Be honest: if you saw a newborn baby clothed in pink, what sex would you assume that child was? I’m guessing your answer here is ‘female’, because of course it is. It doesn’t make you a bad person for making that assumption, no matter how educated or progressive you consider yourself to be, because you know that in the vast majority of cases this is true. In the early weeks of our lives, we’re all pretty much indistinguishable, and I suppose that by dressing babies in traditionally gendered colours parents feel they’re giving their offspring some sort of identity beyond ‘weird, hairless, noisy, miniature human’. Obviously, at this stage of development, kids have absolutely no awareness about the implications of colour and so, while it may simplify things for the parents, it doesn’t seem like something that’ll cause any harm to the baby’s future well-being. What I mean by this is that even parents who know they will openly encourage their child to explore their sexual identity as they grow up may be inclined to dress their newborn in gender-appropriate colours, knowing that doing so will have no direct impact on the baby because it won’t remember anything about this. The idea that pink = girl and blue = boy is so deeply embedded in our culture that it’s almost impossible to dissociate oneself from this by the time you’re old enough to begin making decisions for yourself – and while we continue to dress babies according to sex, these ideas aren’t going anywhere.
It might seem like there’s an easy solution to this, but as anyone who’s lived a few years on this planet should know by now, nothing’s ever that simple. I recently met my partner’s pregnant cousin and her husband for the first time, who told me how hard it was to find gender-neutral baby clothes and accessories. I hadn’t even considered until then how dependent a lot of young families are on handouts and gifts from those around them, and while they may personally be seeking out an alternative, the people around them – particularly those of older generations – may not be quite so in-tune to these issues. I suspect their family will be fully supportive of how they raise their child, but other parents are not nearly so fortunate and this is what we’re up against: social change being prevented not by a lack of willingness, but by one’s financial situation.
As humans, so much of our behaviour and attitude is dictated by what everyone else is doing. Fashion isn’t just confined to clothes: it’s in our nature to conform and fit in, and if social perceptions change, we tend to try our best to match these because few people really want to be an outsider. This doesn’t happen organically though, it slowly works its way into the mainstream after a lot of effort from small groups who may be painted as ‘radical’ at the beginning. Take gay rights, for example, something the majority of Brits support today. We didn’t just decide suddenly that the gays had had a bit of a rough time and deserved the same treatment as heterosexual people: it took decades of fighting by an oppressed minority, with gradually more and more people joining the cause until it reached something of a tipping point and could no longer be ignored. Support for a cause that not too long ago could have seen you beaten up, imprisoned or even killed is now a vote winner for political parties who were once vehemently opposed to it.
I’m certainly not equating choosing baby clothes with civil rights, but it does help to illustrate how social movements spread through the masses. If a handful of ‘radical’ parents start dressing their babies in gender-neutral clothes, their peers will be much more inclined to follow suit, particularly if it opens up a dialogue about why they’re making this choice. As this goes on, the idea spreads to a more ‘mainstream’ audience, and then things can change very quickly. If there’s a clear demand for gender-neutral clothes, manufacturers and retailers will jump in to fill it, making it easier for everyone to access these products because there’s money to be made. And after that, things can really get interesting.
The way our brains work when we’re children is fascinating. The amount of information we are able to consume and process is phenomenal: a scholar may spend their entire life honing their knowledge of any given subject and reach the top of their field, but what they learn in decades is still nothing compared to their first few years on Earth. The ability to talk, to read and write, to understand numbers, to build and maintain relationships with other people – all of these things occur in a shorter time than it takes to gain a doctorate. It doesn’t matter how much you study as an adult, it won’t come close to the sheer volume and necessity of the knowledge you accrue at the very beginning. There’s a good chance you’re aware of how much harder it is to learn something new as you get older – I remember more of the French I learned for three years aged 11–14 than the Spanish I learned for the five years after that, even though I spent at least twice as many hours each week on the latter.
There is a downside, though: not everything we’re taught as children is to our benefit, and the attitudes we pick up from the adults around us become so deeply rooted in our minds that we often struggle to shake them off as we grow up. Part of the reason I’m writing this article is because I was amazed at my own inability to change my behaviour for so long, in spite of the fact I knew it was harming me, which is why I believe it’s so important to look at how our children are raised.