Quarterly Essay high-school writing competition winner: “Breaking pink and blue boxes”

Breaking pink and blue boxes

Leticia Liao, Year 11, Cheltenham Girls’ High School


What is the first thing you do when you meet someone new? Before you even walk up to them and ask their name? Based on aspects of their appearance and body language alone, you make an assumption about their gender. You “read” them – most likely unconsciously – as either “male” or “female.” When you encounter a newborn baby, you often comment on or ask about their gender. “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” are the first pronouncements we make for all new humans. This matters to us, because we treat them differently. We dress boys up in blue shirts and girls in pink dresses; we let boys play with toy cars and guns, girls with babies and doll houses; we use adjectives like “handsome,” “strong” and “adventurous” for boys, whereas “lovely,” “sweet” and “pretty” are reserved for girls.

Although gender stereotypes may seem both commonplace and harmless, they limit the full expression of our strengths and personality. It was not until I understood this that I realised how repressive they can be. Not only do they restrict the way we express ourselves, but they reduce the activities we participate in. Having been born a girl, I am expected to act elegantly and demurely. Since I have always attended single-sex schools, I was not aware of the extent to which girls are deprived of the right to be active – that is, until I visited a boys’ school. When it comes to physical activity, boys take precedence over girls. I was flabbergasted by how energetic the boys were.

As a daughter of conservative parents, I was forbidden to ride skateboards. “It’s a boys’ sport,” they’d say, “girls don’t look good with scars all over their legs.” When it came to subjects such as mathematics and activities like driving, I was told by my parents that I would never be as good as the boys. These sexist comments made me feel unworthy, discouraged, thwarted. Despite the fact that I identify as a cisgender (a term for people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) female, there have been times when I wished I had been born male – it would make things easier. But then I recalled the times my parents told my two-year-old brother to wipe away his tears, as “boys don’t cry.” It’s heart-wrenching that boys are told that their feelings are shameful, when home in particular should be a safe place for expressing emotions.

While feminism has dramatically progressed from the early suffragettes, gender inequities persist today, identified and confronted by a fourth feminist movement. To eliminate pervasive gender stereotypes, we must tackle our ingrained biases. Labels impose limits on what it means to be a certain gender, marginalising effeminate boys and masculine girls, non-binary kids and all of those who don’t fit neatly into the pink and blue boxes. It’s important for parents to deconstruct these stubborn and harmful beliefs by allowing both boys and girls to be emotional and powerful, to consider both genders as equal in status and worth, and to let children explore their interests and express themselves regardless of their gender identity.

Encourage boys to talk about their worries and recognise their expressions of empathy. Allow girls to be active and to engage in sports of their choice. When we stop putting people into boxes, we will be able to see them as so much more than just a label.