Purple gender stereotights.
It has been nearly two weeks since my last post. Part of the reason for the hiatus is the Troll’s gradual shift from three to two naps during the day. Those extra 30-45 minutes, where I could get some chores done or thrash out a few sentences, have been replaced by even more time running around after him as he finds new and exciting things to clamber on and trap his fingers in. We’ve also established a weekly routine of activities (swimming on Monday, baby singing on Tuesday, drop-in nursery on Wednesday and Thursday, and then a visit to the Troll’s great-gran, a day-trip into Oslo or a longer walk in the forest on a Friday), so there are just fewer hours in the day when I can sit down, think and write.
More than a couple of times I have had a bit of time late in the evening to write something but I’ve wanted and needed to do something diverting and mindless, like plough time into FIFA 17, instead. I was also starting to see some of the old procrastinating me creeping back in; instead of just writing something, I was waiting for fully formed ideas to magically come together in my head. Classic case of ‘letting perfect be the enemy of good enough’ and all that.
But, today I woke up and decided that I would just finish the post I started 9 days ago and see if I couldn’t get back into the writing rhythm again. I promised myself that I wouldn’t let blogging become a chore or something I stressed about, so if I can’t find the time or energy, I’ll just put it back to sleep again. The half dozen people that read my ramblings will be disappointed, but I can live with that.
Despite our best intentions, the Troll wears a lot of blue. We’re really struggling to find clothes of any kind that aren’t some shade of blue and plastered in things boys are supposed to like, like tractors, cars and pirates. I really cannot understand why it is so difficult to find clothes are red, yellow green, brown, orange, or any other on colour on the spectrum. I mean, I know it's a supply-demand thing, but surely not every single parent out there wants to dress their child up in either blue or pink?
For us, the problem is exacerbated as we have chosen to save money and the environment by buying pretty much all of the Troll’s clothes second-hand on Finn. We refuse to buy clothes for him that cost as much (if not more) than the stuff I own, just so that he can wear it a half a dozen times before he grows out of it. If we bought new stuff, we’d have more options and could buy stuff from online shops that sell colourful, gender neutral clothes; as it is, we’re limited to buying stuff that people have already bought in regular clothes stores, and they are invariably, depressingly, blue.
A couple of weeks back, just before the weather started to turn, I went into Name it to look for some wool tights for the Troll. I couldn’t find any on the shelves so I asked the shop assistant for help. She turned me around on the spot and pointed the stacks of tights literally under my nose, and then proceeded to shuffle through all the boy’s tights in various shades of blue, looking for the right size. When I asked if they had any other colours, she shook her head and said ‘only these other [pointing to the girly (i.e. pink)] colours, sorry’. I thanked her and she then left me to help someone else.
I could see that she was genuinely a little puzzled when I rocked up to the till with the purple tights from the girls’ section, and I noticed a distinct arching of the eyebrows. I sucked it up and reminded myself that my issue was with society in general and not with her personally.
It didn’t end there with the tights, though. The next day, he wore them to baby singing. Two of the girls in the group were also wearing purple and one of the mums made a passing comment about how the Troll matched them and that it was unusual and ‘very sweet’ to see a boy in ‘that kind of colour’, and that he was ‘luck y to have the skin tone to pull it off’.
I recently bought another pair of tights and resigned myself to them being blue, only to find out from my wife when I got home that they were actually ‘girls’ tights’ because the pattern starts below the knee (indicating that they are meant to be worn with dresses). So now he rocks girls’ tights in boy’s colours.
Like many things, awkward cases of unnecessarily gendered things come in threes, so it was no surprise that a couple of days later, whilst we were out buying some outdoor shoes for the Troll, we had another frustrating run-in with a shop assistant. After being told that we needed solid outdoor shoes for a baby that isn’t walking but loves being outside and on his feet, maybe in size 21, the first thing she asked was whether it was they were for a boy or a girl, for no other reason, I guess, than to point us in the direction of the shoes with the pink or blue detailing.
I can get pretty worked up about the gender-neutral baby clothes thing, and I can see that quite a few people think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill and that I’m pushing my over-the-top PC agenda on my innocent son because, like some kind of feminist nutjob, I want him to grow up with the sense that what he wears and his identity has very little to do with what he has between his legs.
I remember being told that it wasn’t a good idea to dress the Troll in pink or ‘girly colours’ because then people would get confused. I recently talked to another mum from drop-in nursery about the difficulty finding fun coloured clothes and she told me that after an awkward conversation with a guest she had resigned herself to making life easier by dressing her daughter up in lots of pink and with a flowery headband so that people could see she was definitely a girl.
