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Pink and blue: The color of gender

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  • Fondazione Policlinico Universitario A. Gemelli IRCCS - Rome (Italy)
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Pink and blue: the color of gender
Paolo Frassanito & Benedetta Pettorini
Published online: 4 January 2008
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Springer-Verlag 2007
Assigning color to gender is mostly a twentieth-century
trait. It should be noted that it is a practice limited most
often to Western Europe and the Americas. It would also
seem that the effect of color-coded gender differences (pink
for girls, blue for boys) existed oppositely initially [10].
In fact, this reversal of what we consider normal was
considered conventional, even in the early twentieth
century. The debate of when and why pink and blue came
into fashion to designate gender rages on, but alm ost every
argument alludes to a passage in the novel Little Women,
published in 1868: Amy ties a pink bow and a blue bow
on Megs twins Daisy and Demi, so people will know the
difference between the girl and the boy. This is said to be
done in the French style, suggesting that it might have
been possible in France that pink and blue were already
gender-specific.
However, there is evidence that this practice was not
always common or always don e throughout much of
Europe. In fact, in the nineteenth century, parents dressed
infants in white dresses, suggesting that color and dresses
were not used to distinguish between girls and boys [3].
At one point, pink was considered more of a boys color,
as a watered-down, bold, dramatic red, which is a fierce
color. Instead, blue was considered more for girls. Probably
this choice was affected by the fact that blue, especially
dark blue, was associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian
Europe. In fact, painters often mixed lapis lazuli into paints
to depict what was considered the most sacred feminine
icon.
The Sunday Sentinal, an American newspaper, in 1914
advised mothers: If you like the color note on the little
ones garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if
you are a follower of convention (March 29, 1914).
Similarly, Ladies Home Journal informed: There has been
a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally
accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The
reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color
is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more
delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl (June, 1918).
The current pink for girls and blue for boys was not
uniform until the 1950s [11]. It would seem that Nazi
Germany had something to do with the association of pink
with femininity: catholic traditions in Germany and
neighboring countries reverse the current color coding,
because of the strong association of blue with the Virgin
Mary; the Nazis in their concentration camps use a pink
triangle to identify homosexuals. The Nazis choice of pink
suggests that, by the 1930s, it was a color that in Germany
had become associate with girls.
Thus, Dress Maker Magazine stated: The preferred
color to dress young boys in was pink! Blue was reserved
for girls as it was considered the paler, more dainty of the
two colors, and pink was thought to be the stronger (akin to
red). It was not until W WII that the colors were reversed
and pink was used for girls and blue for boys...
After World War II, blue was used extensively for mens
uniforms. Therefore, blue became associated as more of a
masculine color. From the 1940s onward, pink was pushed
as a womans color. Think pink
was the marketing slogan
to convince women to embrace their femininity.
The 1950s featured a virtual color explosion, not only in
clothing, but also in things like appli ances and furniture.
Dressing children in pink and blue to specifically denote
gender suggested the rising middle class and above. In
Childs Nerv Syst (2008) 24:881882
DOI 10.1007/s00381-007-0559-3
P. Frassanito (*)
:
B. Pettorini
Pediatric Neurosurgery, Catholic University,
Largo A. Gemelli, 8,
00168 Rome, Italy
e-mail: paolo.frassanito@gmail.com
other words, people who could afford to make the gender
assignment did so, since many infants appear somewhat
asexual when first born.
Another possible theory links pink and blue gender
references to the 1950s film Funny Face, which stars
Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn was thought an extremely
feminine woman, and her outfits in pink may have proven
inspiring. This explanation is somewhat unlikely, given that
the film was not released until 1957.
Thus, the pink and blue tradition is recent and relatively
exclusive to the Western world, but the girls preference for
the color pink seems to have deeper roots. In a recent study,
the researchers report a preference for blue color on a
yellowblue scale both in males and in females, but a girls
preference for red on a greenred scale. This sex difference,
revealed by a rapid paired-comparison task, is robust and
cross-cultural [8]: could it have a biological basis or is it
only social imprinted ?
