Go ahead, you pick out the oranges. You always get the good ones.
My husband said this me last week in the grocery store, and I was at first tempted to interpret it as man-speak for I’m too lazy to walk down the produce aisle, so you go and do that while I stay here and lean against the cart. But we were both standing right there, before a pyramid of citrus, with him deferring to my apparently superior fruit selecting skills.
So I picked up one orange after another, turned each one over and shifted to the middle of the aisle to compare a few under different lighting. I went on to do much the same with bell peppers and cantaloupe before stopping to consider some reduced-price cauliflower (the florets were just a little too brown for my taste). Feeling accomplished, I left produce and trotted off after my husband, who’d by now been lured away by the siren song of potato chips in a can.
Surprisingly, a few scientists maintain that I am in fact more adept than my husband when it comes to making these kinds of grocery selections. It harkens back, they say, to our ancestral days as hunters/gatherers, when men traditionally did the hunting, and women did the gathering.
Back then, if the boys were off tracking and spearing a woolly mammoth, the theory goes, it wouldn’t matter if the beast were brown or beige or ecru. It could’ve been neon green for all they cared; meat’s meat, and it who cares what color the wrapper is.
But if women were picking berries, choosing between two very similar seeds, or selecting mushrooms let’s say, then a mistake could easily result in sickness or death. The difference between orange and vermillion could mean the difference between bitter and ripe, or poisonous and perfectly edible.
While not all scientists ascribe to this theory, they do agree there’s proof that men and women do perceive color differently.
Israel Abramov, a behavioral neuroscientist and psychologist, has spent more than fifty years studying human vision at Brooklyn College, testing the abilities of both sexes to discern minor variations in color. The results show women decidedly more capable, while another of Abramov’s experiments proves men more adept at sensing moving objects such as small bars or lights (or, presumably, woolly mammoths).
I have a theory of my own regarding women and color, and believe we’re not only better at discerning subtle differences, but that we enjoy the experience of making a choice far more than our male counterparts.
There’s a whole chapter, I’m told, in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, that compares the shopping experience of buying a new shirt for both men and women, hunters and gatherers.
A man walks into the store, goes directly to the rack, makes his selection, bags it and takes it home. Mission accomplished. Return to the roost with the prize. But a woman? Oh, no. She’s got to take her time.
A woman will feel all the fabrics, hold up a selection, compare it to a thousand others. She’ll think back to what’s already in her closet with a photographic memory that details the shade of every piece to possibly coordinate. Some women—the truly gifted—will mentally match shoes, belt, jewelry, scarf and purse before leaving the aisle.
I know I’m perpetuating a stereotype here, making generalizations that’ll anger the feminists who assert that not all women like to shop. But it’s been my personal experience that women will generally spend more time selecting coordinated clothing than most men spend wearing coordinated clothing. Just the other day I had to stop my husband from leaving the house in two different colored socks, explaining that just because they both blue doesn’t mean they match.
The problem here, ladies, is that the clothing industry has tapped into what may be a hard-wired desire to “gather” clothing, and turned it against us for their own profit. They call it “fast fashion”, a phrase that disguises the trend for what it really is: disposable clothing.
Not all brands and retailers have hopped on the wear it/trash it bandwagon, but many have. You’ll recognize their clothing by its ridiculously low price and equally low quality. This is the $5 T-shirt with flimsy seams that doesn’t survive a second trip through the washer. The cloth is usually paper thin and the label reads Made in China, or India or Pakistan.
Like most things disposable, this relatively recent take on textiles is bad news for the planet. For starters, countries where the vast majority of this clothing is produced are home to relaxed environmental regulations (not to mention labor practices that leave workers in abject poverty).
By some accounts, the process of dying our textiles is responsible for 20% of global industrial water pollution. Dye houses use massive quantities of water, which are often discharged as untreated wastewater directly into rivers and streams. The bright colors we have to choose from come at a cost, leaving cadmium, chromium, lead and other dangerous chemicals behind in someone else’s water.
In some parts of the world dye houses are notorious for depleting local water supplies, leaving little behind for other uses, including farming. Where agriculture is possible, the most fertile lands may be used to grow cotton, one of the most pesticide intensive—and thirstiest--crops on the planet. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the cotton needed for one T-shirt’s worth of fiber requires more than 700 gallons of water.
All this pollution and waste of resources would be just as shameful if it were used to produce something lasting and durable. But remember, this is fast fashion, and the finished product is destined for the dump.
The vast majority of the clothing we buy ends up in a landfill, where much of it fails to decompose. In the United States, this amounts to about 12 million tons of clothing and other textiles per year. I’ll say that again, because at the risk of sounding preachy, I think it bears repeating. Twelve million tons. Every year. Twelve. Million. Tons.
We buy and buy and buy, so much so that even the paltry 15% of the textiles we do recycle has spawned a profitable clothing recycling industry. Years ago, our coats, shoes and sweaters were durable enough to be donated and re-sold through local charities. Now, even the Salvation Army sells a portion of its donations to recyclers, who turn otherwise useless items into shredded insulation, mulch, carpet padding or cleaning rags.
Some of our recycled clothing does end up in developing countries, and I find it ironic that some of these are the same places beset by the environmental problems our appetite for cheap clothing has created.
But have hope! There is light at the end of a clothing-clogged tunnel, where Adidas, Nike and Levi now dye with little or no water; Patagonia runs “Don’t buy this jacket” ads, asking customers to reconsider rampant consumerism; designer Tom Cridland sells a thirty-year sweatshirt, guaranteed to last for decades; and many brands are signing on to the Sustainable Clothing Coalition, addressing both environmental and social impacts of fast fashion. Check 'em out at buymeonce.com.
As a consumer myself, I try my best to buy responsibly. I do. But sometimes it’s tough. When the flip flops are only $1, and there’s a whole wall of them to choose from, I think the primitive female gatherer in me kicks in, and I just want to stand there and look everything over, to drool over all those different colors, and to wallow in the pleasure of having so many cheap choices.
I do that in the hardware store paint department too, staring out at a veritable rainbow of color sample cards. Last week I spent a half hour choosing between a thousand different shades of brown, when a young man came up next to me. He spent all of fifteen seconds in consideration before picking out the most nauseating gray-pink you could imagine. It looked like the color you’d get from running a dead salmon through a blender.
He must have seen the horror on my face, because he asked what I thought, and if the paint might go well with his new red curtains.
Hmmm… that’s a tough one. What does your wife think?
Oh, I’m not married, he answered. It’s my first apartment on my own. I’m gonna paint the whole place this color.
Well, in that case buddy, you gotta go with what your gut says. It’s just that I think "what your gut says" would make a great name for that color.
He looked a little dejected, but ended up buying the paint anyway. Poor guy. I bet he eats a lot of bad oranges.