Pink and Strong Boys

Updated: Dec 17, 2013, 10:09 AM IST

Pooja Bhula

Ever wondered about the `pink and women` connection? You`ll find scores of theories, including some that claiming it goes back to our hunter-gatherer days, but the fixation is fairly recent.

For almost 14 years of my life, I was a complete tomboy, climbing up poles and walls, jumping off everything possible, and wrestling and boxing away. Mind you, I dressed up barbie dolls and read fairy tales too, but while my peers were going through the princess syndrome, I wanted to be `Beast Master` from the TV series on AXN. But my family didn`t seem to mind. As a result, even though I often encounter women who `hate pink` or consciously `don`t wear pink`, I haven`t formed an aversion to the colour.

Yet, I`ve long wondered, `Why is pink a considered woman`s colour?` and `Why do some women avoid it?` Getting an answer to the latter only requires observation--many women don`t want to be labled `girly girls`. Why? As the stereotype goes, girls are only interested in shopping or activities that don`t require much physical or mental rigour, and femininity is equated to weakness. Don`t we tell a crying boy,"stop behaving like a girl!"? As for finding out how pink came to represent women, the internet provided an information overload as usual, but Jo Paoletti`s book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, helped put things into perspective.

To begin with, pink wasn`t always pink as we know it now. Jo tells me, "There are not only different shades of pink, but the definition of the word has changed quite a bit over time (Red jackets worn for fox hunting were called "pinks" in the eary 19th century). Maybe, part of the problem is that in the visible spectrum, which runs from red to violet, there is no pink light."

During her three decades of research for the book, she not only tried to find an answer to when pink became a feminine colour, but also delved into the deeper question of when gendered clothing for children emerged in the US.

"In most of Europe and America in the 19th century and early 20th century, pastel colours were considered `youthful` and were used more often to flatter the complexion, not denote gender. Pink was considered more flattering for brown-eyed and brown-haired people, blue for the blue-eyed, and green and yellow for red-heads." Interestingly, till the 1920s babies, including boys, dressed in white gowns, and short dresses till the age of one.

Pink For STRONG Boys

Paging through an issue of Earnshaw`s Infants` Department magazine, dated 1918, Jo found some precious information. The magazine said, "There has been a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for boys, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for girls." For additional evidence Jo points us to Walt Disney`s 1953 animated film, Peter Pan, in which the youngest child, Michael, wears pink pajamas throughout the movie. When Jo and her sister received pink clothes for their boys, in the 60s and 70s in Belgium, she discovered that the norm there was, pink for the boys and light blue for the girls. She finds that pink is now considered more a woman`s colour even in Belgium, but unlike the US, it offers girls a much larger variety of colours and neutral designs.

Rohit Vishal Kumar, Associate Professor at Xavier`s Institute of Social Studies and co-author of Colour Colour Everywhere, a study of the symbolic value of colour and its use in marketing, gives us an insight into the colour trends in 18th and 19th Century England. "The English uniform during this period was dominated by red and small boys (seen as little soldiers) wore pink (derived by boiling the red cloth). So, it will surprise many to know that Britain itself was responsible for the distinction of blue for boys and pink for girls. It is believed that with the growing naval power of Britain, people started dressing their children in sailor suits and naval uniforms, which were blue. Over time, it began dominating the colour spectrum for boys, and pink was relegated to girls."

But the navy was only one cog in the juggernaut. Jo found that in the US, modern associations of pink and blue were taking shape till the 40s, but the 70s coinage `pink collar`, for jobs held by women such as nursing and secretarial work, super-charged pink as a feminine signifier. By the 80s it was so strongly associated with femininity that when a boy or man wore it, it was no longer "just a color", but an act of defiance. Finally it was adopted by manufacturers of thousands of products as a way to differentiate their wares and sell more items, especially for children.

For this reason, Jo`s book focuses on babies.