A re cent argumen t proposes a bi ological ba sis,
connected to evolved sex differences in specialized visual
pathways that allows females to better discriminate red
wavelengths. The huntergatherer theory propos es that
female brains should be specialized for gather ing-related
tasks and is supported by studies of visual abilities [13].
Tricromacy and the second redgreen system (L M
opponent channel) are modern adaptations in primate
evolution though t to have evolved to facilitate the identi-
fication of ripe, yellow fruit or edible red leaves embedded
in green foliage [12]. It is therefore plausible that, in
specializing for gathering, the female brain honed the
trichromatic adaptations (and developed more the P-cell
pathway of vision), and these underpin the female prefer-
ence for objects reddish. Research on foraging in contem-
porary nonhuman primates [5] supports this hypothesis.
Whereas discrimination of red wavelengths appears to
facilitate identification of plant food, a preference for red
or pink appears to have an advantage for successful female
reproduction. This preference for reddish-pink is thought to
exist because infant faces compared to adult ones are
reddish-pink, and red or p ink may signal approac h
behaviors that enhance infant survival [7].
Similarly, evolutionary theorists have reasoned that selec-
tion pressures might have contributed to spatial abilities in
men that enhanced the hunt and capture of animals, such as
the identification of spatial position, object movement, and a
global analysis of visual scenes [6], that are processed by the
M-cell pathway, phylogenetically older [1]. Other findings in
studies on primates are consistent with androgen-dependent
effects on visual processing pathway structure at the level of
the cortex, supporting a biological basis of the preference for
the color [2].
On the other hand, the segregation of the anatomical and
functional proper ties of the M-cell and P-cell pathways at
the cortical level is less pronounced in infants, if compared
to adults [4], consistent with the proposal that parcellation
and specializa tion of the visual processing stre am is
directed by experience in postnatal life and so enhancing
the socia l a nd cultural influences in addition t o the
biological basis [9].
References
1. Alexander GM (2003) An evolutionary perspective on sex-typed toy
preferences: pink, blue and the brain. Arch Sex Behav 32:714
2. Bachevalier J, Hagger C (1991) Sex differences in the develop-
ment of learning abilities in primates. Psychoneuroendocrinology
16:177188
3. Chiu SW, Gervan S, Fairbrother C et al (2006) Sex-dimorphic
color preference in children with gender identity disorder: a
comparison in clinical and community controls. Sex Roles
55:385395
4. Dobkins KR, Anderson CM (2002) Color-based motion process-
ing is stronger in infants than in adults. Psychol Sci 13:7680
5. Dominy NJ, Lucas PW (2001) Ecological importance of trichro-
matic vision to primates. Nature 410:363366
6. Eals M, Silverman I (1994) The huntergatherer theory of spatial
sex differences: proximate factors mediating the female advantage
in location memory. Ethol Sociobiol 15:95105
7. Highley JD, Hopkins WD, Hirsch RM et al (1987) Preferences of
female rhesus monkeys (macaca mulatta) for infantile coloration.
Dev Psychobiol 20:718
8. Hurlbert AC, Ling Y (2007) Biological compnents of sex
differences in color preference. Curr Biol 17(16):623625
9. Johnson MH (2001) The development and neural basis of face
recognition: comment and speculation. Infant Child Dev 10:3133
10. Paoletti JB (1997) The gendering of infants and toddlers
clothing in America. In: Martine KA, Ames KL (eds) The
material culture of gender, the gender of material culture.
University Press of New England, Hanover, NH
11. Paoletti JB, Kregloh C (1989) The childrens department. In:
Kidwell CB, Steele V (eds) Men and women: dressing the part.
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC
12. Regan BC, Julliot C, Simmen B et al (2001) Fruits, foliage, and
the evolution of primate color vision. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B
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evolutionary theory and data. Oxford Press, New York
882 Childs Nerv Syst (2008) 24:881882
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