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December 15, 2018

Men in Grey

Living close to the equator means that the everyday is a twelve-hour day. The sun rises just before six in the morning and sets just before seven in the evening. Given the environment both natural and work related; the midday sun is very hot and traffic is always true to its word, most working people have to be up before the sun and get home after sunset. The conditions are the same but men and women have different dress habits. Women wear the brighter outfits from head to toe. Men on the other hand are content to play around with shades of dark colours from black itself to grey, via blue. White is used as a contrast to differentiate navy blue from black. When it comes to shoes the most daring of men wear brown, white is reserved for Lingala concerts. What determines this conservative approach to colour that men have? Why is it that a man living in the same society with women will not wear a fuchsia shirt to work?

The simple answer is that men and women are different. The question that then arises is, in what way? And why is it something that cuts across the various homes, clans, tribes and nations? Is it genetic? Or is it environmental? Or is it something that we can safely blame the west and its terrible culture? The issue at hand is how the different sexes perceive colour. So we can accept one thing, when it comes to colour, men and women are different. There are several explanations for this.

Vision is the sense by which objects in the external environment are perceived by means of the light they give off or reflect. Colour vision is the ability to differentiate these objects based on the wavelengths of light that they transmit or reflect. The primary organ used for vision is the eye. Within the eye, there is the retina a structure specialised to perceive light. There are three types of retinal cells, called cone cells, each of which is sensitive to a particular light wavelength. They are labelled short, medium and long cone types. While the three types do not directly correspond to specific colours they do pick up light waves that in the brain’s visual cortex are analysed and matched together to give the particular colours we see. So seeing a colour is not just a physical process, but involves the brain as well. Therefore different people can see the same object or light source in different ways.

At the genetic level there are differences between males and females because of the way in which colour vision deficiencies are inherited in humans. For example, the gene that codes for photo-pigment for the long and medium wavelength retinal cone cells are found on the male X-chromosome. If the genes in the male X-chromosome are different from the normal, this results in colour vision deficiency. When such a genetic mutation occurs and a female inherits a defective X-chromosome and the other X-chromosome is normal then she becomes a carrier with a 50 per cent chance that she would pass on the defect to her son. The son having XY-chromosome will then have the colour vision deficiency.

But it is not just at the genetic level that things can be different. It can happen at the physiological and cognitive level as well. Studies show that women generally have a larger repertoire of words to use in describing colours. Therefore in experiments to see if there are sex differences, females generally are more elaborate in describing what they see. Men hampered by lack of adjectives see things in black and white, even when there is fuchsia, hot pink, Egyptian desert sand and so on. Various studies show that women perceive green/red better than men though the difference is usually very small. Scientists hypothesize that this is part of evolution due to the different gender roles. In hunter-gatherer societies, women were tasked with gathering and therefore needed to distinguish small reddish fruits among masses of green foliage while for men, the animal eventually showed up and ran either towards them or away. Eyes in this case needed to communicate very different things.

So why the dark colours for men? Is it because they think black or grey is actually green or red? The answer is no, most men are not totally colour blind. Being charitable, we can probably attribute the reason for wearing dark clothes by men to the realization that in a hot climate, dark clothes protect against heat. We know that white reflects heat and therefore people assume that wearing white clothes will make them feel cool. The reality is that the sun is 150 million kilometres away. Much of the heat we feel everyday is generated by our own body and felt by the skin. Wearing something white means that body heat is reflected back on to the body. A dark piece of clothing is therefore better for you in a hot climate than wearing all white. So perhaps men are clever and understand physics, or perhaps they are wise and realise that they dress in the dark therefore matching colours while half asleep can lead to stress and having as few things to match makes a VAT full life a little simpler.

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