Brushing Up on Color and Gender

It was a year and a half ago, just before Eitan’s second birthday, that I first wrote about color and gender. That post was a bit of a manifesto about gender bias coming through in clothing and toys that are marketed to young children. I took exception to the Spider-Man toys that were being given out at McDonald’s along with kids’ Happy Meals and to the way Party City had divided up the merchandise for kids’ birthday parties. I re-read it before sitting down to write this post and I’m still pretty proud of it, especially considering the fact that I was still fairly new to blogging at that point.

The reason I’m bringing it up again is that the concept of certain colors being associated with gender came up for us recently regarding Eitan’s toothpaste.

Eitan has moved beyond the fluoride-free, training toothpaste and is now using the junior version of “real” toothpaste. The idea is that, once the child knows how to keep the toothpaste in his mouth instead of swallowing it, it’s safe to start using the toothpaste with fluoride because you don’t have to worry about the child poisoning himself. The first tube of this toothpaste that we bought happened to have characters from the Disney movie, Cars, on it, and the toothpaste itself was blue. Eitan liked it and was using it properly so I never thought much of it.

Then, one weekend, we spent a night at Trudy’s parent’s house. We bought an extra tube of toothpaste for Eitan so that we could leave one with Trudy’s parents so it would be one less toiletry to remember to bring if we knew we were going to stay there or, at least, be there late into the evening. The store had the brand that we had been using, but the only kind they had was pink and had the Disney princesses on it. We bought it anyway, brought the pink toothpaste home with us and left the blue one with Trudy’s parents.

The next night, when I went to brush Eitan’s teeth, I took out the new toothpaste and we had the following exchange:

Eitan: That’s not my toothpaste. Maybe Brooke left her toothpaste here. (Brooke is a friend of Eitan’s.)

Me: It’s not Brooke’s toothpaste; it’s yours. It’s the same, it’s just in a different tube.

E: But it’s pink. My toothpaste was blue.

Me: That’s true, it is pink. And who’s on the tube?

E: Ariel and Cinderella and… I don’t know who that is.

Me: That’s Sleeping Beauty. I think her name is Aurora.

E: I think that toothpaste is for girls.

Me: What makes you think so?

E: It’s pink and there are girls on the tube.

Me: Is pink only for girls or can boys use it too?

E: (thinks for a second) I don’t know.

Me: Don’t you like Ariel and Cinderella?

E: Yeah.

Me: And don’t you sometimes use a pink bowl and a pink plate and a pink fork and spoon?

E: Yeah.

Me: So can you use this toothpaste even though it’s pink?

E: Umm… okay.

We ended up having a similar exchange for the next three or four nights. Eitan kept questioning the use of the toothpaste on the basis that it was for girls and I kept convincing him that the color didn’t matter because the toothpaste works the same way as the blue one. After using the pink toothpaste for the first time, Eitan also exclaimed that it tasted even better than the blue one. Now, he barely even notices the princesses on the tube and just refers to it as his “pink bubble gum toothpaste.”

This was a pretty easy win for me. Toothpaste is a pretty minor thing, especially since it’s used in the privacy of our home and no one else is watching when I help Eitan brush his teeth. I work hard to steer Eitan away from the typical gendered associations with colors. That’s why I rotate the different colored bowls for his cereal each morning and why I let Eitan tell me which dolls we should play with in his doll house. It’s why I’m proud of him for sending tennis balls over the fence in the backyard and also for feeling comfortable putting on a princess costume with his friends.

Even so, I’m still thinking about what will happen if Eitan says that he wants to go against the typical gender norms in public. I know it doesn’t bother me if Eitan decides that he likes a pink shirt or wants to wear a tiara at an amusement park or even if he wants to have a princess-themed birthday party. Eitan likes what he likes and it’s not up to me to steer him one way or the other.1 I can’t help but wonder, though, how other people would react to some of those circumstances and how that would affect Eitan. Even if I know that I would stand up for Eitan’s right to wear what he wants and play how he wants, I could see another parent telling their child not to play with Eitan because of something as insignificant as a wardrobe choice. And I would hate having to tell Eitan that his friend can’t play with him because Eitan was just wearing or playing with something that he liked.

It’s possible that I’m building up this potential scenario in my head and that nothing of the sort is ever really going to come about. Parents want to protect their children, so we come up with these scenarios so we can plan accordingly. And, let’s be honest, the most likely scenario is that Eitan continues to internalize gender norms with regard to color and just falls in line with what he sees from the world around him. Either way, I just want Eitan to feel like he is making his own choices. If he chooses to wear the typically male greens and blues, that’s fine. If he wants to wear the typically female pinks and purples, that’s fine too. But I would hate for him to want to wear pink and feel like he has to wear blue because the world tells him so or for his peers to treat him differently because of his color preferences. I guess I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it. In the meantime, we’ll just keep focusing on toothpaste and on letting Eitan play however he wants to.

Because Eitan having fun is really all that matters.


1. Except the Yankees. Eitan, I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again: you are not allowed to become a Yankee fan.

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