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Pink Frilly Dresses

Published: May 1, 2014

To wear a pink frilly dress or not to wear a pink frilly dress?

The choice is basic to the conclusions reached in a research paper published this fall by psychology’s May Ling Halim that addresses what the very young wear to define their gender identity.

“Pink Frilly Dresses and the Avoidance of All Things ‘Girly:’ Children’s Appearance Rigidity and Cognitive Theories of Gender Development” appeared in the Nov. 25, online first issue of Developmental Psychology. In it, the member of the university since 2012 addresses the curious phenomenon where preschool-aged girls demand to wear pink every single day from head to toe and why they behave this way.

“Some parents will notice their preschool-aged daughters are very insistent on what they want to wear which are extremely feminine things,” said Halim. “Everything has to be pink: their shoes, their socks and their headbands must be pink. Many girls will not go out the door unless they are wearing a dress. Little girls on the East Coast would want to wear dresses even when it is snowing. Parents get creative with a combination of tights and coats with a little dress showing underneath but this is very extreme behavior.”

The “avoidance” in the title refers to preschool boys and their flat-out refusal to wear anything feminine. “Sometimes a red shirt can be a shade too close to pink. Even sandals can look too girly,” she said. “For boys, the choice was about avoidance while for girls, it was more about pink, frilly dresses.”

Halim interviewed 76 white, middle-class parents and their children to discover that about two thirds of parents of 3- and 4-year-old girls and 44 percent of parents of 5- and 6-year-old boys reported that their children had exhibited a period of rigidity in their gender-related appearance. “Appearance rigidity was not related to parents’ preferences for their children’s gender-typed clothing,” she explained. “The more important and positive children considered their gender and the more children understood that gender categories remain stable over time, the more likely children were to wear gender-typed outfits.”

Halim later extended her research to a more diverse population and found that gender appearance rigidity was also prevalent in 267 4-year-old children in the United States from African-American, Chinese, Dominican and Mexican immigrant low-income backgrounds. Results suggest that rigid gender-related appearance behavior can be seen among young children from different backgrounds and might reflect early developing cognitions about gender identity.

Gender awareness seems to come at a very early age but this leaves Halim unsurprised. “The reason it begins so early is that it coincides with their first understanding of gender,” she said of the participating children. “Early on, they perceive that there are two categories in the world: male and female. They think, ‘I belong to one of those groups, apparently. I want to learn what it means to be a girl.’ It seems that what girls are learning is that looking very feminine is the way to be a girl.”

Pink Frilly Dresses
May Ling Halim

The study reviewed parental influence. Were the children being dressed by their moms and dads? “It’s possible, but there didn’t seem to be a strong connection in our study,” she explained. “It seems to be more about the children wanting to know more about their gender. The realization about the rigidity of gender appearance comes from many sources including language. Look at the ways in which we talk about girls and boys. They hear ‘Women are this way and men are that way.’ They hear, ‘Girls play with dolls and boys play sports.’ The more they hear it, the more they think that gender is a very defined group with clear boundaries.”

But where young girls see images of beautiful thin princesses with big eyes, boys try to avoid looking remotely feminine. “Boys exhibit avoidance by rejecting a burgundy shirt as too feminine. They will refuse to wear hand-me-downs from older sisters even if they are gender-neutral items. They are far more likely to wear super hero stuff. Others adopt the Department of Public Works look or dressing up like firefighters or police officers. Others dress more formally like older men or carry a briefcase around,” she said.

Halim attended Stanford for her bachelor’s degree in psychology before joining the private sector for two years. She later enrolled at New York University where she earned her master’s and her doctorate in 2012.

Halim offers this advice to worried parents: don’t worry. “If they are fretting about their daughters in their pink frilly dresses and wondering if they are failed parents, I advise them not to fret,” she said. “This kind of behavior is normative because two out of three girls seem to go through it during preschool. The same is true for almost half of boys. It also seems generally to be a short-lived phase.” Battling with children may instead cause children to think that expressing their gender identities is a bad thing. However, Halim also proposes that if it seems like children are focusing on physical appearance as a stable trait (more than just a phase) or if their self-worth depends on how they look, parents might show concern as preoccupation with physical appearance is tied to many negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, such as low self-esteem, depression, and psychological distress.