How do children (and also people in general) decide what kind of clothes they like? People don’t pick their favorite outfits in a cultural vacuum. They don’t figure out how to clothe themselves from scratch. Instead, they look at what their peers are wearing. Sometimes, they also look at what some role model like, for example, a movie star, is wearing. Never mind advertisements. Fashion companies market specific clothes directly to children, and corporations wouldn’t be spending so much money on marketing to kids if it wasn’t effective.
Here’s the problem—clothes signal a person’s status of belonging to some group. If all your friends wear clothes that look in a certain way, you also will feel peer pressure to wear similar clothes.
Sometimes peer pressure is relatively harmless. For example, when children collectively decide that silly-looking pants are fashionable right now, then there is little harm from it. It’s just a fashion fad that will go away in some years, and a group of kids collectively wearing the same silly looking pants isn’t going to harm anybody.
Here is a practical example. In my opinion, ripped jeans look silly. Nonetheless, I have no reason to object to kids and teens wearing such garments, because they don’t cause any actual harm in addition to looking silly. Both girls and boys can wear them, they do not contribute to enforcing a visual gender segregation or a gender norm/expectation, they aren’t a gender marker, nor are they being pushed for only a certain subgroup of children. Boys and girls, white and brown, rich and poor—all young people can wear ripped jeans and feel that they look cool in them.
Pink clothes for girls and blue clothes for boys, however, is something that I consider a bad idea. Firstly, I prefer more gender neutral upbringing. Secondly, I believe that no item of clothing or toy should be culturally perceived as reserved strictly for either girls or boys. Colors are just colors, clothes are just clothes, and toys are just toys, they can have no gender. Any child regardless of their anatomical sex or preferred gender ought to feel free to explore and experiment and try out all the available toy and clothing options. A cis AMAB child should feel free to have long hair, wear pink pants, and play with toy cars if that’s what he likes. Every child should feel free to pick and choose, mix and match.
Unfortunately, this is not the kind of culture we live in. Following a fashion trend helps children to identify and connect with other children who have the same choices as them. In other words—if a child wants to befriend another child they know, doing so will feel easier if both dress the same way.
The result is that we live in a culture in which children themselves are collectively enforcing gender stereotypes upon their peers. And that, in my opinion, is terrible. A few days ago I saw a photo of a four years old female child dressed in nothing but pink. I commented that this is a problem. The response from the mother was exactly what I have started to expect:
Actually, my daughter picks out her own clothes.
When she was a baby we went for more gender-neutral clothes. She wore a lot of yellows, greens, purples, navy, etc. About a year ago she wanted pink clothes when we went to the store. Now that’s all she will wear. She gets upset if all her pink clothes are dirty and she has to wear something else. Pink is her favorite color now. It’s like the gender-neutral thing backfired. It could be influenced by the other kids at daycare.
My daughter doesn’t wear pink clothes because she’s a girl; she wears pink clothes because it’s her favorite color and it’s what she picks out…
Should we discourage girls from liking anything that’s considered traditionally “feminine”? Even if they’re exposed to a variety of activities and interests? I don’t think we should label “girl” activities as bad. That in a way is putting women down as well.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a child having pink as their favorite color. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with adults of any gender liking make-up and pink dresses. These fashion items shouldn’t be reserved for trans and cis women and girls, also people who identify as male should feel free to have fun with this form of self-expression. If those were individual choices not subject to peer pressure, then everything would be great.
Here’s the problem—I have talked with numerous parents who tried to raise their children in a more gender neutral fashion, but when their kids got old enough to pick their own clothes and toys, they started to pick whatever is stereotypically associated with their gender. I have heard the same words again and again: “I tried to dress my daughter in gender neutral clothes when she was younger, but now her favorite color is pink and she insists upon wearing pink dresses all the time, it’s not like I can forbid her from making such a choice.” Sure, I can sympathize with the parent, it’s not like they personally can counter all the gendered messages their child is bound to pick up from friends in the kindergarten, TV shows, advertisements, kids’ magazines… Nor can parents forbid their child from choosing to wear whatever clothes they like.
But really, how do you explain that so many four or five years old girls have pink as their favorite color and that each of them asks their parents for pink clothes? What is the statistical probability that a four years old AFAB child just happened to independently pick pink as their favorite color? I mean totally independently, without any indoctrination from the society? Neither subtle, neither overt. Why not yellow? Or orange? Or green? Why exactly pink? There are numerous other bright and pretty colors that a child could pick as their favorite color. And what is the statistical probability that so many young girls independently picked one and the same favorite color?
Of course, it is better for parents to let their children choose what they like. If you have a daughter who insists that pink is her favorite color and who wants pink clothes, forbidding her from wearing pink would be a terrible idea. But do keep in mind that our culture is fucked up and everybody is obsessed about gendering children. Babies are dressed in clothes that work as gender markers, because strangers expect to be able to tell the gender of some baby by merely glancing at this child. Fashion for girls and boys is strictly separated in stores with some isles for boys and other isles for girls. You wanted to enter a store with unisex children’s clothing section? Good luck finding one. And it is not just adults who are obsessed about gendering all children’s toys and clothes. Also children actively police each other and enforce gender norms upon their peers.
