Writer and librarian Hayley DeRoche has two children, who, like a lot of kids their age, tend to favor brightly colored outfits and toys. But DeRoche couldn't help but notice that the items being marketed to her as a mom, via ads, catalogs and social media influencers, were overwhelmingly neutral. Oatmeal. Khaki. Taupe. Or, as DeRoche puts it in her now-viral TikTok videos, "sad beige."
"Sad beige is when your aesthetic is marketed in such a way that it views childhood as a somber experience and that dressing your children this way or creating this environment will create a calm environment full of little scholars who want nothing more than to just, like, listen to Mozart quietly in their beige room and play quietly with their one wooden toy," DeRoche, who documents the Sad Beige phenomenon in videos narrated by her spot-on impersonation of German filmmaker Werner Herzog for added bleakness, tells Yahoo Life. "And they will come up to you and they will quote Proust at breakfast time over their oatmeal and you will be like, 'Oh, Sebastian, I'm so glad you finally finished your Proust.' The marketing is really what the joke is about, because I have yet to see a child in real life act at any point like the children in these beige neutral ads."
Where does this proliferation of mushroom-hued dungarees and toys — which, DeRoche notes, are often artfully displayed like museum pieces in the generally sparsely decorated homes of momfluencers — come from? Research has found that newborns respond best to high-contrast, black-and-white designs because their eyesight is not yet fully developed, while most parents will tell you that their kids tend to favor bold patterns and vibrant colors. Over the past few years, however, beige has overtaken gray as the neutral of choice in home design, a development some have attributed to the cozy, earthy Danish hygge trend sinking its teeth into Americans. Kim Kardashian has also given the shade her own endorsement thanks to a series of sandy, monochromatic ensembles, including her Skims shapewear. Color psychology — and its impact on marketing and content creators — is no doubt also at play. According to ColorPsychology.org, beige, while historically associated with plain, boring office equipment, has also come to be considered a "staple of minimalist fashion and design." Another observation: "As a softer, warmer form of white, beige represents simplicity and serenity. It is often used to denote plainness. Beige is basic, unpretentious, and does not command attention."
According to Kathryn Jezer-Morton, who writes the Mothers Under the Influence newsletter, that non-distractive feature is key to beige's success among influencers. "An executive at an influencer-management company told me that influencers are encouraged to decorate and dress in neutrals because it allows sponsored products to pop visually in contrast," she shared in a post this March. Jezer-Morton has also railed against the rise of neutrals among momfluencers because the maintenance required to keep those spaces (and outfits) clean is not accessible to most.
DeRoche doesn't take issue with any color preference per se, but she does object to the presumption that having a nursery devoid of color or dressing your child in pricey, organic, bland outfits makes someone a better parent.
"We've conflated this aesthetic with being, like, the best thing for children," says DeRoche, who has gotten comments arguing that bright colors can be "overstimulating" for little ones. "The way people get almost religious about it with me — they're like, 'This is the best thing for children.' It's particularly interesting to me because I feel like it's trickled down from the higher class, the way fashion does. And so to have the quote-unquote 'best thing for children' coincidentally be an expensive thing ... I reject that just on principle."
"People across all cultures raise their children in wildly different aesthetic environments," the Hello Lovelies! author adds. "And as far as I can tell, everyone's raising very good babies."
Many of the "sad beige" items DeRoche calls out on her platform are marketed as being more organic and therefore, better and more ethical. Making eco-friendly purchases is great, she says. But in looking closer, DeRoche found a lot of "greenwashing," or the marketing practice of making something seem more environmentally sound than it actually is. She cites a set of stacking cups — "they were all in very somber colors and all of the photos were babies just, like, staring off into the sunset" — that were sustainably made, yes, but no better than their mass-made, Crayola-hued competition. Another environmentally ethical choice, meanwhile, might be to simply dress your kid in hand-me-downs or gift them used toys from Goodwill or Buy Nothing, but that is deemed to be less aesthetically pleasing and Instagram-worthy and is therefore inferior in the eyes of influencer culture.
The pressure to maintain this aesthetic isn't unlike the twinge of guilt parents might feel when every pristine grid shoot on their feed gives the impression that everybody else's kids are not only wearing stain-free, biscuit-hued rompers but also playing with just a handful of carefully curated (probably wooden, probably matching) toys, Montessori-style.
"Good luck with that," mom of two DeRoche laughs, noting that "toys happen," whether you like it or not. If rotating a few toys in and out works for a family, great, but parents shouldn't feel pressured just because minimalism has gotten the momfluencer seal of approval.
"To me it's, like, how little can we possibly have but also make it like an aspirational thing?" she adds. "Influencers have figured out that products pop against a neutral background, and when your whole house is your background — because your whole life is content that's made for consumption — then it would make a lot of sense to really double down on that and have as few toys as possible and have neutral colors if it's beneficial to your business. If your whole life is a showroom, then it makes perfect sense that we're seeing these posts about minimal parenting and rotating toys."
DeRoche never expected her Sad Beige commentary to take off. And while it's found a big fanbase, she's more interested in calling out the marketing and cultural forces behind the trend than making any other parent feel foolish about their choices.
"I've had a few people be defensive, but for the most part I think people have been pretty chill," she says. "I made a joke and it went viral, and I've been able to sustain the joke in a way that's funny to me. But honestly, I accidentally tripped into it. I think people see that I truly mean no cruelty or harm. And I just want to talk about how sometimes an aesthetic is more than just an aesthetic, and sometimes it's connected with class and privilege. Ultimately, whatever you do for yourself is probably fine, and that includes having a brightly colored nursery or a beige nursery. Like, either one of them are fine."
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