I just submitted an article about boys’ clothing to Vestoj, a pretty awesome platform (blog/journal) on fashion, for their issue on masculinity. I will post a link to the whole thing if and when it appears, but in the meantime, here is a taste, adapted for a blog post:
Gendered colors were adopted first for infants, and gradually applied to older children and adults. Neutral colors were pretty much eliminated as an option for babies after the early 1990s, except for a few items in yellow or green in newborn sizes. This suggests that associating pink with girls and blue for boys was the earliest lesson in gendered visual culture for many of today’s young adults. Babies and toddlers can perceive these color differences as early as five months and can apply gender stereotypes by the age of two. All children (except the 8% of boys and 1% of girls who are color blind) learn pink and blue as gender markers; girls don’t just learn about pink, and boys don’t just learn about blue. Color coding may well be the first thing they learn about the rules of gender that govern their own lives. Why does this matter?
Children are born into an intersectional network of culture. In addition to being surrounded by racism, classism, religious and political beliefs, and myriad other norms, children learn to define and shape their gender identities according to prevailing gender rules which are predicated on a binary. According to the binary view, there are two sexes: male and female, and two genders: masculine and feminine. (The first is anti-science, and the second defies common sense, but the binary exists, nonetheless.) However, boys AND girls are influenced by girly culture, and girls AND boys are shaped by masculine culture. Consider the cultural landscapes and boundaries marked by pink and blue. A firm knowledge of girly culture is required for boys to avoid being contaminated by femininity or anything associated with women and girls. Pink identifies “girly culture” for both girls and boys. Pink is visual femininity repellent for the very young boy.
If all we need to protect the fragile masculinity of boys is a visual culture (pink-unicorns-sparkles) that signifies GIRL so clearly that no child under the age of six months will ever mistake one for the other, why do we need blue? In some ways, we don’t; we just need not-pink. It’s been clear for me for some time that pink and blue are not just opposite equivalents, functionally.
What do men learn from boy culture? (Little macho culture? Machito culture? Still looking for the right word!)
According to some of my male friends and former students (a very small convenience sample)* , they learn:
,*Many thanks to ZS, CC, and WW for their contributions!
I would add to this my own observation that boys also learn that girls who are like boys or who like machito things, can be good friends, but that boys should never allow them to win.
Pink and blue. Girl and boy. Girly and ... what? I am in in search of a nice one-word term for the male partner to girly culture. (Yes, for now I am imagining binary because the existing cultural construct is binary.) In clothing terms:
Girly clothes: pink, pastel, frilly, soft materials, unicorns, kittens, butterflies, high heels, ruffles, tight-fitting, skimpy, glitter, delicate, fussy.
______ clothes: camo, loose, athletic gear, trucks, trains, cars, pockets, dark colors, brown, gray, black, blue, neckties, bow ties, sturdy, plain.
Here are the words I am considering. Keep in mind I am looking for something to describe the culture experienced directly by babies, toddlers, and small children.
Girly culture -- pink, princess, sexually precocious -- has been studied extensively. Right now I am at work on a piece that examines boy culture, specifically the norms and expectations that shape boys from infancy to adolescence. I am working my way through the academic literature, especially the works of Michael Kimmel, but I have a question for the men in my audience.
This is very much a draft.
Let's assume that boys AND girls are influenced by girly culture, and girls AND boys are shaped by masculine culture. I want to look at this from the boys' point of view. Girly culture has a purpose for boys, and it the same as insect repellent. A firm knowledge of girly culture is required for boys to avoid being contaminated by femininity or anything associated with women and girls. If all we need to protect the fragile masculinity of boys is a visual culture that signifies GIRL so clearly that no child under the age of six months will ever mistake one for the other. What then, is the purpose of boy culture?
Have you ever had your neural synapses re-wired? I love when that happens. In this case, I was reading a non-fashion book and BOOM, there was the answer to a question lurking in my brain. (From my upcoming presentation at the Popular Culture Association meeting in Seattle.)
Since the 1950s, it has become commonplace to define sex as biological and gender as culture. According to one medical dictionary,
Sex is "The biologic character or quality that distinguishes male and female from one another as expressed by analysis of the person's gonadal, morphologic (internal and external), chromosomal, and hormonal characteristics."
Gender is "The category to which an individual is assigned by self or others, on the basis of sex."
