All I want for Christmas is… presents that aren’t bloody pink

The rigid gender division of toys is a problem for both boys and girls.

Many things terrify me about having children -- no day that involves an episiotomy can be a good day, I feel -- but there is one which stands out. If I had a daughter, what would I dress her in? What toys would I buy her? What would I do if she turned to me and said: "Mummy, when I grow up, I want to be a pwetty pwincess"?

I got a preview of that future when buying a present for my four-year-old niece this Christmas. My sister had vaguely suggested I get something for her doll Baby, but I find Baby deeply sinister. (Its eyes roll back into its head as if it's had an overdose, and there's something about the plastic toenails which tips it into the Uncanny Valley.) What else is there that she would like, then? The answer is: pink. Yards of it, stretching off as far as the eye can see.

Now, if you've been following Pink Stinks -- the campaign which raises awareness of the limited range of toys marketed to girls -- you'll know why I have a problem with pink. The "pinkification" of toys has led to such horrors as these "Science Kits for Girls" (will it be the beauty salon or the perfume lab?). Because, you know, girls don't do "proper" science, only girly science: even though a good proportion of those in the cosmetics industry, and perfumiers, are men.

And it's not just a problem for girls: one mother on Twitter told me recently that her son would love a diary and a craft kit this Christmas, but the only ones she can find are pink. Male child, know your place! Feelings are for women! Also macramé!

OK, how about some Lego, the beautiful construction toy of my childhood, and the creator of possibly the sweetest advert ever created? My niece happily plays with her brother's collection, after all. (Don't worry, I'm not spoiling her Christmas: she prefers to read the Spectator.)

But even Lego has let me down, launching a special "girl-friendly" range of figurines, with big dopey eyes and delicate blush skin, instead of the yellow heads and dot pupils I remember strewing round my bedroom as a child.

It seems like a backwards step for the company, which has largely resisted the rigid gender divisions that affect other toy brands. (Yes, there have been previous girly ranges, but a search for "LEGO for Girls" on its website yields pirates, zoos and camper vans.)

According to the Stylist's report, "Researchers for the company found that girls aren't massive fans of the traditional yellow faced 'boy' figurines". I'm going to call bullshit here, for two reasons. The first is that the yellow-faced figurines aren't unarguably male: with those snap-on bowl cuts, they remind me heavily of myself as a nine-year-old. That's just a bad haircut, not a statement of gender. The second is that -- and I don't know if anyone has pointed this out before -- children are malleable, responding to the stimuli they are exposed to and the cues they are given. If they truly don't like the yellow figurines, it's unlikely to be an immutable facet of having a second X chromosome.

There's always an attempt with these stories about toys to come back to an essentialist view of gender: "look, boys just like trucks, OK? And blue. And girls like pink and dolls. That's NATURE!" The trouble is that the picture is a lot more complicated than that. As smartarse QI-loving types like me never tire of pointing out, the association between pink and the feminine is, in the history of humanity, an incredibly recent one: it arose within the last century. Cordelia Fine and others have made a convincing case that many other supposedly "hard-wired" differences between male and female brains have been overstated, or are heavily affected by social pressures.

This last point explains why many anti-feminists are so keen for toys to remain gendered: because if it's not really "natural" for boys to play with soldiers and girls to play dollies, then what other "natural" differences between the sexes (and the iniquities which arise from them) are no longer supportable? Perhaps it's not really "natural" for women to be under-represented on boards, or get paid less, or do more domestic chores even when they work the same hours as their male partners.

You can see this tactic at work, if you can bear it, in the comments on the Telegraph's report of Hamleys' decision to scrap having a blue boys' floor and a pink girls' floor, and instead order toys by type (dolls, computers, traditional etc).

Although a feminist blogger, Laura Nelson, claimed this was down to her writing letters to the chief executive, a Hamleys spokesperson said at the time: "The changes to our signage were not due to any campaign." And I believe them: it seems a sensible commercial decision not to stigmatise your customers. If a girl wants a construction set, how is making her feel abnormal going to encourage her -- and her parents -- to spend money at your store?

The majority of the Telegraph commenters, however, thought differently, and many engaged in that angry two-step that feminists should be familiar with: "Why are people bothered about this -- it isn't important! I'm going to boycott Hamleys!" It's a classic tactic: get fumingly angry in support of your own position, while calling your opponents pathetic for asking for a debate at all.

Amid a fiesta of insults and hatred directed personally at Nelson for daring to voice an opinion, and the usual "WHY DID THEY BAN GOLLYWOGS?!? WE CAN'T SING BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP NOW" nonsense, there were some real corkers. Two classics of the genre: "The woman who caused this is a disgrace to mankind. Wait, can I say mankind? That might be too sexist" and "When Tampax will be sold in chewing gum section, the mission will be accomplished". (Nope, me neither.)

Clearly, it matters a great deal to lots of people what toys are given to children. Let's not deny it. It matters to feminists because many "girly" toys give the impression that life is about being, not doing, which does nothing to create the next generation of Rebecca Adlingtons and Angela Merkels and Zadie Smiths and Jane Goodalls. And it matters to those who want to keep the status quo because if they win the battle of the toys, they can tell us it's our fault we're not succeeding. Because women are just built that way. Pass the pink sick bucket.

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Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.