Twin sisters Abi and Emma Moore noticed a few years ago how different their south London houses looked as Abi's started filling up with her sons' toy dinosaurs and trains and Emma's turned pink and girly with her daughters' playthings. Already frustrated by the barrage of pretty princesses and sparkly fairies marketed to girls, Emma says she reached a breaking point when she watched her daughter open a huge haul of presents at her sixth birthday party. Out of 40 gifts, Emma recalls, only three were items not designed solely for girls two games and a set of colored pencils. Much of the rest, including several Barbies and a play-makeup set, ended up at a local charity shop, but the shock Emma felt stayed with her.
Not long afterward, she felt compelled to do something about it. In 2008, she and Abi, both 38, started an advocacy group called Pinkstinks, which they hope will spark a shift in a popular culture that they say puts girls "into a pretty little box" from birth, offering them toys that emphasize the importance of looking good and being feminine, while the boys are allowed to go exploring and get dirty. The sisters have launched campaigns to pressure retailers to move away from such stereotypes, like their recent effort to help persuade the British supermarket chain Sainsbury's to repackage a doctor costume that was labeled for boys and a nurse's outfit labeled for girls.
The list of products that pigeonhole girls in the clothes and makeup category goes on and on. Disney sells pink vanity tables for girls as young as 3, for example, and the European retailer Primark stocks a T-shirt in a 2-year-old size that's emblazoned with the motto "S is for Super, Shopaholic, Soon-to-be-Supermodel." Even old classics now offer girls' versions, such as an all-pink Monopoly game in which the houses and hotels have been replaced by boutiques and malls, and a "Designer's Edition" Scrabble that has letters on the front of the box spelling out fashion. It wasn't always this way. A couple of decades ago, children's clothing mostly came in primary colors and princesses were confined to the occasional film or Halloween costume. But as marketing to children has burgeoned into a multibillion-dollar industry, and our consumerist ethos has saddled kids with mountains of stuff, the gender divide has grown wider.
There are serious ramifications to all this marketing, the Moores say. The tidal wave of pink toys and clothes suggests there's only one way to be a girl pretty, princessy and fashion-minded. And this segues disturbingly quickly into often sexualized images of tween girls a few years older, says Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Colby College in Maine and co-author of the book Packaging Girlhood. The not-so-subtle pressures of this marketing can damage self-esteem and feed worries about body image and appearance later in life, the sisters say. They also link it to a celebrity-obsessed culture that undermines adult women by glorifying glamour figures like Paris Hilton while neglecting those women engaged in more serious pursuits.
The Moores made a big splash in December by calling for a boycott of the Early Learning Centre, a British toy-store chain that sells such stereotyped merchandise as pink globes for girls. The sisters argued that these items sit uncomfortably with the company's claims of commitment to educational play. That won them press coverage in dozens of countries and more than 10,000 supporters on Facebook. "Girls like me shouldn't be forced to like pink," one 9-year-old wrote in an e-mail to the Moores.
The reaction hasn't been all positive, though. Britain's right-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper called the campaign "dour and humorless" and some bloggers were nastier still. The Moores believe they've hit a nerve, and the issue clearly resonates far beyond Britain. In the U.S., "it's kind of reached ridiculous proportions," says Brown. "[Parents] are saying, 'I can't find anything other than pink for my daughter.'" What Pinkstinks is doing, Brown adds, "is using the color pink to get at something more complex, and that's the way girls are being packaged and sold, and sold out through marketing."
Oddly, this is happening as opportunities for women have expanded dramatically in the Western world. Brown says the two trends may be linked. The blurring of traditional gender roles as women succeed in the workplace and girls outperform boys in school has created an anxiety that advertisers have capitalized on, she argues. "Those stereotypes get pronounced at a time when girls and boys alike are really questioning, and living their lives in much more complicated ways," she says.
For their part, the Moores say that while they plan to call more boycotts, they also want to offer positive messages. They've launched a Pinkstinks seal of approval for retailers that aren't bogged down in the girly swamp. And a sister website, www.cooltobe.me, seeks kids' views on who their role models should be and highlights adult women's achievements in an effort to show girls the opportunities that are open to them. Emma Moore says she's growing more determined as she sees her 7-year-old beginning to worry about her looks and weight. "I'm definitely motivated by not wanting to catch her looking in the mirror and saying 'I hate my body, I hate myself.' "