We picked up some bicycle training wheels for my stepdaughter last weekend, and we let her pick between the pink ones and the blue ones. When she chose blue, my stepson, who is five, was so confused. He kept asking why his sister chose blue instead of pink? Why not pink?? We explained that it's okay for girls to like blue, just like it's okay if he wants something pink.
Playing with these cultural ideas, that a color would represent a certain gender, reminded me that what makes us "masculine" or "feminine" is also driven by culture, not just biology. During the recent uproar over a J. Crew ad that depicted a mother painting her young son's toenails pink, I found this Smithsonian Magazine piece that explores the history of children's clothing in the West: When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?
For centuries, both boys and girls would wear dainty white dresses up until the age of 6. This stemmed from practicality more than anything - it was much easier to bleach white clothing. It wasn't until just prior to World War I when pastel-colored children's clothing began to denote gender. But even in 1918, a trade publication stated:
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.
There was no consensus until the 1940's, when manufacturers and retailers helped reinforce the very opposite of the above: blue for boys and pink for girls. As the Smithsonian Magazine article points out, even today--especially today--consumerism is the driving force in establishing beliefs about gender in children:
According to child development experts, children are just becoming conscious of their gender between ages 3 and 4, and they do not realize it’s permanent until age 6 or 7. At the same time, however, they are the subjects of sophisticated and pervasive advertising that tends to reinforce social conventions. “So they think, for example, that what makes someone female is having long hair and a dress,’’ says Paoletti.
Consumerism isn't the only factor. Many evangelicals are in the business of promoting specific gender stereotypes. Here is a great example from a Southern Baptist. Blasting the J. Crew gender-bending ad, Katie McCoy wants Christians to "express our God-assigned genders in culturally appropriate ways." Her article is a great example of Christians' uncriticially taking on cultural ideas of gender, conflating them with a "biblical" notion of gender.
The Hippie Housewife has a great perspective on this issue. She points out that attempts to counter-balance the culturally-tethered ideas of gender (i.e. going "gender-neutral") ends up hyper-focusing on gender after all. Her take on it is to let kids be kids:
There is also the other side of the same coin, where children who like things that don’t traditionally “match” their sex are held up as examples in the gender versus sex debate. Mothers pat themselves on the back for accepting their “cross-gendered” five year old, usually boys who like pink or want to wear dresses. And yet for the boy who hasn’t had it shamed or bullied out of him, it’s completely normal. Lots of boys like to dress up in princess dresses. It’s sparkly and bright and fun. It’s not gender exploration, it’s just childhood. Making a big deal out of – whether to encourage or discourage it – is entirely unnecessary.
I think there is a great deal of merit in allowing your children to choose their own activities, hairstyles, toys, clothes, etc, without regard to traditional gender lines. Absolutely. My boys play with cars and carry their dolls around in baby slings. My older one has only recently decided his favourite colour is no longer pink, but it's definitely still up there. He's absolutely insistent that he's going to be a Mommy when he grows up. It's not because he's "gender confused", it's because he identifies most strongly with me and wants to be able to have babies and breastfeed just like I do. He had hair longer than mine at one point, and is currently growing it out again because he wants it long. No big deal. He’s not gender confused, he just wants long hair. My aunt who teaches kindergarten often talks about the little boys who are so excited over all the pink princess stuff they get to play with at kindergarten – not gender confused, just enjoying the fun.