I sent my son to school today with pigtails. I took a deep breath as he scrambled out of the car in the morning dropoff rush, yelled out I love you, and tried not to run after him and hover all day. I never had trouble letting go at the first day of preschool, or kindergarten. Or worrying about my boys with a babysitter. But today, I worried. He loves having long hair and playing with it. He’s pretty good at braids by now and has moved on to ponytails, man-buns, and today- pigtails. He likes to experiment and experience the variety of hairstyles. He is armed with some snappy comebacks in case kids get cruel. And I let him go.

So what in the world does this have to do with art, you may be wondering? Everything. Our world today is divided into boy things and girl things. Man and woman. Nothing in the middle. Creating intricate hairstyles, fun nail polish, walking arm in arm, and physical deference are for girls. Playing contact sports, body functions, building things, and dominating conversations are for boys. Even the creative arts are slanted towards gender. Knitting, sewing, and poetry are for girls. Metalworking, novel writing, and woodworking are for boys. And colors. Oh my goodness the division of colors. The warm colors are for girls- pinks, reds, purples. And cool colors are manly- blues, greens, grays. Both my boys have gotten mean comments at school for having chosen pink and turquoise sneakers. Sure, it’s sometimes socially acceptable for men to wear some pink. But only as an accent color- a tie, a shirt. A girl can have every piece of clothing in a shade of pink and people are ok with it.

When did colors take sides? I am truly fascinated by the question of when did we divide up the rainbow by gender? Can you imagine if it were only socially acceptable for me to use “girl colors” in my paintings? If I may use blues and greens in my art, why not in the rest of my life?

I decided to look into it. What I found was surprising. According to decades of research by historian Jo Paoletti, “it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the modern convention (pink for girls, blue for boys) started to dominate, and even so, it didn’t “gel” until the 1980s,” she said. This could have been the effect of a rise in mass marketing. Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, explains it this way: “Being ‘gender normal’ is very important to us, and as a marketing technique, if retailers can convince you that being gender normal means you need to buy a certain product — cosmetics, plastic surgery, blue or pink clothing, etc. — it just makes sense from a production or mass marketing perspective.” So basically, first we were convinced that there is a “gender normal.” Then we were sold things to achieve that construct. We are sold ideas of what is the right color, the right form of self-expression, the right way to be in this world. As for me, I’m done buying it.

I made a little watercolor sketch to illustrate my point.

an apple made with only warm colors watercolor apple with depth

The picture on the left is of an apple using only “girl colors.” It is ok. Obviously you can tell it’s supposed to be an apple. But you can feel that the depth is missing. In the picture on the right, I added “boy colors” (blues and greens) to the apple. You can immediately feel that it is whole. It is balanced. And this, my friends, is true in life. We don’t even realize that in so many areas of our lives, we have limited ourselves to being the flat apple. It has become such a default we often don’t even notice it. It’s not ok. We need to touch on the full spectrum of ourselves to feel whole. Whether that is in choosing colors, modes of self-expression, or activities in general, we owe it to ourselves. I hope that the next time you catch yourself limiting when you want to be liberating, deferring when you want to be declaring, or stifling when you want to be singing- I hope you’ll think of my little boring flat apple. I hope you’ll embrace every aspect of yourselves and allow the full picture to emerge.


Marla Bender


Pink or Blue
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