If you are cis and actually enjoy the things that are stereotypically intended for people who have your gender, you might have not noticed all this social pressure. I did notice it. Being trans, I had to fight against it on a daily basis.
By the time I was six years old, my favorite color was dark blue. The color of sea, night sky, and cornflowers. And dark blue has been my favorite color ever since then. Do you think I got to wear blue clothes as a child? Yeah right.
When I was 6 years old, in kindergarten I once had the following conversation with a girl:
Me: “When parents get a new baby, how do they tell whether their new child is a boy or a girl?”
Her: “Baby boys and girls scream differently.”
Me: “Are you sure? I would guess that baby girls have long hair while baby boys have short hair.”
In kindergarten none of us had any clue about the anatomical differences between boys and girls. Instead, girls where children who wore pink dresses, had long hair, and played with girl toys like dolls. Boys were children who wore blue pants, had short hair, and played with boy toys like cars. In kindergarten kids adamantly policed each other to make sure nobody dared to display any gender-inappropriate behavior. For example, boy toy corner was in one side of the play room while girl toy corner was in the opposite side. Even approaching the inappropriate toy corner was forbidden for kids. If some kid touched the wrong toys, other kids harassed this child.
I still remember one incident when a boy entered the girl toy corner and tried to play with girl toys. Upon noticing the offense, all girls surrounded the poor boy and started screaming at him to immediately go away from girl toys. I actually have no memories about what I did at that moment, but the chances are that I succumbed to peer pressure and participated in this bullying. If you wanted to have friends in kindergarten, gender-appropriate behavior was mandatory, and you also had to police other kids to make sure they behaved and followed the gender norms. Gender was serious business for six years old children, and we all policed each other to make sure nobody ever dared to do anything that we believed was inappropriate for their gender.
When I was six years old, I insisted upon wearing dresses and having long hair. Was this a free choice? Not really. In all those children’s books mother had read for me, the prettiest princess had the longest hair and she wore a beautiful dress. Children’s books had taught me that a woman’s value depended upon how pretty she was, while a man’s value depended upon how strong he was. After all, the prettiest princess always got to marry the strongest prince, and the strongest prince got to marry the prettiest princess. (By the way, children’s books are marriage-obsessed, who gets to marry whom is often the culmination of the story, because being able to marry a prince/princess is the greatest reward.) I was taught that my value as a person depended upon how pretty I was. I was also taught that long hair and a dress made a girl pretty. Moreover, adults constantly complimented how pretty my long hair was or how nice some dress looked on me. So yes, I kept telling my parents that I “wanted” to have long hair and wear dresses. But this wasn’t my own free independent choice, instead my actions were the result of the fucked up society I lived in.
By the time I was 8, I still didn’t know that boys had penises. I still kept on living in this imaginary gendered world that the society had constructed for me. As a child, I was a coward, and I also wanted to be praised. Thus doing anything boyish was unthinkable. I didn’t have the courage to disobey the rules. Moreover, getting praised meant behaving like a cute little girl. If I behaved like a cute little girl, I got positive words from adults. On top of that, all my female friends also behaved like cute little girls, which resulted in me experiencing some peer pressure.
By the time I was 10, I finally started to realize that gender roles were bullshit. I had also finally learned that there existed certain anatomical differences between men and women. Those finally gave me a solid explanation for why there existed men and women, boys and girls. I no longer assumed that male and female people were identical except for their fashion, haircuts, and hobbies. I had also encountered some progressive ideas about gender roles being just silly cultural norms that people don’t really need to follow. More importantly, I was finally free to choose my own books that I wanted to read. I was no longer forced to stick to all those stories, which ended with a pretty princess getting married to a strong prince. I started reading books written for boys. I even secretly purchased some boy toys (which I hid from my mother, I played with them only when I was alone in my room).
Nonetheless, at this age I still routinely wore pink clothes (despite having had blue as my favorite color for years). Here’s why:
1. Social pressure. Children are subject to peer pressure. If some child is told that she is a girl and she sees that around her every other girl wears pink dresses, then she also will feel that she must wear pink dresses.
2. Little choice in clothing stores. Yes, I picked my own clothes in stores. But blue girl clothes were a rarity. Most of the girl clothes in stores were pink, thus I picked pink clothes for myself. Back then pink was just another color for me, I didn’t hate it yet, thus I didn’t throw temper tantrums each time I saw nothing but pink clothes in a store. I just agreed to buy and wear them.
3. School uniforms. My school literally forced me to wear pink blouses up until I was about 15 years old. At my school, boys had to wear dark blue shirts, girls had to wear pink blouses. (As if school uniforms needed to function as gender markers!)
By the time I was 16, I started to hate pink color, because the society had been forcing pink color upon me for years. By then my body was finally large enough that I could get all my clothes in stores that sold adult clothing. Thus purging pink from my wardrobe was finally a realistic possibility. I made it a principle to never ever buy anything that was either pink or came in a pink package. By the way, back then I still lived as female. This meant picking the most masculine-looking clothes I could possibly find in women’s clothing stores.
