Purple, green and white are the real girl colours
For her second birthday, I bought my granddaughter a bike. One of those little ones without pedals, that kids can use to scoot along beside mum and dad. It’s made of wood and therefore wood-coloured, which is a godsend because I’ve vowed never to buy her anything pink.
Nothing against pink, of course – perfectly nice colour – but it’s just far too prevalent in the life of little girls these days, far too bound up with ‘little princess syndrome’ and an early obsession with fashion and appearance. I’d like my granddaughter to have a few years just to be a child, playing out, making dens and getting mucky, before she starts worrying about what she looks likes.
It’s tricky though. She’s already lusting after the princess costumes she sees in the shops – you can’t miss the racks of them in Asda (next to the racks of superhero costumes for boys). And she’s already very keen on the frilly, fluffy pink paraphernalia aimed at girls in every department store we visit. So far, her mum has managed to walk her very fast past Claire’s Accessories, but I fear it won’t be long before she spots it and thinks it’s Valhalla.
Again, I’ve nothing against fashion, accessories or make-up. It’s just that there’s plenty time for that once girls are in their teens. And there are plenty of other interests worth pursuing in the pre-teen years, interests that will equip them much better for life in a sexually-equal society than an early obsession with girly glamour.
If tomorrow’s young women are going to live fulfilled, successful lives, they’ll need to be self-reliant, creative, unafraid to take risks, and confident in themselves as well-rounded human beings, not just as cosmetically-enhanced clothes-horses. So while they’re growing up, they need lots of opportunities to be outdoors and active to develop physical skills, confidence and resilience (and sometimes indoors and reading to develop minds of their own). That way – whatever the future throws at them – they’ll be up to the challenge.
Particularly in the first six or seven years, girls need the sorts of ‘old-fashioned’ play experiences that – until recently – were the birthright of every human male (and, for a glorious period during the mid- to late-20th century, female).
Running, jumping, climbing, digging, making, building, experimenting, exploring. It’s not easy to do these things if you’re togged up as Princess Aurora or Ariel, dressed head to toe in pink frills or fretting that you’ll scuff your sparkly Lelli Kelly shoes. The great thing about early childhood is the opportunity to be un-self-conscious: children are designed by nature to throw themselves into learning through play without worrying what they look like or what people think of them.
It’s not ‘natural’ for any child to want to wear a particular colour or item of clothing, or to prefer being indoors staring at a screen rather than outdoors playing. If this is how they’re turning out, it’s because our culture is making them that way – and if we want them to grow up confident, competent and resilient, we have to challenge the culture.
The younger that little girls are turned into fashion victims, the less they’ll benefit throughout their childhood from the sort of play that helps create confident, competent adults. The emotional lessons we learn in the preschool years stay with us lifelong, and at present we’re letting commercial forces teach two- and three-year-olds that their self-worth lies in what they wear and what they look like. Encouraging tiny females to be preoccupied by their appearance in this way has much in common with the ancient Chinese custom of foot-binding: it’ll hobble them for life.
It’s fifteen years since I started research into why UK children have so many emotional problems compared to those in other European countries – problems that we’re now told are leading to a ‘mental health crisis’ among teenagers and young adults. And perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that ‘junk play’ (commercially-inspired, anti-creative, gender-specific, age-inappropriate) is as bad for developing brains as junk food is for developing bodies.
When I put all this into my most recent book ‘21st Century Girls’, my publishers quickly worked out that I wouldn’t want the cover to be pink. ‘What do you suggest instead?’ they emailed as they put the paperback edition together.
At the time, I was in a card shop, looking for something to make a wood-coloured birthday present look suitably festive. I settled on an array of rosettes and ribbons, in the colours of the Suffragette movement – in honour of women who fought for female freedom. They looked great on the bike.
‘Purple, green and white,’ I emailed back. ‘Real girl colours!’