THE BLOG

Why Do We Colour Code Our Kids?

11/10/2015 23:40 BST | Updated 11/10/2016 10:12 BST

The last time I took my daughter on a trip to The Science Museum, it was a rainy Monday morning, a teacher training day at her school and, truth be told, a bit of a mistake. Did you know that all schools in Westminster coordinate their inset days to coincide? I didn't! It appeared that every parent in inner London with a school child at home that day had woken with the very same idea and, rather than finding the museum to ourselves as I'd hoped, the place was packed.

My five-year-old didn't seem bothered as she jostled for a place in front of the bubble machines, interactive experiments, and building blocks. It was busy and I panicked I might lose her, but she really wasn't hard to spot. Every other girl in the room was dressed head to toe in pink and purple. It was a pleasant but shocking discovery to find that Ruby, dressed in her yellow jeans and a bright multi-coloured top, stood out like a beacon! Even the boys I noticed were colour coded, kitted out in muddy greens, browns, and ubiquitous blue.

When I used to travel to Bangkok for work, I was always baffled that on a Monday everyone wore yellow. And I mean literally everyone! Ordinary Thais showed their allegiance to the king by heeding a government-encouraged campaign to wear yellow shirts. Yellow is the king's birth colour, traditionally corresponding to the day he was born, a Monday. It struck me as so conformist and strange at the time, and yet now I see a pink and blue version happening with our sons and daughters.

When did colour become so synonymous with gender?

Girls know from an increasingly younger age that the pink stuff is for them whilst boys learn to steer clear and that the opposite side of the colour wheel is theirs. What I find so pernicious is that this has become accepted.

And it hasn't always been thus. In fact, the reverse was true in 1918 when The Ladies Home Journal wrote:

"There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. 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."

Up until the 1980s, there wasn't this distinct gender divide in colour palettes for childrenswear that we see today.

For the most obvious sign this isn't a natural phenomenon, just take a look at photographs of playgrounds in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s, or watch one of those fabulous vintage episodes of Sesame Street and you'll be amazed at the rainbow of colour in the garments the children are wearing. And there's barely a scrap of pink!

Everything - from tableware to toothbrushes and bedding to bikes - is colour coded today along with our children's wardrobes. It's an odd concept for me that one's gender would define one's colour preference and a ludicrous notion that girls are naturally attracted to pink as some suggest (Professor Anya Hurlbert from Newcastle University suggested that females might prefer pink as a legacy of their fruit gathering days when the preference helped them identify the berries from the foliage!).

Girls are force fed pink before they can even sit up. It's dangerously limiting and horribly exclusive (woe betide a boy that opts for pink as his favourite colour!). Colour coding products for children is not only dismissive of the wonderful colour spectrum available to a child and one that they ought to be exposed to but also discourages individuality.

Perhaps more worrisome is how colour coding is dividing our girls and boys, and how they are increasingly encouraged to view one another as "different." Surely discouraging them from interacting and playing together at a young age and allowing them to believe they are more different than alike will have repercussions for their relationships later on in life?

So why do we colour code our children?

Using children as a marketing tool with pester power and peer pressure to get parents spending is a sly trick played on us by the marketing departments of big corporates like Disney. Persuading consumers to buy a pink and a blue version of everything to comply with the gender rule results in those companies doubling their profits!

And so, when I scan the room at The Science Museum, I can't help but conclude that "Pinkification" has, much like the sea of yellow I would experience on a Monday in Bangkok, reached an almost cult-like status! And it's the large corporate clothing manufacturers that benefit to the detriment of our children. At best, it's boring to see so many of our girls dressed in identikit colours, but at it's worst, it promotes a dangerously narrow definition of what it means to be a girl.

You can learn more about my background and my gender-neutral children's clothing line, Tootsa MacGinty, by visiting tootsamacginty.com.