Gender reveal parties are now a commercialised global craze - but is the pressure your party may place on your unborn child really worth those likes and shares?
When I quietly celebrated the news from my 20-week pregnancy scan that I was carrying a baby girl, I never dreamed it would spark a global trend. It was 2008 and my husband and I had got married, bought a house and been trying for a while to start a family. My first two pregnancies had ended in miscarriage, so reaching the 20-week point with my third felt like a major milestone for us. It was one that we wanted to mark.
So we held a small gathering at our home in Chicago, just for family and one or two friends. I baked two cakes: one with blue filling and one with pink, then had my sister-in-law look into a sealed envelope containing the ultrasound and bring out the appropriate cake. We cut into it and the whole family was able to see the pink icing at the same time we did. It was a magical moment, but we didn't think much about it after that.
Later, when I wrote on my blog that I'd thrown a little party to reveal the sex of our baby, it attracted some attention online, to the extent that a magazine aimed at pregnant women picked up the story and published it that summer. Since the publication was available in many midwives' waiting rooms across our area, the idea caught on in a way I had never anticipated: now, even celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba throw them to celebrate the announcement of their newborn's sex.
At first, I was confused when what I thought was an intimate gathering for my friends and family became a global craze. Fast forward a decade or so, what was a low-key, personal affair in my home has turned into something quite absurd and, in my opinion, quite insane.
Today, the most overblown of these parties – which my own inadvertently spawned – involve actual explosives and guns, with either pink or blue smoke fired out. Gender reveal smoke bombs can be purchased, not to mention the burgeoning industry of "gender reveal" tableware, balloons, confetti cannons, banners, cakes, flower walls and more, all coloured either pink or blue.
Not all of the wackier stunts have gone smoothly. Only a few weeks ago, police in Australia released footage of a car bursting into flames during a gender reveal party. A "burnout" the expectant parents had attempted – in which a car gives off pink or blue smoke – had gone awry. In 2017, a father-to-be accidentally caused a wildfire that burned through 47,000 acres in Arizona and caused more than $8 million worth of damage, by using a colourful explosive to reveal his unborn baby's sex. It took firefighters about a week to bring the blaze under control.
Now, I enjoy celebrating life's big and not-so-big events as much as the next person. We even threw a birthday party for our dog not too long ago. Yet I can't help but feel uneasy – appalled, even – by the aggression behind some of these parties, which have taken on the status of a wedding. That learning what gender a baby is could have spawned an over-commercialised industry, where people pay over the odds for the right 'merchandise' and, in some cases, expect guests to bring a gift, is surely at odds with just sharing in the joy of a new addition to a family.
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Even more troubling, however, is the regressive mindset behind the parties. Pink for a girl and blue for a boy? Why is this still happening in 2019, when some of us have realised how reductive and harmful this kind of gender stereotyping is. You may think, "what's the problem? It's just a colour." But the "pinkifcation" of girlhood imposes limits on what it means to be female, and attempts to contain it in a box, leaving any girl who doesn't fit the picture feeling that she doesn't fit in.
My husband and I now live in Los Angeles with three children, and that unborn baby whose sex I revealed at a party is now a 10-year-old girl who doesn't wish to wear a dress or have long hair. This doesn't make her less of a girl, it's just that she's different from her two younger sisters, who do insist on pink for almost everything.
The blue and pink of these ridiculous gender reveal parties – accompanied by images of either "boyish" things like tractors or "girly" things like ballet shoes, helps enshrine old-fashioned gender cliches and establish expectations of what a child will be like, even before they have been born. Yes, the sex of a baby is the first real information we get about it, but to create such a spectacle around revealing this places importance on something – the biological status of a foetus – where importance doesn't need to be placed. Having seen how trans and non-binary people have been affected by such thinking over the years, I sometimes feel bad that I have been responsible for releasing something into the world that trades on notions we now know are so out of date. Assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what's between their legs.
I don't want to criticise or shame other parents; they must do whatever feels right. But I would like to see more of them make informed choices about what it is they are doing when they throw a big gender reveal bash. In today's social media-dominated world, people feel the need to produce "content" with which to constantly update their feeds. We've all become the stars of our own curated lives, and there is pressure to keep up this great display. Gender reveal parties may sometimes be conceived with this in mind, and can very often get out of hand. Is the pressure your party may place on your unborn child really worth those likes and shares?
If the sex of a baby must be marked in a big way at all, then why not do so with lots of different colours? Or have a white cake as the centrepiece? Don't confuse what a sonographer can see on a pregnancy scan with outdated views about gender.
Let's pivot instead to more enlightened celebrations – ones that do not marginalise those children, like my daughter, who don't belong in the narrow little frames we have drawn for them before they've even entered into the world.
As told to Rosa Silverman.