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Over on Sciblogs, Michael Edmonds has written about a report from the US, wherein a mother is castigated for putting (wait for it!) pink nailpolish on her son’s toenails. Apparently the response in some quarters has been one of Shock, horror! The poor child will be scarred for life.

Unfortunately there’s been a certain amount of rather shaky ‘evolutionary psychology’ research that purports to explain differences in colour preference between the genders in terms of women being the gatherers & needing to be able to tell when the berries are ripe… Michael’s post reminded me that I’d written about this issue myself, a while ago now. And also that the inimitable Ben Goldacre had addressed the whole gender/colour ‘preferences’ thing himself. His take was so good that I’ve pasted the best bits below (with emphasis added in bold), as it’s worth sharing again :-)

But is colour preference cultural or genetic? Well. The ’girls preferring pink’ thing is not set in stone, and in fact there are good reasons to suspect it is culturally determined. I have always been led to believe by my father — the toughest man in the world — that pink is the correct colour for mens’ shirts. In fact until very recently blue was actively considered soft and girly, while boys wore pink, a tempered form of fierce, dramatic red.

There is no reason why you should take my word for this. Back in the days when ladies had a home journal (in 1918) the Ladies Home Journal wrote: ’There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’

The Sunday Sentinel in 1914 told American mothers: ’If you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.’ Some sources suggest it wasn’t until the 1940s that the modern gender associations of girly pink became universally accepted. Pink is, therefore, perhaps not biologically girly. Boys who were raised in pink frilly dresses went down mines and fought in World War 2. Clothing conventions do change over time.

But within this study, was the preference stable across cultures? Well no, not even in this experiment, where they had some Chinese test subjects too. For these participants, not only were the differences in the overlapping curves not so extreme; but the favourite colours were a kind of red for boys and a bit pinker for girls (not blue); and they had more of a red preference overall. Red, you see, is a lucky colour in contemporary Chinese culture.