The role of children as consumers, cannot be ignored. She says, "Children understand that biological sex is stable around age five or six, before then, they believe it is based on--and can be changed by--gender expression. For eg. a four-year-old believes that a child wearing a pink shirt is a girl, and the same child in a blue shirt is a boy. Fearing their sex will change, most children this age strongly resist dressing that doesn`t conform to very strict gender rules. Therefore, the more adults have listened to--and marketed to--children, the more clothing for kids under the age of six has become gendered." Early sex identification of babies in the US, through sonographies, also aided the increase in gendered clothing for babies.

Pink Reaches India

"Gulabi, the Hindi word for pink is known to have Persian origins and there`s no word for it in Sanskrit. Having been dominated by the British for over two centuries, the concept of pink for girls and blue for boys seems to have come primarily from England," Rohit tells us.

He also believes that in India the association is majorly an urban phenomenon, "People in rural India still have a marked preference for brighter natural colours. It is a well known fact that the colour senses of those living close to nature are dominated by natural colours, whereas urban consumers (living away from nature) tend to prefer more mixed colours."With the Gulabi Gang and the Pink Chaddi campaign gaining ground, it may be difficult to shake off our preoccupation with Pink (Rohit doesn`t think things will change anytime soon, either), but having met several women who are anti-pink, I was tempted to look for those who were publicly vocal about it. And bingo! Although the only anti-pink movement I found in India was a campaign against beef exports, many parents outside India are protesting the pinkification of women`s surroundings.

Anti-Pink Movement

One such campaign that seems to have had a prominent impact is Pinkstinks, started by UK-based sisters, Abi and Emma Moore, in 2008. They confront the damaging messages that bombard girls through toys, clothes and media such as the overwhelming focus on being pretty and passive, as well as shopping, fashion, and make-up obsessed--concepts usually marketed under the umbrella of pink. They have been working towards creating positive changes in products, messages, labelling, categorisation and representations of girls, and endorsing inclusive, positive play and adventure for both girls and boys.

As per The Gaurdian`s report in 2011, Pinkstinks` campaign, forced London toy store Hamleys to stop labelling its floors in blue for boys and pink for girls. Toys were rearranged by type rather than gender. Issues raised by Pinkstinks were discussed in the House of Commons in 2009; the sisters have successfully campaigned against several other toy stores and learning centres, and won awards for their work. In May this year, Deutsche Welle reported that `the first European Barbie Dreamhouse opened in Berlin to shouts of protests from feminists`, with pictures of Barbies being set ablaze.

Unhappy with stereotype-reinforcing T-shirts for women, some of which read, "Too pretty for homework" or "Allergic to algebra", Canadian resident Shelley Armstrong and Christa Charter of Washington State, started Anti-Pink T-Shirts. While none of the offerings on their website are in pink, they mention, "We don`t hate pink! We object to the idea that girls have to wear pink. We believe that pink is a choice, not a limitation. If you love the color, order our shirts in pink and wear them proudly!" Several other websites also cater to non-pink and gender neutral-clothes for kids.

The support received by movies like Brave, with strong women characters like Merida, is also promising. Several businesses, experts, not-for-profit organizations, authors, activists, artists, parents, educators, adults, and girls have come together and form The Brave Girls Alliance in the US; they ask media content creators to "expand their version of what it means to be a girl, and...stop profiting from selling girls short." The Alliance likes Merida for being, "a different kind of princess--who doesn`t promote stereotypical beauty, passivity, and waiting for rescue from a prince. Instead she tells girls: It`s okay to be strong, adventurous, spirited, and an individual. You can be amazing without the focus on beauty and romance."

So that`s the story of pink; it`s more than just a colour. In Nazi concentration camps homosexual inmates were made to wear a pink triangle, and interestingly today it is the symbol of gay pride. In recent times, it has also come to represent, breast cancer awareness and anti-bullying day (after a Canadian college student was ragged for sporting a pink T-shirt. While I don`t know what the future holds for the colour, I hope it isn`t abandoned by women, but embraced by men more openly. And even if it continues to represent women, it should represent our endeavours and accomplishments in every sphere. It should represent our empowerment--a job that was assigned to purple.