I realized that I am trans only when I was already 23 years old. I didn’t have the courage to wear male clothes up until I finally realized that I was not a woman, and by then I absolutely needed to stop with this femininity charade. Get out of the closet or get a depression were the only choices I had then. At that point living as male became essential for my emotional wellbeing, thus I had no other choice but to finally get bolder and more courageous. And, yes, the first time I bought male clothes in a store, it was a nerve wrecking experience. Since early childhood I had been indoctrinated that transvestites are sick and evil. Of course I was nervous when I started breaking the taboo dictating that living as male was forbidden for me.
Avoiding pink, incidentally, is harder than you might imagine. As an adult trans masculine person, I still occasionally struggle to purge pink consumer goods from my life.
Do you need a menstrual cup? Most come in pink.
Do you want a clitoral vibrator? More pink.
Do you need a medical test to make sure you don’t have a breast cancer? The reminder for this test will come in pink.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with pink color or pink clothes. And they can look fabulous on men.
The reason why I now often avoid pink as a matter of principle is because for me it symbolizes femininity that used to be forced upon me. I avoid only consumer goods that are pink as a result of marketing professionals deciding that all women love pink. Guess what, trans men and butch lesbians also need menstrual products and clitoral vibrators. And many of us don’t adore pink color. Never mind that plenty of straight cis women aren’t so fond of pink either. I will avoid pink menstrual products, but I have nothing against strawberry ice cream or light bulbs that come in pink packaging, because then the color choice either makes sense (strawberry ice cream actually being pink) or it is plain random.
I find it awful how society forces young people to behave according to outdated gender norms. For example, at school even when I put on feminine clothes exactly once in three years (due to being forced to dress up for a celebration), my teachers had to compliment my visual appearance on that day.
Here’s the photo from my school’s graduation ceremony. Everybody is dressed in gender-appropriate clothes, it must be because men and women really do like different outfits, and therefore we can conclude that all this gender neutral hoax is pulled out of thin air! Or is it really? How can anybody be so sure that all the teens in this image are happy to follow gender norms?
Can you spot the unhappy trans masculine person hiding somewhere in the crowd and erased from existence? Look for the person who has no make-up, who has never bothered to pluck his eyebrows, who looks like he hasn’t been to a hairdresser for years, who never bothered to use contacts instead of glasses in order to look prettier, who never bothered to get a cosmetic tan despite it being fashionable among women. I sucked with being feminine even back when I still felt pressured to do so. Oh, and there’s one more giveaway. Look for shoes that appear somewhat old-fashioned. I never learned to walk on high heel shoes. I didn’t feel like buying new shoes in order to wear them exactly once. Thus I just wore a pair of my mother’s old shoes from some decades ago. Incidentally, this creates an interesting question. We all know that high heel shoes are harmful for the wearer’s feet. Yet I would argue that my school literally forced me to wear such shoes even though I have never learned to walk in them and I was risking a faceplant on that day. Or would you instead argue that it wasn’t my school teachers who forced this footwear choice upon me and that I chose to wear uncomfortable shoes free willingly?
By the way, nowadays I just wear men’s suits and try to not give a damn about transphobia and social norms against cross dressing (I still cannot pass for a man).
And it wasn’t just school teachers who tried to force me to be more feminine. My mother, my female friends, my female university classmates—everybody had to give me some fucked up advice about how I should wear more feminine clothes and use make-up. Sure, all this advice was well intentioned. Girls and women mistakenly imagined that they were doing me a favor by teaching this lost tomboy how to be a proper lady. But damn, they sure were very far off the mark. Not only I developed resentment and even started to hate a certain color, I actually turned out to be a trans masculine person who is better off living as male.
Conclusions: The child who loves either pink or blue color didn’t obtain this preference in a cultural vacuum, instead this child was probably lead to believe that they must like this color, because all other boys or girls like either pink or blue according to their gender. Of course, I am not blaming any individual parent for failing to raise their child in a more gender-neutral way. Children teach and police each other, thus establishing “rules” for what they consider proper gender expression.
If some people freely choose either masculine or feminine gender expression, then that’s great. There is nothing wrong with an AFAB person who enjoys wearing pink clothes. It’s just that I question whether these choices really are free for some people. We live in a fucked up society, which insists upon gendering small children. A society, which abuses and marginalizes trans people erasing our existence and questioning the legitimacy of our experiences.
More importantly, once a sizeable portion of girls and boys start to collectively behave in a certain way, this creates an environment that is toxic for trans and gender nonconforming children. Just like you couldn’t easily spot the trans masculine person being forced to hide among his cis peers in my school’s graduation ceremony photo, you probably also don’t notice all the other trans and gender nonconforming children and teens out there who are quietly suffering. My unpleasant experiences growing up among cis peers couldn’t have been rare. It must be common. In order to thrive, children and teens like me need an environment in which being gender nonconforming is relatively common and accepted as normal. If most boys wear blue pants and most girls wear pink dresses, we stick out and become subject to painful peer pressure.