When I was eight years old, in the period of “cooties” and crushes, a male classmate turned the third grade upside-down when he walked into school wearing a pink shirt. He came into class as self-assured as ever, sporting a blush pink shirt with “TOUGH GUYS WEAR PINK” emblazoned across the front. The other boys seemed dumbstruck with admiration – here was a popular boy who managed to turn wearing a “weak” off-limits color into something applause-worthy.
Looking back on that moment, on that bold slogan, I’m struck by the way it encapsulates the feelings our society has toward pink. Unlike any other color, pink has morphed into an idea, into a concept that has broadened its meaning and connotations, becoming something that little girls define themselves by, industries capitalize on and much of the population outwardly rejects.
The lines along which pink is rejected is clear: 7% of women, according to a 2012 University of Maryland study, claimed pink as their favorite color, whereas only 1% of men did the same. The contempt toward pink uncovers aversion toward the stereotypical aspects of femininity, traits like tenderness, nurturance and deference. Since boys and men are discouraged from displaying these traits – “boys don’t cry” – they are also discouraged from liking the color pink. To take a stand on pink, in other words, has somehow become a way to indirectly express one’s true thoughts on feminine stereotypes.
Personally, I’ve never been one to like pink. Whether I’m choosing a sweater at the mall, a toothbrush at the dentist’s office or a golf ball at the mini golf course, I have always strayed away from the color. It’s not that I have anything against the hue itself – in fact, I often find I’m the first to point out the beauty of a blush-colored peony or a cotton-candy streaked sky.
Rather, my rebuff of pink seemed to be an unspoken requirement of my tomboy childhood. I wanted to be adventurous, intelligent, daring, a nature explorer and an ambitious competitor. Pink, I thought, exuded quite the opposite: notions of weakness and sensitivity.
However, pink hasn’t always been perceived as a frivolous color. Before the mid-twentieth century, it was actually more common to assign pink to boys and blue to girls; blue was considered a “dainty” color and pink a strong color. Pink is, after all, an offshoot of bold red. Though nobody is sure how or when the color assignments reversed, the past has proven that pink can be viewed as a powerful color, far from the childish, flirty connotations it’s most often associated with today. Common perceptions of pink, it would seem, have shifted precisely because the gender it’s associated with shifted first.
Corporations have only further cemented this gender-color divide. Figuring they can make a profit by compelling parents with children of different genders to buy the same item in different colors (God forbid John use his older sister’s pink tricycle), companies have splashed pink on all things Girl. Because of this rosy-hued reality, it seems practically impossible for girls to resist markets’ influence. The idea that they are supposed to be interested in and interact with pink-colored products will surely develop in the minds of these little girls. Even if their parents do not explicitly push them toward the pink section, it is not hard to make the connection that those aisles are meant for them.
Beyond Lyft and T-Mobile, you’d be hard pressed to think of a pink-logoed company that also aims to cater to all genders. And businesses aren’t alone in their aversion to pink. From school colors to flags to national sports teams, pink is simply not present: it’s as if it has disappeared from the color wheel.
The message is clear: pink, because of its association with femininity, has become a color to avoid at all costs if one wants to cater to all genders and project a mature, serious image. The common avoidance of pink is simply a symptom of the much larger issue of sexism. While pushing a little girl away from pink might come from good intentions, it may imply that being feminine is undesirable.
The solution, therefore, is not to spurn the color, but rather to embrace it. While sporting a bright pink sweater or choosing the pink golf ball at the mini golf course will certainly not solve the issue of sexism, it might send the message that femininity is something that people can show off and be proud of. The reverse, too, might also be true: as femininity is increasingly understood to be something to espouse rather than evade, pink itself might become a more empowering color for all genders.
(Graphic credits: Giovana Gelhoren)