Social historians point out that it wasn’t always so. Until washing machines became available early last century babies wore white clothes as the only way to get them clean was to boil them.
When it became fashionable to introduce colours into the nursery pink was originally associated with boys as it was a paler version of red which was seen as a masculine colour.
Girls were associated with blue, the colour of the clothes typically seen on pictures of the virgin mary and the colour of clothes worn by the early Walt Disney female characters such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. So how did this change come about?
In the 1930s marketers were looking for ways to improve sales of children’s clothes and decided that they should emphasise the difference between clothes for babies and older children so the “toddler” was created, followed by the “tween” and suddenly these marketing categories became developmental stages.
They also said gender differences should be emphasised from age 2 upwards. Research shows that one of the biggest gender differences is in the choice of toys. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot has found that all babies have similar interests in toys, including dolls, until one year of age and are both attracted to actual babies until age three.
Then they realise that boys are different from girls and will choose toys associated with their gender. This inbuilt bias is reinforced by the way they are brought up ie the old nature-nurture equation although some parents deliberately try to bring up their children gender free.
So an increased emphasis on gender differences to create more marketing opportunities but why the shift to pink which now seems indelibly imprinted on us as being feminine? Is it all because of barbie dolls or a certain celebrity’s product line? Because now in western cultures girls consistently like pink whereas boys prefer blue.
Some scientist have tried to explain this difference in evolutionary terms suggesting females might have been biologically predisposed to pink because they were looking for berries and fruit.
However recent research suggests that girls only acquire their preference for pink and boys their aversion to it around the age of two or three, the age they become aware of gender differences, and that wouldn’t be the case if it were a genetic predisposition.
In a piece of research, published this year in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, almost 200 children aged between 7 months and 5 years were presented with small objects in a range of colours including pink. Girls aged two (but not younger) chose pink objects more often than boys. By age two and a half they demonstrated a clear preference which rose to 80% of the time by the age of 4 although it fell away again by the age of five.
Boys showed the opposite bias with their selection of pink falling away increasingly as they got older until at age 5 it was only 20% of their selections.
A further experiment focussed on the children between 2 and 3 years of age and it appeared that age two and a half was the critical point when the choices changed from a random 50% to showing a girl preference for pink and a boy bias against it.
So it seems that once children become aware of gender differences they probably associate that with pink (or not pink) because that is what marketers have been pushing for the last 60 years and what many parents have bought into and have probably nursed and brought up the babies in coloured nurseries and clothing.
I have a 3 year old grandson and my son was surprised when I turned up in a pink linen shirt and my grandson didn’t say anything because he definitely won’t wear pink as he sees it as girly. And that’s a pity becauses pink shirts go really well with jeans and blue or grey suits.
And presumably pink is associated with gays because of its feminine associations. Returning recently from Brussels a friendly American women complimented my colleague on his pink socks and later admitted she thought he might be gay because of them.
Pink triangles were used by the Nazis as a badge of shame for homosexuals in concentration camps but the colour was later reclaimed as a badge of pride although this isn’t universal. In Lithuania and Ukraine pale blue is associated with being gay.
But to return to the “girls prefer pink” theme it seems we might be stuck with that association for the forseeable future as we are with Father Christmas dressed in red. Apparently he used to wear a green costume until Coca-Cola showed him in their trademark red colour and it stuck. So we can blame the marketers for that as well!