picture fromtom@hk via flickr

If your preschool-aged children are anything like the preschool-aged children I know, you likely see many a girl running around in a pink, frilly, princess dress and many a boy in a superhero costume. They appear at the pizza parlor, grocery store, and elementary schools across the country. Parents report they sometimes even insist on sleeping in these outfits. What is with this gender obsessed clothing?

A recent study, led by May Ling Halim investigated this phenomenon of gender appearance rigidity. The researchers found that the peak of gender appearance rigidity seems to be age 3-4 in young girls when more than 60% of girls wear pink and purple dresses and skirts almost exclusively. Unlike many studies in the child development literature this one did a nice job recruiting a diverse group of participants, finding that across many ethnic groups, this pattern held—50% of more 4 year olds of Mexican, Dominican, Chinese, African-American, and White American girls in the U.S. were rigid in their gender appearance. By 5-6 years old this tendency started to decrease.

What about the boys? Of course studying gender appearance rigidity is a bit trickier to do in boys because unlike girls’ clothing, boys’ clothing is less clearly gendered (jeans are not necessarily more boy-ish than girl-ish). They ended up looking at boys’ unwillingness to wear “girly” colors of purple and pink as well as their tendency to wear (boys’) superhero or formalwear (e.g., neck ties). The researchers found that, depending on the sample, between 11 and 56% of boys were rigid in their appearance with the most rigidity appearing in boys aged 5-6 and in non-White boys.

Perhaps the most interesting results of the study had to do with the role of parents in determining what children were wearing.  We all know the parents out there who hear they are giving birth to a girl and proceed to buy everything in pink or the parent who vows never to let their girl wear pink. What role might this play? The researchers actually found no significant relationship between parents’ desires for their children to wear gendered clothing and their actual tendency to do so. That is, parents don’t appear to be explicitly encouraging their children to wear girly or boy-y clothes. In contrast, the researchers found that parents often discouraged their children from such clothes, though this discouragement was usually directed at girls. Parents seldom reported conflict with their boys over their gendered clothing choices.

Finally, the researchers were interested in which traits of children would predict their gendered clothing choices. What they found was that the kids who saw gender as most central to their identity and the kids who viewed gender as stable over time (i.e., who believed you can’t be a boy today and a girl tomorrow), were the most rigid in their clothing choices.

So what does this research mean for parents agonizing over their daughter’s insistence on pink frilly dresses or their son’s desire to sleep in his new Spiderman costume for 7 days straight? Well the good news is that this is likely a phase and one that should be over shortly.  In the meantime, there’s always Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s response to the Princess-Industrial-Complex:

picture from tom@hk via flickr

Text Copyright 2013 Kristina Olson

About the Author

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D.

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

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