Vol. 55 November 15, 2011 Why is Blue the Color of Child Abuse?

November 15, 2011

The Penn State fans in the stands for the Nebraska football last weekend shed their traditional “all white” dress and showed up in “all blue”. The color guard carried large blue flags. Players tied on blue ribbons. Was this in protest of the firing of the coaches, one of whom was recently arrested for alleged sexual abuse of young boys years ago, or was it in support of the most successful coaching staff in collegiate football, or was it in support of the victims?

According to Wikipedia: A Blue Ribbon Campaign against child abuse originated in the spring of 1989 when Bonnie Finney of Virginia tied a blue ribbon to her car antenna, as tribute to her three-year old grandson, Michael Bubba Dickinson, who died at the hands of his abusive father. The blue color of the ribbon symbolizes the color of bruises. Blue became the symbol of awareness against child abuse.

Blue is also the representative color of 16 other awareness campaigns, including 10 medical conditions from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (symptoms can mimic depression) to Osteogenesis Imperfecta (eyeballs can have a bluish tint).

Blue, according to many surveys, is the favorite color of a majority of Western hemisphere people. We love blue skies. First prize is always a blue ribbon. There are 18 names of blue in English. We used to affectionately refer to IBM as “Big Blue”.  “One of blue’s essential characteristics in western color symbolism is it doesn’t  make waves, but is calm, pacified, distant, almost neutral.” (1)

Yet, we fear the “dreaded blue screen”, and how did blue get associated with depression and Mondays?

In the days of deep water sailing ships if a Captain or another officer was lost at sea during a voyage the ship would fly blue flags and paint a blue band along the entire hull when arriving in her home port. The 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms by John Russell Bartlett associated blue with “gloomy and severe” especially as applied to Presbyterians! Depressed people actually associate their mood with the color gray.

Blue was not used in any paintings before the 12th century (probably due to the expense and scarcity of the dye) when “out of the blue” the Virgin Mary began to appear in blue clothing, and blue became her color. In the 13th century there were no “blue knights”. Red knights were “evil”; black knights were “important”, not bad; green knights were “youthful and insolent”; and a white knight, of course, was the “good guy”, often the “older protector”. Blue knights didn’t appear in paintings until the 14th century and represented “courageous, faithful, loyal, but secondary figures.”

In 1853 Levi Strauss, stuck with a surplus of canvas meant for tents for the gold rush boys in San Francisco, started making trousers out of canvas imported from Genoa (jeans = canvas from Genoa)) and dyed them with indigo. In 1865 he replaced the stiff canvas with a cotton twill and continued to dye them, so “blue jeans” were created. (1)

Reports of abuse and neglect of children increased 134% from 1980 to 1993 from about 10 in 1000 children to 23 in 1000. 91% of the abuse or neglect was by a parent, a relative,  or a domestic partner of a parent. Since 1993 child abuse and neglect reports have DECREASED about 26%. The largest percentage decrease has been in sexual abuse. This “improvement” may be a true decrease in incidence that could probably reflect the increasing awareness of the problem brought about by blue ribbon campaigns, educational, legislative, and judicial efforts, OR just  decrease in reporting due to fear of the consequences of public stigma and intense media attention on the victims.

If  Dr. David Ludwig from Children’s Hospital is effective in his recent efforts the incidence of child abuse and neglect is about to take a major tick up. He is one of the nation’s leading crusaders against childhood obesity and has suggested that “placement of the severely obese child under protective custody” be considered as an alternative to bariatric surgery. As a research endocrinologist he is alarmed by the rising incidence of childhood obesity and feels it is “a fight that we can not afford to lose”.  (2) Removal of a child to a foster home by the state is authorized by child abuse and neglect laws so any such children would be counted as “abused or neglected”.

The problem, of course, is that a significant part of obesity is biological, if not genetic. Dieting in one study caused an increase in hormones increasing appetite and a decrease in hormones promoting satiety and energy expenditure. (3) Therefore, people who are overweight may be constantly in a hormonal environment that makes them hungry and burn less energy during exercise. (4) Hormones are regulated in part by genes.

Who knows, in the near future we may be talking about a new and different kind of “blue genes.”(5)

Finally, as a gesture toward balance and gender neutrality, I must note with sympathy that Evelyn Lauder, past CEO of Estee Lauder Cosmetics, died this past week at home from ovarian cancer at age 75. In 1992 she and Alexandra Penny, editor of Self Magazine, created the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness.

References:

1. Blue: The History of a Color, Michael Pastourneau, Princeton University Press, 2001
2. Boston Globe Magazine, October 30, 2011, p.21
3. N Engl J Med 2011 Oct 27; 365:1597, Sumithran, P et al.
4. Journal Watch Pediatrics and Adolescents, Nov. 15, 2011, vol.33, 22; p.180, Anthony Komaroff
5.”Blue Genes”, Nature Neuroscience 8, 701-705, 2005, Stephan Hamann: “Healthy carriers of a gene variant associated with depression have different brains.”

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