Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pretty in pink

It will surprise no one that, ideologically, I favor gender-neutral clothes for kids. It will probably also surprise no on that I can -and have- made passionate arguments against pink for girls and football appliques for boys. Once, while pregnant on a crowded bus and discussing this with Jacob, a very effeminate man cut in and camped, "Honey, they could have painted a football stadium mural in my room and it wouldn't have made a difference."

He's not wrong and not alone in this belief that some things are hard-wired into us at birth that no amount of "nurture" can override. I also agree with most folks that, on average, there are differences between the genders that are probably a result of "nature." I laughed very hard at this comic.

Louis CK also seems to hit the nail on the head.

I'm sure that we have many very strong biological urges that assist in species survival. However, there are four problems with a fatalistic belief that nothing we do matters when trying to teach gender equality through neutral environments.

1. It's clearly bullshit.

Do we really believe that parents have no ability to influence their children? We all know people raised poorly by their parents and people raised well by their parents. The line tracing their major malfunctions to their parents' screw-ups might as well be drawn with a giant Sharpie. If it's true for self-esteem or chauvinism or racist jokes, why can't it be true for how comfortable one is in one's own skin when one wants to both play football AND wear pink?

Of course, there are exceptions. Lots of people with alcoholic parents turn out to be warm, loving and present. Lots of people with great parents turn out to be total slackers with mean streaks. These exceptions lead us to number two.

2. A culture that rigidly defines what a kid should and shouldn't like is oppressive to those kids who deviate from the norm, which limits their options for life decisions. All of the social change I try to participate in is about giving people choices so they can fulfill the potential that God gave them. I don't want to be complicit in a system where it never occurs to girls who are good at math to want to be a "business woman" when they grow up or where boys don't get the chance to interact deeply with each other and with girls because "men don't talk about emotions." There is also the heteronormative aspect of gender typing that creates so much trauma for gay and queer people. Pink vs. Footballs is the visible organ of that oppressive system. It teaches kids early that there are only two choices and teaches which of those two indentities is theirs. There is no room for any grey. Girls don't like football and boy don't wear pink. Girls don't like dinosaurs and boys don't like flowers. Girls don't marry other girls and boys don't nurture children. Ugh.

3. Parents should give their kids tools for resisting the larger culture's usual state of apathy. The tools are the same for any issue: poverty, lack of equal access to clean water, sizism, etc. It's worth modeling this with the low-hanging fruit of expected gender preferences since they are exposed to it from the first cry of "It's a girl/boy!" at their birth.

4. Sometimes, it turns out that we were wrong in our assumption that a characteristic is genetically motivated. Did you see the new study showing that men with children produce less testosterone, which allows them to be more sensitive to their family's needs? So all that noise about the degree to which women are better suited to be caregivers genetically has to be reexamined. When it turns out we were wrong about the things you can't change about gender preferences, we can't go back and undo that social "nurturing" that shaped a kid into a limited role. Better to make all options socially acceptable for all kids and make sorting out what's genetic and what's training important only on a theoretical level.

So, I would have written all of that before I gave birth to a daughter. What I didn't expect about my current response was that I would feel so angry about it.

I started this essay with the assumption that folks who know me would either know or quickly deduce that I would not be a fan of dressing my kid in pink.

However, based on the presents we received (98% of which were pink), I have to assume that most folks who know me never stopped to consider an alternative to a pink gift. I have to think that if they had considered it a choice to be made (pink vs. one of the six other colors), it would have been a no-brainer.

I am so grateful that we have so many people in our lives who care enough about us to put forth the energy to select and send a gift to celebrate esther's birth. When I examine the anger, I relieved that it's not aimed at them personally.

I'm angry that this pink gender-typing for girls is so pervasive that most folks don't even recognize it as a choice. We all have a crap-ton of choices to make every day and so any limiting of the field that the market can do for us is appreciated. I get that. But I seem to be angry that the market has chosen to narrow this particular field. It feels so personal.

I'm not a conspiracy theory person but it feels like someone out is making it so that my daughter stays in "her" place from a very young age. "You only get one color and that color is so powerless that only a handful of Fortune 500 companies use it for their logo. That's OK though because girls are biologically designed to play with dolls and stay home to raise families."

All right, so maybe some of my anger comes from feeling conflicted about my own choice to be a stay-at-home mom. But my larger points are still valid.

So is my anger.

So, when I was at Gymboree, raging at the passive messages on the pink girl onesies ("Pick me!" versus "Wiggle, squiggle, squirm"), all I could do was cross over to the boy's side a spend my merchandise credit (from returning something pink) to buy a t-shirt with a math joke and the aforementioned active orange lizard onesie.

It's both a small political act and a large spiritual one. I won't affect market forces all by myself, but every time someone says in surprise, "Oh! She's a girl?" once the conversation moves beyond their initial question of how old "he" is, (this happen 5 out of every 6 times the question is posed to me) I hope I've planted a seed in people's minds that girl babies can wear white or green or even blue, even if they don't have matching hair bows. Just re-establishing it as an option is enough for me as a start.

I believe that mindfulness of the moment and being deliberate in one's choices is the height of spiritual practice. I believe that God wants us to direct our attention to establishing shalom -a state where every person becomes who God intended them to be- as a way of helping us get close to her so we can feel how loved we are. I struggle with this a fair amount now that I'm not doing this work professionally. But this is the moment I'm in and pink is the injustice I can do something about right now, with my own daughter.

I am pleased that this anger has not extended itself into judgment of other families who make a different choice for their daughters. I love seeing kids in their little ruffly outfits. Genuinely. In fact, I'm happy to regift things to those families. That's a major step forward for me.

Before Esther was born, I figured that I would be deliberate about my own purchases but that her life would have a mix since I value including other people's aesthetic in her experience. And she does have some accessories (boppy, etc.) that are pink because they came to us previously owned by friends and family and I value re-use. But now i remember that my father used to make my brother return birthday presents that were guns to their givers and my mother made me put Barbie dolls into storage until I was older. so, when I look into Esther's eyes, I find that I am intolerant of pink clothes. They go straight into the hand-me-down bucket. If the world were going to pay her dollar for dollar that a man working the same job would make, it would be no big deal. But for now, going along with the pink status quo is not a limitation that I'm willing to subject my daughter to.

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