Pink frilly dresses and the avoidance of all things "girly": Children's appearance rigidity and cognitive theories of gender development

May Ling Halim, Diane N. Ruble, Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Kristina M. Zosuls, Leah E. Lurye, Faith K. Greulich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many young children pass through a stage of gender appearance rigidity; girls insist on wearing dresses, often pink and frilly, whereas boys refuse to wear anything with a hint of femininity. In 2 studies, we investigated the prevalence of this apparent hallmark of early gender development and its relation to children's growing identification with a gender category. Study 1a examined the prevalence of this behavior and whether it would exhibit a developmental pattern of rigidity followed by flexibility, consistent with past research on identity-related cognitions. Interviews with 76 White, middle-class parents and their 3-to 6-year-old children revealed that about two thirds of parents of 3-and 4-year-old girls and almost half (44%) of parents of 5-and 6-year-old boys reported that their children had exhibited a period of rigidity in their gender-related appearance behavior. Appearance rigidity was not related to parents' preferences for their children's gender-typed clothing. Study 1b examined whether cognitive theories of identity development could shed light on gender appearance rigidity. The more important and positive children considered their gender and the more children understood that gender categories remain stable over time (gender stability), the more likely children were to wear gender-typed outfits. In Study 2, we extended this 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1091-1101
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2014


  • Appearance
  • Centrality
  • Gender cognitions
  • Gender constancy
  • Gender identity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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