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Pretty in Pink

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By Roz Warren

I was born in the 1950s, when gender roles were rigidly enforced. If you were a girl, you wore a dress and played with dolls. Your color was pink. If you were a boy, you wore pants and played with trucks. Your color was blue. If you resisted these ground rules, you were in for plenty of trouble.   

Half a century later, I baby sit for a two-year-old boy who loves the color pink. Too young to know about its role as a gender marker, he's just drawn to the color. He likes to wear pink clothing and to color with the pink crayon. We browse storybooks at the library,  looking for what Josh calls "pink boys" -- boys or men who happen to be wearing the color he loves.  There are very few "pink boys" in children's literature, but Josh is always pleased to find one.  Otherwise, he acts the way you expect little boys to act.  He plays with trucks and blocks. He carries a small train engine with him everywhere. He kicks soccer balls, emulates his older brother's love of the Phillies and happily rough-houses with other little boys.

Josh is being raised in an Orthodox Jewish home by deeply religious parents. It's a way of life subject to countless rules that control every moment of ones life, including some fairly rigid expectations about gender. Very different things are expected from Orthodox Jewish men and women. You'd think his parents would fiercely resist anything signaling, however mildly, identification with the "wrong" gender. But they're untroubled by their son's fondness for pink. They accept that it's part of who he is. It just isn't an issue.Pink nails.jpg   

Recently I was taking care of Josh at the synagogue they belong to. Exploring, the two of us wandered into an enormous cloakroom. There, on a hanger, was a sparkly pink tutu.  (What on earth was a sparkly pink tutu doing in an Orthodox shul, I have no idea.)  To Josh, it was magic.   "A pink dress!" he exclaimed, eyes shining. "A beautiful pink dress!"  It made me wonder how this is going to play out as he gets older. One of the things I love about toddlers is that they don't yet feel much pressure to conform. Wanting to be exactly like your friends comes later. Each two year old is a profoundly idiosyncratic individual.  As Josh grows within the Orthodox community, will he be pressured to abandon his favorite color?  Will it always be a part of him but one that must be hidden or repressed? Or will he be part of a generation of Orthodox Jewish men who are totally comfortable with pink? 

Suzi, another two year old I babysit, loves lawn mowers. Her idea of fun is to watch anything with a noisy motor shaping the environment.  Taking care of Suzi means popping her into her stroller and roaming the neighborhood in search of a good noisy lawn mower, leaf blower, hedge trimmer or weed whacker. When we find one, we stop to savor it.

"Mower!" she says happily. "Noisy motor! ROOOMM!"

Suzi can watch a lawn mower for hours.  She never grows tired of the sight. She seems to derive a deep satisfaction, a quiet joy, from tracking its deafening back-and- forth progress across a yard. Her parents are fine with this. They have no interest in steering their little girl away from leaf blowers and lawn mowers and toward Barbie dolls. If their daughter thrives on watching a noisy machine cut the lawn, that's fine with them.

I don't know what will become of these two. But I do know they're growing up in a better world than the one I grew up in. If I'd wanted to play with trucks instead of dolls as a little girl, my parents would have flipped out. They'd have pressured me to conform. If I didn't, I'm sure I would have ended up in a therapist's office, with the goal of  "correcting" the "problem."   And if any of the little boys I played with as a toddler were drawn to the "wrong" color or to "girly" toys, they quickly learned to keep it to themselves.

This isn't a perfect world and there's still plenty of room for progress. But if you're a little boy who wants to color with a pink crayon or a little girl who adores lawn mowers,  its way better to be born at the beginning of the twenty-first century than in the middle of the last one.          

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