Modern Family: Colour‑Coding From Birth

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Aug 21, 2015

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Let’s face it: How many of us can honestly say we didn’t choose neutral yellow or peach for rompers and cots, not knowing if what kicked beneath that tummy bump was a girl or boy?

I was simply forced to buck the trend. The infant son came along looking a perfect poppet in pink T-shirts, and our baby girl such a doll in navy blue that we went ahead with following the so-called reversal. Sailor dresses suited her beautifully, and he beamed radiant in pink Lacoste sleeves for family portraits and kindergarten photos.

Color deeply affects people and moods. It defines little people in very certain ways, thanks to social conditioning. Few realise this better than Jeong Mee. The Korean photographer is working on an exploration of why boys are believed to like blue and girls to prefer pink. Shooting dense images of schoolgirls posing in the middle of confectionery-pink playthings and belongings for “The Pink and Blue Project,” she reports that color division impacts a child’s sense of self, besides reinforcing stereotypes of femininity and masculinity.

Color coding extends to a pervasive, manipulated campaign beyond, too. It decrees, subtly or showily, through advertising and related mass media, that gender stereotypes should equally rule product design. The widest range of toys and books for little girls, available in the rose-to-red spectrum, reflects supposedly feminine concerns: of dressing up, wearing make-up, painting, cooking and decorating home interiors. In contrast, the flood of toys and books aimed at boys, dyed different shades of steely blue-black, get themed around science, industry, robots and dinosaurs.

It’s evident clever market forces connive to exploit and perpetuate this persuasive psychology of color. Girls early on subconsciously perceive they’re prettier in fuchsia, strawberry and mauve, while boys strut around donning devilish blues, blacks and browns.

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What’s interesting is that this dichotomy only really gained currency in recent times. In fact, historically, pink was assigned to men; as a watered-down version of passionate red, it was thought to hold the power contained within that darker shade. Blue, conversely considered gentler and daintier, used to reign as the colour to connote “the fairer sex.”

When, then, did it switch to “pink is for girls and blue for boys”? This happened only after World War II, according to an article on Jeong Mee’s project: “As cultural movements saw traditional gender barriers crumbling, and societies in the West moved closer to the egalitarian ideal, the associations once ascribed to blue and pink began to be reversed. The modern obsession for pink was given a boost in the mid-’80s, when scientific advances in prenatal testing allowed parents to discern the gender of their baby prior to birth, and thus prepare for its arrival by ‘doing up the nursery’ accessorising with the appropriate colour. Manufacturers caught onto this, and global marketing strategies targeting each gender by color were born.”

Forget just color typing; think color power as well. A child often sees color on a favourite toy as its outstanding characteristic. It possibly precedes their memory for names, too. Take two beloved bears, Pooh and Paddington. My first toddler lisped, “Want bear with led (red) shirt,” each time he searched the shelf for Winnie. His sister would as descriptively ask, “Where that bear with yellow boots?” whenever she missed the cute Peruvian bear, whose blue duffle coat she tried to match in her drawings, down to the last toggle button.

But does this color-typing change with age? Typically, Jeong Mee observes, girls’ tastes diversify more easily. Revisiting and documenting her same subjects every two to three years, the photographer noticed they sail on a pink wave until they turn 7, after which the craze calms. Yet the original identification with that color usually remains and re-surfaces.

Teaching color therapy across the world, June McLeod delineates its emotive properties in her book Colours of the Soul. In spite of recommending traditional color combinations for children’s recreational and living spaces, even she suggests it’s best to adopt a policy of “to thine own self be true.” Every single cell of the human body is light-sensitive and responds uniquely. As a result, communicating through color is shifting and subjective; shades are imbued with specific strengths and energies. Recognising that children either can be draped in or surrounded by colors that speak to them individually is a quality to be respected and encouraged. There need be no bunching en masse.

Of course, Jeong Mee appears to have found her way out of the tyranny of color compartmentalising — her favorite hue is light blue!

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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