As soon as a couple finds out that they are expecting, the first question they face is: Boy or girl? And as soon as one knows the gender of the to-be-born, parents or other family members rush to nearby baby stores in search of baby clothes.
Pink for girls and blue for boys seems to be the popular norm. But who decided on this colour patterning, and what will really happen if the reverse-coding mechanism is applied?
According to Jo B Paoletti, historian and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys, pink and blue designations area rather recent phenomena. Earlier, it was more widespread to wear white, a shade that entailed neutral clothing. Then, in the mid-19th century, pink and blue started to gain more acceptance for babies, although at that time it was pink for boys and blue for girls.
A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department wrote: “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Clearly, times have changed and with it, a person’s thinking habits.
In Bangladesh, it is difficult to find baby clothes outside of this colour palate; colours such as green, white, and brown are almost unavailable. Also, people insist on sticking to these two colours, often saying things like “girls look cutest in pink,” and often implying that a boy’s “manliness” might be put under the microscope if he is made to wear pink.
Speaking from personal experience, I can vouch for this as my daughter has a closet full of pink dresses, accessories, bedspreads, the works – all of which are gifts from others. So what does this mean for growing children in general?
Overall, the movement was more a marketing ploy than anything else according to Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “Being ‘gender normal’ is very important to us, and as a marketing technique, if retailers can convince you that being gender normal means you need to buy a certain product – cosmetics, plastic surgery, blue or pink clothing, etc – it just makes sense from a production or mass marketing perspective,” says Cohen.
Thus, like many other products that are mass-produced to sustain capitalistic needs, the colour-coding mechanism reads no differently. Customers are drawn to such distinctions and apply it to their daily lives without confirming its authenticity or its history. So is this colour-coding system only a culturally acquired phenomenon or do colours actually have an effect on a child’s code of conduct?
Research shows that when children under detention at the San Bernardino County Probation Department in California become violent, they are put in a cell with one distinctive feature – it is bubblegum pink in colour. The children tend to relax, stop yelling, and often fall asleep within 10 minutes, said Paul E Boccumini, director of clinical services for the department.
If looked at closely, this association of pink with calmness suggests a connection of calmness and womanly behavior, a belief that is also culturally popular. Although most researchers do not agree with this theory, and claim that it is something that we hope to accomplish by mere association of colours, the fact remains that some researchers believe in it.
The question remains: Do girls inherently have a fondness for pink and is it tied to their biology? In 2007, a study found evidence that males and females may be sensitive to different regions of the colour spectrum, but the explanations that have been proposed are still very speculative.
According to Del Guidice, an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Turin: “People stopped studying whether there was a biological basis for the gender-color associations because it seemed obvious that there couldn’t be one …” Thus, the fact that there is a biological gender-colour correlation seems highly unlikely and one that is yet to be established.
So how should new parents go about it? One option could be gender neutral parenting, whereby parents don’t force any preconceived gender norms onto a child and let them choose what they are comfortable with.
Parents should also refrain from generalised comments such as “girls wear bangles,” and “boys don’t cry.” Again, if a girl opts to play with balls and a boy with dolls, let them do so. Most importantly, growing children need to witness their parents sharing an equal pedestal at home where chores are divided, and both parents respect one another.
Finally, breaking free of such colour patterns that clearly distinguish one gender from the other might be a starting point.