I was buying a pair of swimming goggles for my daughter, but they only had blue. ‘We only have blue, is that ok?’ said the man behind the desk, twice. Maybe it was out of concern that the wrong colour would provoke a tantrum from parent or child. Maybe he thought it seemed wrong. Either way, he said it because our children are becoming colour coded.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the beginning of the last century children less than five years old were dressed the same. Then science hinted gender was just a social concept, so suddenly it became important to define kids as boys or girls. If we weren’t born manly men and womanly women, we needed to be made that way. The answer was to drape toddlers in gender flags. Now, from the moment a child emerges from the womb, you get:

FOR BOYS: Blue, Grey, Brown, Black, Flames, Spiders, Dinosaurs, Robots.
FOR GIRLS: Pink, Yellow, Purple, White, Flowers, Stars, Princesses, Rainbows.

If you dress your daughter in blue then she turns into “a cheeky boy” or “a brave lad”, whereas in pink she suddenly becomes “a pretty girl” and “a little princess”. But pink and blue weren’t assigned a specific gender until the 1950s. For the entire history of humankind there has been no decided colour preference. It’s a cultural thing, a social thing, a way to help us recognise our role.

Does it really matter?

A recent classroom study randomly divided toddlers into two groups – the Red Group, with red T-shirts, and the Blue Group, with blue T-shirts. The teachers then made a big thing of the differences between the groups. ‘Now it’s time for the Reds to wash their hands’, ‘Good morning Blues and Reds,’ and so on. After three weeks, Reds preferred toys liked by other Reds, Blues wanted to hang out with other Blues. Gender didn’t come into it. Gender isn’t the colour of our clothes, but colour is the first step of defining gender. We dress our children up to advertise who they are – before the baby has hair, before the toddler understands they are a boy or girl – to make sure they become good Reds or Blues. To make sure they are manly men and womanly women.

Hang on, I can hear you say – you do know there are differences between boys and girls, right?

Well, yes, having managed to produce offspring I get that men and women are different. There are clearly physical differences and our minds might get pulled about by different hormones, but there is no convincing evidence for differences in how the minds of men and women actually work. None that can compete with the powerful effects of social pressure. Nothing. Nada. Nowt.

Sceptical? Well those social pressures start early and are everywhere. A study of pregnant women found that if they knew their unborn child was a boy, they described its movements in the womb as “vigorous” and “strong”, whereas if they knew their unborn child was a girl they reported movement as “not violent” and “not terribly active”. For those women who did not know if their unborn child was a boy or girl, there was no relationship between the level of activity they described and the eventual sex of the child. The differences described were always only in the mind of the mother.

Generally, children around the age of eighteen months learn what the “right” toys for them are. Before that they show no preference. Our daughter likes Lightning McQueen in Pixar’s Cars, but we changed the story a bit, because if you survey how girls and boys are described in children’s literature…

GIRLS ARE: beautiful, frightened, worthy, sweet, weak, scared.

BOYS ARE: big, horrible, fierce, great, terrible, furious, brave, proud.

Our children are surrounded by a world draped in gender flags. A recent survey of children’s TV programmes found only a third of all lead characters are female, and that drops to 12% for non-human creatures like animals and robots. In Pixar’s Cars there is just one female character – the worthy love interest – so we do a bit of editing when reading out stories and the hero of Cars gets a sex change. Our Lightning McQueen is a girl.

If we divide our children from as early as they can remember into two groups of people that have heaped upon them different expectations then we are limiting them as the human beings they are. As we split them into Pinks and Blues so we split apart friendships and experiences. We limit emotional and physical expression. We create an artificial divide that can muddle up the relationships they will have as men and women many years later.

Our children do not want to be Pink or Blue. The difference is in our minds. Our children can all be brave, beautiful, big, frightened, horrible, worthy, fierce, sweet, great, weak, terrible, scared, furious and proud. Boys and girls can be leaders and ballet stars and monsters and nurses and scientists and carers. The clothes they wear should reflect everything they can be, not be a straightjacket of pink or blue.

PinkStinks.org.uk – Campaign against stereotypes and for positive role models for children.

The Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine – a neuroscientist takes on misinformation about the science of gender differences with sharp wit and probing research.

Sheffield Feminist Network is the umbrella group hosting regular discussion events and making links across the city.

Jason Leman.