image credit: Carrie Saum
I knew it was bound to happen.
Three weeks ago, my three-year-old son asked my husband and me for pink shoes. He saw some at a big box store and would not stop obsessing over them. For months before that, everything had to be blue. For the last year, everything else has been all about Disney's Cars. For the last two years, all he wants to read is Curious George before bed. Every. Single. Night.
So, when he gets an idea about what he likes, he REALLY LIKES IT and wants to express his current love and joy through whatever means his developing brain can relay to the outside world, we encourage it. It's adorable, monotonous, endearing, and frustrating. In a word, it's toddlerhood.
We happily agreed to pink shoes we found on deep summer clearance. My boy was blissfully, earnestly excited to add another pink item to his collection. His pink ukulele has brought hours of impromptu family jam sessions, and he faithfully stores all of his Cars cars in a pink cardboard box he salvaged from the grocery store a while back.
This week, we were rushing out the door to a doctor's appointment. He put his pink shoes on all by himself while I hunted for my keys in the black hole that is my purse. We arrived at the doctor's office, and the doctor immediately said "I like your pink shoes, buddy!". My son beamed with pride and rambled on about the shoes for a minute. We left our appointment and headed to the elevator. He was happy, chatty, and really sweet.
A woman stepped into the elevator, saw my son, and smiled warmly. Her eyes drifted down to his shoes and her entire demeanor changed. Then she did the thing that I hoped wouldn't happen: She commented, "Pink shoes, huh?" Then she gave me a reproving glare, shook her head, and turned her back on me and my boy.
I was not stunned, but it still hurt. These tiny pink shoes were a source of joy and pride for my son and she sh*t on both of us.
I know this is not uncommon. There's a perception, mostly perpetuated by adults and passed down to children, that what we wear defines us. And because we are still stuck in such a binary, polarized way of being in our culture, any small deviation is cause for shame and concern.
I hear a certain tone in the criticism. If pink = girl and boys wear girls' clothing, then what does that make my son?
A derogatory slang term for a vagina?
Or what if it makes him something else?
Like gay. Or maybe transgender.
As though any of these things are bad things.
We made nothing mean something and now we have to undo this painful thing we created.
So, I want to be really clear about something. We have a really ugly, horrific past when it comes to defining each other by color and external things in our culture. We have used outward appearances and color to segregate, define, and determine people's worth since our country was birthed.
We start with our children.
Girls are meant to be pretty pretty princesses stuck high up in their castle, having all the dramatic, static feelings and waiting for their prince to come rescue them. Don't wear anything unless it's pink or purple, and good luck finding something that doesn't look like a Disney princess puked on it. If you're a girl who loves science or math or Star Wars, you're weird and become invisible if you're lucky, and a walking target for bullying if you're not. And god forbid you want big adventures or have the audacity to want to become a leader in your chosen field. We tell our women to get back in their puke pink castle towers where they belong. Keep being soft, ladies. Keep being fragile. Keep being pink.
If you're a boy who likes to play with dolls and wear pink shoes, you're one step away from losing your man card forever at the tender age of three. Boys are meant to be adventurous, wild, mischievous, rough, and aggressive. Everything blue should be covered in a thick layer of dirt, and nurturing, just like pink, is meant for girls. And you can do anything you want to do in this life, be anything you want to be, wear any color you want to wear, except if it lends itself to any sort of femininity.
Because you can't be rowdy and soft. You can't be compassionate and bold. The world needs you to be hard so it can continue to perpetuate a false and binding dichotomy of privilege and exclusion.
And if you are a person or child of color, forget it. Just try to keep your head down and blend in. Dress nicely, conservatively, be sure to keep your tone polite, your posture unassuming, your hands in plain view. Even if you can't change the color of your skin, practice being socially beige. And for the love, don't forget to smile to make everyone more comfortable.
It's not just a matter of boys liking pink without qualifiers. It's not just a matter of girls being complex without apologies. It's about adults reinforcing to our children that color matters, that certain colors in certain contexts are wrapped in shame, and we are safer when we hide our joy and vibrancy from the world around us.
It keeps all of us small. Confined. Imprisoned.
And the crazy part of this is, WE MADE IT ALL UP. We made nothing mean something and now we have to undo this painful thing we created.
So, the next time your kid wants to wear clothes that challenge the norm, consider what message you will relay to them. Consider how you will shape the way they see color and gender and privilege. Consider the kind of human you want to watch rise to power as you grow old and vulnerable. Consider how you will help them learn to cope and support them in a world full of people who want to sh*t on them for their choices.
One day, their voices will be louder than ours ever were. Make sure we are proud to hear what they have to say.
Let them choose the pink shoes and light sabers.