As some feminist biologists have argued, the way in which we assign sex, whether at birth or after examining a grainy sonogram image, is itself cultural. Ignoring chromosomes, hormones, and internal anatomy, we assign sex based on external genitalia. We then surround babies with gendered sights, sounds, and interactions that, we are now learning, influences brain development. Instead of nature and nurture as separate forces, biology and culture work together to create us first as male and female, and then as masculine and feminine. That is only part of the larger picture that includes other forces and experiences that we incorporate into our sense of self and belonging. These forces include not only sexism, but racism, classism, and -- most relevant to this paper -- ageism. What is the relationship between the categories we use for ourselves and our beliefs about those categories?
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that race is the child of racism — that the way we define and categorize race comes from a racism -- a deep belief in the innate superiority a dominant group. This not only resonates with me in terms of race, but so many other categories of difference. It could follow that class is the child of classism, gender is the child of sexism, and age is the child of ageism. The way we define and delineate age categories stem from cultural beliefs about the life course, that, like the beliefs about gender and race, are not so much biological truths as the result of our selective assumptions and expectations about biological events. Yes, we as humans experience birth, puberty, menopause, and death, but the way we envision our lives’ progress or decline through these events is shaped by culture. What is the “right”age for a boy to wear a dress -- “up to age four” or “only when he is christened”? This same principle applies to notions of what constitutes “age appropriate” clothing for girls and women across the lifespan, and it is the focus of my next book.
Learning to be female is not a weekend workshop or even a four-year-degree program. It is a lifelong process of education in the truest sense — being led into each life stage along a cultural path shaped by beliefs about aging and gender. We continually measure ourselves against mass -mediated images of female and standards of femininity.
(From the very-much-in-progress Age Appropriate.)
Here comes puberty.
The truly odd thing is that my life from about 10 to 14 is relatively undocumented by my otherwise shutterbug father. So I have a few pictures, but not what I would like for this project.
Here's what I remember:
First bra in late fifth grade or early sixth grade. It was one of those silly knit "grow bras" and I had already outgrown it. In sixth grade (1960-61) I went from one end of the gym line to the other, having grown six inches. I was no longer a short, skinny girl who loved to run and jump rope. Bouncing boobs were too embarrassing. My posture deteriorated. I lived in terror of boys snapping my bra strap, and was sure everyone was staring at me.
Summer of 1961
My first nylons, shaving my legs, my first purse, and first and only subteen dress. By that fall I was 5' 9" and wearing a misses 14. That summer a lifeguard flirted with me because he thought I was in high school, which I found funny and flattering.
Fall, 1961 (7th grade)
Trying to figure out what to wear was a constant puzzle. I outgrew girls' clothes so fast, and went right into misses sizes. I experimented with nail polish, make-up, and new hairstyles but had trouble getting the hang of it.
Maybe it is a good thing there aren't more pictures.
First, it was "man buns", then the snarkfest shifted to "man braids". Making fun of men who adopt "feminine" hairstyles? Do you REALLY want to sound like someone's stodgy old grandpa in 1965?
Fifty years ago, the older generation (and young conservatives) were making fun of guys with long hair. They cast aspersions on their manhood, called them fags, and tried to hold them down and forcibly cut their hair. They threw them out of school.
Today, long hair and ponytails are no big deal but OMG buns and braids!!!! Get a grip, people. Spare us the pearl-clutching. It's just hair.
Some wonderful Wikipedian has created a spectacularly well-researched page on the use of pink and blue as gendered colors. I have a few more citations to contribute, but for now enjoy!
My current project is about how women in American learn to perform femininity and how they define it for themselves from childhood to the brink of old age. If you are a woman born in 1949 (or graduated from high school in 1967) and willing to share your experiences in a private Facebook group, contact me.
That's me, age 6, enjoying the slide in North Platte, Nebraska in 1955. This was a school dress, but I may have also worn it to church. (Cody Park was a favorite after-church destination for our family.) I had several similar plaid cotton dresses with white collars, in shades of dark blue, dark green, and red. The Sears has a similar style (1955 Fall catalog, below). I never owned any of the girlier styles on the page -- no "full circle" skirts or ruffled dresses.
Looking through my old photos raises some questions about the origins of my personal sense of style. My mother chose or made most of my school clothes, and I don't recall having much say about them until later elementary school (probably fifth or sixth grade). I am not sure why she didn't pick pastels, or why my clothes were so tailored, but it probably had to do with her taste as well as her perception of me.