12/10/2016 12:36 BST | Updated 12/10/2017 06:12 BST

The Invention Of Gender

My friend, Rhoda, thinks I ought to publish a book of my letters of complaint to various governments, institutions, and companies.  Lately I have begun to think she is right after years of having written my elected officials and heads of industry about everything from protesting the bombing of Tripoli in 1986 to complaining about the sexist trainer colours for women.

Ask any woman what it's like to go shopping for trainers and inevitably they will tell you that the most common problem of trainer shopping is not the dearth of styles, but rather the lack of exciting colours.  Certainly, if you like powder pink, powder blue, powder green, you will enjoy the palette of these dim colours spliced over a wide range of white and other pastels with an occasional black motif.  And yet when I look across the shoe shops to the "other side" of men's shoes, I see trainers I desperately want my size 39 foot to fit into:  neon swooshes or stripes, interesting colour patterns, and sharp greens, yellows, and blues. Pastels be gone!

More recently, I began to wonder why it is so difficult for women to find trainers in colours that do not look they belong in a newborn's nursery!  Has gender become so codified that the makers of trainers from Adidas to Nike to Gola assume that women's eyes need a softer touch, that we are genetically inclined towards the vomitatiously pastel colours?

But then I realise in all my years as an anthropologist that gender has no one colour or style blueprint. Gender is a social construct which is projected upon social artefacts and these material entities that are temporarily and performatively linked to gender, change radically across the globe. It is not that women are born craving soft powdery colours--instead it is that the social structures which codify what women "like" and women "need" are based upon very deeply entrenched stereotypes of females and our proximity to children--even our production of them.  For while the men's shoes are inevitably set geographically apart from women's shoes, the children's section is neatly tucked into our section of shoes and our shoe colours, in consequence, closely resemble those of five-year-olds' shoes. We are the presumed caretakers, we are the ones who shop for children, and we are the ones whose pastelled lives are designed by those who never asked us what colours we really want.

Go to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and women's djellaba are found in all colours, but the materials are mostly synthetic.  Men wear mostly white cotton djellaba in summer and in winter months dark browns, greys and striped woven of fine wool.  Go to India where the saris and kurtas are every colour under the sun, but when it is time for women's burqa, the predominant colour is black.

In the west, women are trained to care for their bodies to the extent that Italian pharmacy windows are regularly covered in advertisements for various potions for women to "dimagrire" (lose weight) and throughout most countries are media impulses for women to get-aging treatments.  Women are constantly told that their bodies are too much, too little, too old, too flabby, and rarely--if ever--are they too young.  While manscaping and gym regimes for men are becoming more and more frequent to include an awareness of healthcare issues more specific to men such as age-associated increases in blood pressure and heart attacks, the predominant messages about beauty are overwhelmingly directed at girls and women.

We even know that gender is informed by violent repercussions of social normativity such that "boys will be boys" projected onto girls has resulted in, most recently, daunting statistics in the UK with girls occupying the highest rates for anxiety, depression, and self harm. We already know that there is a proven relationship between media consumption and eating disorders.  What we need to investigate is why these representations and expectations of females are so dangerously skewed against the lives of females.  Certainly, the way that media represents how men and women, boys and girls should be and society's embrace of violence against females is largely the result of an unequal society where males act and females are acted upon, where men decide and women obey and accommodate.  The real and the symbolic are relevant when it comest to the place of females in British society and beyond.

So in one of the only domains where women are free from both men and children, when they seize that rare moment when their bodies should not matter to anyone but themselves, the trainer for running, spinning, or tennis relegates women back to the home, back to nursery.  The powder green and white trainers say that she is not fierce, she has no fashion sense, no style, no umph, no charisma, no spirit.  The pastel trainer seeks to put women back into that symbolic frame of being desired as passive--for pastels are passive--and of being ultimately a paler hue of the strength of men (and men's trainers). Where sports ought to be about the quintessence of bodily autonomy where the human form is independent of others, pendant only upon its own resources (albeit with a bit of coloured, stylish pizzaz), most women's trainers represent the female who lacks something: the missing child, her absence of power, the pastel calling out in need of a stronger, more assertive colour.

Sports shoes producers of the planet, can you please make trainers for females which have the same vibrant colour choices that you offer men?