I find this idea that it’s important to signal to others the gender of your child fascinating. Dressing a child as ‘clearly either a boy or a girl’ is primarily, I think, about the parent’s need to have their child addressed by the ‘correct’ gender pronoun and avoid uncomfortable social situations, but I’m not sure I’m convinced that that’s enough of a reason to maintain a such a restrictive, exclusionary, norm-driven, sexist and (often) patriarchal practice. I didn’t say this to that mum of course – that would make me a dick; how she chooses to dress her child is her prerogative, but I would like to take up the conversation with her at some other time (perhaps after we have gotten to know each other a little better).
Whilst out on one of our walks last week, I caught up on the latest series of the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast. The Battle of the Sexes episode, which had the always excellent Prof Sophie Scott and Prof Steve Jones on, was absolutely brilliant. I always learn a thing or two from listening to the Monkey Cage but this one was particularly chock full of ‘huh, I’ve never thought it about it like that before’ moments. (For example, women are born with all the ova they will ever have, and this number slowly but steadily diminishes from puberty to the menopause. By contrast, men generate new sperm cells constantly throughout their lives. Since the cell division and replication process happens so many more times when making sperm cells, they are naturally more likely to suffer copying errors, which means that a lot more mutations happen in men than women. This means that there is a greater difference between my DNA and the sperm that made the Lykketroll than my wife’s DNA and the egg that that sperm fused with. At the level of base-pair nucleotides (if not in phenotype as he looks scarily like me, especially in the face, for now) my wife is more similar to the Lykketroll than I am. Mind = blown.)
Anyhow. The thing from that episode I wanted to mention was Sophie Scott debunking the sociobiological hypothesis that girls ‘naturally’ prefer pink, because they’ve evolved to be especially attentive of faces (hashtag racism!) and ripe berries, by pointing out that 100 years ago pink was a common colour for boys and blue was seen as a softer, feminine colour. The ‘pink-blue reversal’ shows that colour preference is clearly socially conditioned (despite the just-so-stories peddled by sociobiologists). An evolutionarily hard-wired trait shouldn’t be so easily overturned by the whims of fashion and social norms. BAM! That’s the end of that ludicrous theory.
But dressing girls up in pink and boys up in blue isn’t just about avoiding awkward conversations with strangers. The clothes we dress our children changes the way they are treated, often in ways that are less favourable to girls. A classic study done in the 80s found that regardless of the child’s actual sex, when parents thought they were observing a girl they used labels like ‘social’ and ‘happy’, whereas if they thought they were observing a boy then they used the labels ‘strong’ and ‘aggressive’. Another study found that despite their being no objective gender difference in crawling and climbing performance in infancy, mothers of girls underestimated their performance, describing them as weak or needing more help, and mothers of boys overestimated their performance, describing their identical performance as strong and adventurous.
When asked to imagine their two-year-old behaving in risky ways, parent reactions to risk-taking by sons focused on discipline but reactions to the same behaviors by daughters focused on safety. Mothers, in particular, reacted to sons with anger and daughters with disappointment and surprise. Parents attributed risk taking to personality for sons but situational factors for daughters, and judged daughters could be taught to comply with safety rules more than sons. In short: its rough-and-tumble, ‘boys will be boys’, whilst girls are sheltered, have their play restricted and, by virtue of simply being girls, are expected to play by the (grossly patriarchal) rules.
18-month-old kids don’t think much of it, but by 24 months there are clear signs that kids have absorbed gender stereotyped behaviors and activities and what is deemed 'appropriate' for their sex. This is exactly why boys like sports and girls like dolls. It’s why boys get to be the boss whilst girls are just bossy.
The world would be a much nicer, fairer place if ubiquitous pink and blue thing just went away and we embraced some of the other wonderful colours that exists across the visible spectrum. Even a return of the hideous fashions of my childhood (early 80s), where it seems all children’s clothing was only available in various shades of brown, maroon and ochre, would be a step in the right direction.
A child’s genitals shouldn’t define and limit the type and colour of clothing they wear, and they most certainly should not define and limit their identity, behavior and value.
*A little addendum following a reminder from one of my friends: we have actually managed to find some pretty colourful outdoor clothes second-hand, including this amazing gloves. Unfortunately, that's just one item out of the many dozens of things we've bought over the last year or so.
This ended up being a much longer rant than I intended, but the whole Shut up and Write! thing seemed to work. This rant was only about a pair of tights. I’ll save my angry rant about gendered toys for another time.