Gender neutrality. The hot topic of the moment. The words that scream equality and seek to avoid discrimination. In the world of bebes, this “movement” (for want of a better word) is increasingly reflected in the way we choose to dress our children, the books we read, the toys we give them, the way we speak to them and the activities we undertake together. The aim: to encourage our children to think for themselves. We want to avoid imposing limitations on our little people before they have had a chance to develop their own identity and to decide certain things for themselves. Like who they are.
The considerations seem, simplistically, to start around colours and their association with sex: blue for boys and pink for girls. Yellow, it seems, is the safest of neutral colours, excluding ‘non colour’ white, and its close friends grey and cream (and black, but that seems slightly sombre for a little ray of light). Now where did those colour associations come from? All those years ago, did someone from up high declare that “those colours deriving from and the same or similar to PINK shall strictly be reserved to those of female disposition, and those colours deriving from and the same or similar to BLUE shall be strictly reserved to those of the male disposition. Thou can use YELLOW if thou art not sure.” Hmmm doesn’t seem quite plausible does it. This got me thinking, and by thinking I obviously mean googling because, let me be honest, I rarely actually think much anymore, I just ponder how best to get an answer quickly. SO. Google and my dear friend Wikipedia tell me that:
“Since the 19th century, the colors pink and blue have been used as gender signifiers, particularly for infants and young children. The current tradition in the United States (and an unknown number of other countries) is “pink for girls, blue for boys”
The leading expert on the topic seems to be a Ms Jo Paoletti, a (now retired) lecturer at the University of Maryland. She said, when interviewed on the topic for Smithsonian:
“It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing,” says Paoletti, who has explored the meaning of children’s clothing for 30 years. For centuries, she says, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. “What was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted” Paoletti says.
Nicely put in the usual direct, and brilliant, American way. As I read on I’m told that, as well as world wars and women’s liberation movements, another major factor was the advent of prenatal testing, meaning people would find out what bebe they were having before it arrived. This presented an enormous opportunity for businesses to sell their gender-specific wares, and – true fact, per Paoletti – the more individualised the clothing became, the more was sold. This quickly extended beyond clothes to all the bebe paraphernalia required (which itself continued to develop to take us into the realms of new car purchases when it comes to transportation devices) and – low and behold – those fortunate enough to be able to equip themselves with all the “must haves” bebe items, AND to have bebes of different sexes could then buy everything, twice. Extreme consumerism. That does not sound familiar to me at all…not in the slightest. AHEM.
Right, ok so we’ve determined there is nothing set in stone, well not literally, on the colour gender signifier. So we don’t have to get our knickers in a twist about girls wearing blue. But the simple issue of colour/gender association has today, in a world of consumerism, intense advertising and new waves of gender expression, extended to all that we do with our children, like how we talk to them and what they play with: should a toddler girl drive a tractor or pretend to be a plumber? Can a boy wear nail varnish and play at being a midwife or a ballet dancer? Then the considerations spiral into personality and even sexuality: are all little girls “bossy”? If a girl wants to behave like a boy is that a bad thing? Are little boys that like dolls and dresses and pink going to be *whispers* gay? Mon dieu. Suddenly this topic seems a bit overwhelming.
We have a boy and a girl. The boy, Babbler, wears every colour under the sun, and up until recently his favourite toy was a microwave. Now it’s a pink hoover. He has long “girly” hair and when we were on holiday, in his green and orange t-shirt and shorts, he was frequently mistaken for a girl. When he’s wrapped up warm and people can only see hair and big eyes poking out from under his hat, they ask if he’s a girl. Not literally, obvs, they say, with that wonderful hesitation “what a lovely… little person… is… sh-he cold??” I have no issue with it. It doesn’t offend me, why should it. He bombards around “exploring” and discovering, smashing and crashing and hitting as he goes. He likes splashing, and throwing and kicking and shouting. He is loud and shy and cuddly and boisterous all at the same time. He seems, for now, to be quite the little lad. But what do I know.
We also have a baby girl, Bebette, and she’s displaying, one might say, classic characteristics associated with, dare I assume, being a baby girl (highly opinionated, slightly sensitive and lover of soft, snuggly things). Although perhaps those are just characteristics of being a bebe… again, what do I know. She has already been subjected to tutus and hair bands. She has flowery dresses and pink tights. There are not so many questions about what colour baby she is when she had a big pink bow on top of her wild fluffy, lopsided hair tufts.
I’m a feminist. By that I mean I recognise that men and women are different, and equally fantastic in their own, special ways. I believe men and women deserve equal levels of respect and, in some circumstances, should be treated equally. Not always, that is a very simplistic way to view the world. But they should be treated fairly. Women are not secondary to men. Men do not bring more to a party. Women can do things men can’t, and vice versa. I also believe that men and women bring very different things to the table and those differences should be embraced. Finally, I truly believe that women, in today’s society, are not always recognised for the incredible jobs they do, not least in circumstances where they are juggling careers and families. It’s not always the case that it is women that deserve to be recognised, but I just highlight that as an example. Anyway, why am I harping on about this? I want my daughter and my son to grow up respecting each other, and believing they can both do whatever they want to do in life. Whatever they have under their clothes should not hinder that. Just because one of them, potentially, has a momentous task of building, ejecting and nourishing another human being should not render that one incapable of fulfilling other career goals, or achieving the same as male counterparts. Subject to a few caveats (not really keen on either of them being lion-tamers), and any obvious physical limitations, the world is their oyster. I don’t want Bebette to feel that, because she’s a woman, a delicate little flower, she can only do some jobs, whereas Babbler who is big and strong and macho can do anything and everything he pleases. And vice versa for Boddler.
So with that in mind, is there anything I should or should not be doing right now, as they are in the early stages of development? It seems hard to imagine, but is the way I am behaving with them now going to affect that mentality? Is the way I speak to them affecting their perceptions of themselves and others? Am I inadvertently rendering them weak and subordinate by dressing them one way or another? Is Bebette a little fluffy, cuddly doll? Do I need to get her into bebe power suits??? Why am I worrying?
Jo is already on it:
Some young mothers who grew up in the 1980s deprived of pinks, lace, long hair and Barbies, Paoletti suggests, rejected the unisex look for their own daughters. “Even if they are still feminists, they are perceiving those things in a different light than the baby boomer feminists did,” she says. “They think even if they want their girl to be a surgeon, there’s nothing wrong if she is a very feminine surgeon.”
Exactly. Good. I’ll put a placeholder here to consider further…
But finally, just a note: as Bebette and I break back into the under 1 social sphere and start an array of jazzy baby classes, I realise that more and more people are dressing their babies “unisex”, or more often, dressing their girls with “traditionally” boyish clothing. This creates a world of worry for me as I strike up conversation. Now I’m the one with the awkward hesitation in my voice, the slightly panicked glance at the child searching for any clue about it’s gender. Dummy chord. Green. Shit. Toy attached to pram; fluorescent yellow. Crap. Can I make an assumption or should I just go with strategic, noncomital conversation starters: “gosh what beautiful eyes!” “That’s such a cute onesie” “how old is your little …. one?….” Silly. It doesn’t matter does it.
So, I’ve dabbled in this topic but there’s a lot more to read and to say. For now, here’s my closing gripe: baby girls are dressed in traditional boy clothing. Where are the baby boys dressed as girls?