Expecting a child or expecting a boy/a girl?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Processes of gender socialization have been shown to be connected with gender differences in particular skills, educational achievements, occupational aspirations, and choices, but also with differences in aggression levels. Knowing that our experiences and opportunities could be influenced by gender, the question arises: when does our gender become relevant for the way other people treat us?

The answer might surprise you – even before we are born!

Gender reveal parties, for instance, are one example of highlighting the importance of gendering children long before they are born. These parties are created to celebrate a revelation of a sex of a foetus, usually with the colour pink indicating a girl and the colour blue indicating a boy. Some authors criticise this phenomenon arguing that it reinforces rigid gender stereotypes and contributes to the binary conceptualization of genders. Another relatively novel phenomenon are short videos of unborn babies that parents post online, mostly on YouTube. One study analysed a sample of these videos in France and concluded that the biographies of the foetuses in the videos were already gendered. It seemed that to some parents-to-be prenatal ultrasound imagery served as a preparation not only for having a child but for having a boy or a girl. This led the author to conclude that it seemed that for some of the parents who posted such videos gender might be “the foundation stone of any life story”, as Agnès Pélage puts it. 

Furthermore, several studies suggest that parental relationship with their unborn children and behaviours towards them might change as a result of finding out the sex. First of all, emotional relationship and felt a connection with the foetus might be altered. For some parents, knowing the sex can help in perceiving the foetus as “a person,” as “a real child,” or in constructing a social identity of their baby-to-be. One study showed that mothers felt more connected with the foetus after finding out the sex, while another study suggested that mothers who find out that the sex of the foetus is not the one they expected begin to feel less connected to them. Secondly, the revelation of the sex might change the way parents act towards and talk to their unborn babies. In one study women reported enjoying using gendered pronouns when talking to or about their unborn baby after finding out the sex. Moreover, some women even listed being able to use gendered pronouns as one of the reasons for revealing the sex. Findings of this study also suggested that women knowing their sex talked to their unborn babies in more gender-stereotypical ways. 

Research has also demonstrated that parents’ knowledge of the unborn child’s sex might lead to selecting more gender-typed clothes, toys, and creating different, gendered environments. It seems that the use of ultrasound for fetal sex determination has played a significant role in consumption patterns, by inspiring earlier purchases of baby items and making them a lot more gendered. Therefore, establishing this ultrasound practice as a routine might have contributed to the likelihood of newborn babies starting their lives in bedrooms and environments specifically designed toward a boy or a girl and being surrounded by gender-typical furniture and objects. It might have also had an influence on shopping for clothes, with babies being more likely to spend the first few months of their lives in gendered clothes. One study compared mothers who gave birth in the 1970s with mothers who gave birth in the 2000s and found that even though both groups had bought necessary baby items while being pregnant, the types of purchases were significantly different. The ones who became mothers in the 2000s did a big amount of purchases earlier in the pregnancy, and the items they bought were highly gendered in style and colour, or even tailored to the baby’s-to-be assumed taste. Starting at birth, the colour of the clothes can act as one of the ways in which parents enforce gender roles through gender markers, teaching the children to act in gender-typical ways. Furthermore, the colour of the clothes indicates the sex and presumed gender of the baby and sends a message to the strangers about how to interact with a newborn baby. This can encourage gender-differentiated treatment of children and strengthen gender stereotypes.

Before they are born and while they are still very young babies, children cannot clearly express their likes or dislikes, or give consent for or choose certain products. Thus, they cannot invalidate parental assumptions and beliefs about them, which makes these phases particularly sensitive. In the absence of other information, especially in the prenatal stage, the influence of the sex can be bigger and affect parental beliefs and behaviour toward gender biases.

Suggested readings

Barnes, M. W. (2015). Anticipatory socialization of pregnant women: Learning fetal sex and gendered interactions. Sociological Perspectives58(2), 187-203.

Barnes, M. W. (2015). Fetal sex determination and gendered prenatal consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture15(3), 371-390.

Endendijk, J. J. (2022). Welcome to a Pink and Blue World! An Analysis of Gender-Typed Content in Birth Announcement Cards From 1940–2019 in the Netherlands. Sex Roles86(1), 1-13.

Gregg, Robin. 1995. Pregnancy in a High-tech Age: Paradoxes of Choice. New York: New York University Press.

Mitchell, Lisa M. 2001. Baby’s First Picture: Ultrasound and the Politics of Fetal Subjects. Toronto,

Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Oswald, F., Champion, A., Walton, K., & Pedersen, C. L. (2021). Revealing more than gender: Rigid gender-role beliefs and transphobia are related to engagement with fetal-sex celebrations. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

Pélage, A. (2019). Our “Baby” on YouTube: The Gendered Life Stories of the Unborn. European Journal of Life Writing8, 69-90.

Smith, K. (2005). Prebirth gender talk: A case study in prenatal socialization. Women and Language28(1), 49-54.

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