Pretty in Pink? American Girlhood on the Color Spectrum // Angelica Puzio

The ubiquity of pink – American girlhood’s iconic color – is old news.  But what it says about the messages we send girls? For parents and marketers, that part isn’t as easy to confront.

Defining American girlhood is complex - it changes for every girl, as different as she is diverse, within the racial and economic landscape of her lived experience (not to mention, an endless array of other contributing factors like ability, religion, etc.). Despite how girlhoods may differ, some cultural icons remain the same. ‘Pink-culture’ stands out as an ever-relevant demarcation of what it means to be a girl in a modern America. Exploring pink provides only one way to unpack the multidimensional narrative of girlhood, however, it speaks volumes about the culture that it simultaneously mirrors and rigidly dictates. Looking closer, it’s clear to see which identities that the color celebrates – and perhaps more importantly, those that it does not. 

Understanding the dangerous ubiquity of pink begins with the realization that the possessions we surround ourselves with shape our experience of the world. Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” argues that the sheer volume of pink, and the ways that it is presented, acts as a pillar of girls’ cultural, developmental, and commercial existence in the United States. In keeping with this notion, she asks parents, consumers, and all those who come in contact with girls to ask, “What do the toys we give our girls, the pinkness in which they are steeped, tell us about what we are telling them? What do they say about what we think they are and ought to be?”

Recent figures report – with resounding agreement – that what pink ‘says’ to girls certainly isn’t pretty. Developmental psychologists Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown weigh in on the problem with pink, stating that, as Orenstein warns, pink has become an ironic attempt to celebrate girls while clearly defining their limitations. This happens through the careful execution of marketing strategies that provide young consumers and parents with an illusion of choice. One glaring instance is ‘pinkification’ of toys that celebrate children’s innovating, creating, and building skills. Toy companies selling building sets, blocks, or hands-on science kits are color dividing their inventories at increasing rates, sending the loud-and-clear message that being girly, cute, and feminine champions the inventing skills that these toys claim to foster. It’s no coincidence that this type of messaging is socially and professionally threatening for girls: research repeatedly finds that the chasm between girls and boys interest in math and science fields is strongly related to childhood activities and surroundings (Jacobs, Davis-Kean, Bleeker, Eccles, & Malanchuk, 2005). This is one example, but the list goes on.

 The price that girls may pay at the hands of their monochromatic world is a pre-prescribed understanding of their social roles as only those that correspond with the values that the color sensationalizes. Perhaps equally or more detrimental, however, is not what pink promotes, but what it fails to: a robust sense of identity, agency, holistic skillsets, or non risk-inducing norms. Although exciting news about Target’s gender signage has many parents feeling hopeful, the collective cultural attitude remains unconcerned with Orenstein’s idea that pink-culture equates “identity with image, self-expression with appearance, femininity with performance, pleasure with pleasing, and sexuality with sexualization” (Orenstein, 2011, p. 28).

It’s important to note that pink is just one factor out of many – in addition, it’s certainly not just girls that color and gender typing our world affects – but that’s a post for another day. If girls are to find true, agency driven, ‘happily-ever-afters,’ their cultural must represent them with a reinvented spectrum -- literally. Why not celebrate them with a palette exactly as powerful, and as diverse, as girls themselves?


Jacobs, J. E., Davis-Kean, P., Bleeker, M., Eccles, J. S., & Malanchuk, O. (2005). " I can, but I don't want to": The Impact of Parents, Interests, and Activities on Gender Differences in Math. Cambridge University Press.

Orenstein, P. (2011). Cinderella ate my daughter. New York: Harper Collins.

Written by Angelica Puzio

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