The History of Pink for Girls and Blue for Boys

by | September 23, 2010
filed under Feminism

So I’m at my doctor’s office the other day and notice they’ve got new keychains for the restroom keys: a pink baby shoe for the women’s and a blue one for the men’s. Even though there’s no words on them, the colour-coding is enough to tell us which one we should take.

But did you know that pink hasn’t always been a colour for girls, or blue for boys? In Michael Kimmel’s outstanding Manhood in America: A Cultural History, he points out that clothing wasn’t colour-coded in America until the early twentieth century, before which little boys and girls were dressed pretty much identically. Even when people started pushing for more gender-specific children’s clothing, there was a huge debate over which colour to assign to which gender. It started out with boys wearing pink or red because the colours were seen to indicate strength, while girls wore blue because they were “flighty” like the sky. From a 1918 editorial called “Pink or Blue” cited by Kimmel:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. 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.”

So basically the colours changed based on which colour was seen to denote the strength of boys and delicacy of girls, but the idea that those traits are inborn and inalienable did not. It’s not just clothes: walk through the girls’ section of any Toys R Us and you’ll see shelf after shelf of pink, pink, pink. While little girls enjoy some leeway to play with blue toys, many boys get mocked if they want to play with pink “girls’ toys” and sometimes their parents and relatives start panicking that they might even grow up to be (gasp) gay. The fact that parents worry about the sexuality of their kids at all is crazy enough in itself, but that’s for another time. Back to colour-coding.

If you think boys and girls just forget about coding gender based on colour once they hit puberty, you’d be wrong. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio made headlines when he started forcing male inmates to wear pink underwear to humiliate them. He says it’s a deterrent to reoffending because inmates don’t want to come back and be forced to wear pink again. How screwed up is it that we’ve given a colour so much meaning in less than 100 years that it would make grown male criminals tremble just to think about wearing it?

This is about more than policing convicts, it’s about policing the boundaries of masculinity and reinforcing homophobia. Kimmel states: “Homophobia is more than the irrational fear of homosexuals…[it] is the fear of other men – that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, are not real men.”

The pink and blue shoe keychains might not seem like a big deal, and indeed most people don’t think twice about them. But imagine how much harder it could be for some trans and intersex people to negotiate a restroom ritual like this. Gender-neutral washrooms are a big step towards fixing this issue, but so is realizing that blue-pink colour coding is just the tip of the iceberg of things we use to arbitrarily divide “masculine” from “feminine”.


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