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Why do girls wear pink and boys wear blue?

From Africa to the Roaring '20s

Prior to the 1920s, both young boys and girls wore dresses, usually white -- even the future King of Great Britain (George IV, shown above in 1896).
Prior to the 1920s, both young boys and girls wore dresses, usually white -- even the future King of Great Britain (George IV, shown above in 1896).
W. & D. Downey/Getty Images

Neuroscientists Hurlbert and Ling found that women of two distinct cultures tend to prefer red tones, including pink, but why? In their published findings, the scientists suggest that the preference comes from the role assigned to ancient women. Bands of hunter/gatherers composed humanity before the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. In these bands, men generally hunted while the women foraged for fruits, vegetables and other plants.

It's Hurlbert and Ling's view that women became attuned to the reds of the ripe berries and other fruits that would win an ancient woman points among the others in her band. As such, women came to focus on the color red (and the rewards associated with it) in order to make their search easier. The doctors say that this would also come in handy for recognizing flushed faces, a sign of illness, among the women's children.


To explain the preference for blue found among both men and women in the study, Hurlbert suggested that to these ancients bands, blue signified "good weather" and a "good water source" [source: The Guardian].

But this may be a leap from findings to explanation. It's true the researchers found that women tend to prefer colors on the red end of the spectrum. Their findings also find support from previous studies. A 2003 study suggested that women prefer reds because their eyes are physically attuned to see reds better than other colors. This certainly supports Hurlbert and Ling's idea of an evolutionary basis for color preferences. But their answer doesn't encompass all of the data.

For example, it wasn't until the 1920s that Western parents began dressing their children in colors. Prior to this, children of both sexes generally wore white, and both boys and girls of a young age were outfitted in dresses. When the color assignments among boys and girls did evolve in the '20s, the colors were reversed: pink was for boys and blue for girls. It wasn't until around the 1940s that the colors flip-flopped to the assignment we recognize today [source: The Guardian]. This lends support to the notion that the color preference between pink and blue comes from culture rather than biology.

But there are certainly parents who choose to opt out of the pink/blue division for their children and outfit them in clothes of yellow and green. Still, many young girls -- including some who have been raised outside of the typical gender colors -- go through a phase characterized by their unyielding demand for all things pink. Researchers at Princeton University refer to this as the Pink Frilly Dress (PFD) phase.

The Princeton group posits that kids become aware by age two that there are two distinct genders and that they belong to one of them. Securing a place in one's gender is important to a child's psychological development. One easy way for a child to achieve this security is by adopting the color assigned to his gender by society and rejecting the other [source: Princeton University].

Since the Princeton study suggests a combination of both biology and culture is at work in color preferences, the question still remains: Is biology or culture responsible -- or both? Perhaps the answer could be found from a study investigating whether people who are color-blind tend to suffer gender confusion.

For more information on gender and related topics, check out the links below.

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More Great Links


  • Goldacre, Ben. "Out of the Blue and In the Pink." The Guardian. August 25, 2007.
  • Khouw, Natalia. "The Meaning of Color For Gender."
  • O'Connor, Steve. "Boys Like Blue, Girls Like Pink - It's In Our Genes." The Independent. August 21, 3007.
  • Ruble, Diane N., Lurye, Leah E. and Zosuls, Kristina M. "Pink Frilly Dresses (PFD) and Early Gender Identity." Princeton University.
  • Wainwright, Martin. "Pink for a Girl and Blue for a Boy - And It's All Down To Evolution." The Guardian. August 21, 2007.
  • "'Pink/Blue' Test Raises Yellow Caution Flag." Chicago Sun-Times. May 21, 2007.
  • "Sex Differences and Color Preferences." TS-Si. August 23, 2007.