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Lying in my sickbed, my mind has been flitting from Christmas presents (bought for the grandchildren before the lurgy struck) to shopping in general. This has not been as restful as you might think since some things make me madder than hell.
Shopping for grandchildren is a minefield. Acres of pink and dolls for girls, camouflage outfits and guns for boys. Even buying a birthday card is challenging – two huge disparate blue and pick sections and even after buying a balloon (multicoloured) I was asked whether it was for a boy or girl so they could choose the the ‘right’ colour of ribbon to be attached. In bookshops I have been asked if the book for a two year old is for a boy or a girl – tractors for boys, pink sparkly fairies for girls. John Lewis not only have two separate sections, but also have sewn into their clothes John Lewis boys or John Lewis girls – the girls section all pink and pale mauve, the boys includes, hurrah for them, green and orange as well as blue. Granddaughter 1 has always been a bit gothic – she likes wearing black and hates pink – she set up her own website anti-pink.com with images of beheaded Barbies and started re-writing fairytales such as Snow White, with punkish heroines in pro-active mode. Looking for some pyjamas for her birthday, I chose some dark blue ones with white stars from the boys section and asked the assistant what it is that makes pyjamas in the image of the night sky exclusively for boys. ‘It’s always been like this’, she said. Fearing granddaughter 1 almost certainly would be teased if she went for a sleepover with a friend, I cut all the labels out.
Parents can be hot on this as are those of my grandchildren balancing going with the flow while keeping a dialogue going about options and issues. Toddler boy spends most of his time in a rara skirt and flowered hairband, his parents happy for him to dress himself and express himself – at two and a half, clothes are clothes – and anyway, it matters not. Granddaughter 2 enjoys decorating herself and modifying clothing and her parents interpret it as creativity. Granddaughter 3 has probably been the most affected by all of this such as flatly refusing to try on a pair of trainers from the boys’ section, identical to the ones in the girls’ section. Peer pressure can be vicious – after agreeing to a bob after nit treatment she was teased so much by girls at school (saying her hair was not long or girly enough) that she took to wearing her hair in a pony tail so they couldn’t see how short it was.
Apparently girls as young as five are now increasingly worried about their appearance. Images abound in the media, overtly and subliminally, and are being absorbed – Barbie-like celebs with babyish handwaves seen on tv; ‘Get the Barbie doll image’ shouts a clothing website. Maybe this all started out as ironic, but now, no way. A blog on pinkstinks.com said that some psychologists believe that restrictive clothing and body consciousness could lead to girls not being able to play freely, limiting their movements, and to a ‘learned timidity’, a ‘learned helplessness’. And during this Olympic year, the BBC reported that some studies show that two in five girls refuse to do sport because of concerns about their appearance – apparently Jessica Ennis was told by a senior figure in sport that she was ‘fat’!
Obviously, all this has a impact on the development of both girls and boys. The press reports almost exclusively on research highlighting gender difference because it is more attention-grabbing and feeds into the prevailing need to sell more stuff, make more profit. The idea that girls and boys are ‘hot-wired’ to be different is therefore perpetuated and becomes received wisdom. However, this type of research has been strongly challenged, e.g. Natasha Walter in Living Dolls. And anyway shouldn’t we be working towards greater understanding between the sexes? Surely the way forward is to identify and celebrate similarities, not to create two entirely separate gender species. What kind of a world are we making where as soon as they are born our male and female children are learning to develop in two very different but limiting pathways: boys, active and aggressive, the word ‘gay’ being routinely used as an insult in the playground, girls passive and obsessed with appearance with fear that girls are being prematurely sexualised? (see object.org.uk)
And, no, it hasn’t always been like this, not to such an extreme degree. (overheard in the playground, one mother saying to another who nodded in agreement ‘Someone gave me a babygro for my son with a fluffy duck on the front – I can’t put something as girly as that on a boy!’). Obviously creating two specific markets, male and female, generates more income. Also, nowadays our bodies are being divided up into more bits to be described as in some way lacking so that more and more products can be targetted at them. A good example is the ‘vajazzle’ and getting rid of pubic hair from The Only Way is Essex. Apparently, an increasing number of young men are now saying that they wouldn’t go near a women with natural pubic hair.
And don’t start me on Little Mix, the most popular girl band at the moment – winning Xfactor last year they were heralded as the new girlpower group, They have been morphed into walking, talking billboards for as many products as possible (hair extensions and colour, nail extensions, make-up, clothing etc etc etc). Now schooled in not giving their opinions, but in speaking bland niceties, their image is being peddled at the teen, pre-teen and child market (Primark has Little Mix clothing for as young as 7).
Maybe our grandchildren will grow up to rebel against this, maybe not. It’s time to take a stand – it works! – shops such as Hamleys and Harrods (well, it’s a start) have reacted to consumer lobbying to change their gender-specific toy floors, lobbying websites have been set up. Let’s make sure we open up the world to children, not close off vast tracts of it.
Now I’m off, back to my sickbed – I need a little lie down.