Pretty pink things

Pink things are sneaking their way into my bathroom and stealing into my bedroom, insinuating themselves uninvited. In the bathroom, a pink toothbrush and soapdish, a pink pot plant container for the maidenhair fern and a pink spray bottle to keep it misted and the soil moist. By day, I wear sober blues and sombre blacks. At night, I climb into pink pyjamas with even a touch of pink lace beneath. And I’m growing curiouser and curiouser about why. 

My friend Eva swears by the power of pink. “Try it and you’ll see,” she tells me. And despite being well over sixty, she always wears pink and the men come flocking around. Though she works out regularly at the gym, she stands looking helpless when a suitcase needs to be lifted into a bus in Yorkshire or up some steps in Venice. It works every time.

But I vowed to stop wearing pink at the age of eleven. Blushing at a piano recital when I got up from the piano to bow too early, I blamed the snuggly sweet pink cardigan I had on, newly hand-knitted by my mother. I swore never to wear pink again. I renounced ruffles, flounces and lace too. 

My younger daughter stopped wearing pink – and dresses – when she was six and declared that she didn’t like pritzy girls. I knew exactly what she meant. Pretty, ditsy princesses. Preening, and pancing, with tosses of ribbon-plaited hair like the My Little Pony toys that were all the rage in the late 80s.  

Every Saturday I took my two small daughters to ballet lessons in a mirrored room full of girls in pink leotards and pale pink ballet shoes, pink hairbands and sometimes even ballerina pink painted fingernails. But when Anna was cast as a rag doll instead of a bunny rabbit in the end-of-year production, she refused to ever go back. 

In the shopping street on a Saturday, fathers run errands with preschoolers dressed in pink tutus and gumboots in tow. As people stream in to see the New Zealand Ballet perform, each diminutive would-be prima donna with hair coiled on her head and in a pink tutu, walking in hand-in-hand with her mother draws smiles and murmurs of “How sweet; isn’t she cute,” from the grown-ups.

So why are young girls and older women drawn to pink? Does pink signal fragility, a state of unreadiness like unfurled petals and under-ripe peaches and, later, a waning of fruitfulness like shrivelling leaves and moldering plums. Perhaps it says, “Look after me, take care of me, protect me.” Or maybe it’s the other way round: we wear pink because we can afford to be delicate and vulnerable; we don’t yet, when we’re young; or we no longer, when we’re quite a bit older, need to hide our sexuality in loose black hoodies that let us pass unnoted and unnoticed in the street. We don’t expect to be wolf-whistled or leered at, we’re not driven by our physiology to put our fertility on display. I’m always especially surprised as well as shocked to hear that a woman of seventy or eighty has been the object of a sexual crime or rape. Doesn’t age confer immunity to sexual interest just as childhood should?

As females of the species. either we’re not there yet or we’ve moved on, from the turbulent passage in our lives when our self-confidence soars and plummets, our sexual attractiveness waxes and wanes with our monthly cycle and we’re propelled, despite ourselves, to find a partner and start making babies. 

These stretches of life either side of the reproductive years are simpler and less complicated. Like the simple tradition in Japan of walking and picnicking under the pink cherry blossom when it’s in flower.  Beautiful in itself, the blossom is a sign that winter is over, spring has begun. And when the blossom falls, it showers down on the lawn like a snowfall of gentle caresses from above before it browns around the edges and decays. 

In the gardens of my mother and my friends, there’s the delicate pink in the petals of rosebuds and peony, sweet pea, azaleas and camellias; in their homes, the various variegated pinks of orchids reminiscent of women’s vaginas, the resemblance unavoidable when you see them splashed boldly on canvas in Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings.

So pink for a baby girl, baby blue for a boy. Even when we realise that it was the reverse not so long ago, we hold on to the notion that pink is feminine, that the feminine is pink However,. Smithsonian magazine reports that pink and blue weren’t promoted in the US as gender signifiers until just before World War I when it was pink for a boy. Pink was seen as a more decided and stronger colour, related to red, while blue was seen as delicate and dainty. The current dichotomy didn’t become established until the 1940s. For a period in the 1970s until the mid 80s, when the women’s liberation movement made its mark, children’s clothing became gender-neutral, but has reverted to being gender-specific, a boon for all the makers and sellers of baby things, toys and children’s clothing.

As consumerism became more widespread after WWII, researchers delved more deeply into why people bought products; they’d started to realise the reasons for buying something often weren’t purely rational; other things were at play including values, symbolic meanings and colour. Now we know that fast-food chains use red, yellow and orange to make you feel hungry. Hospitals began painting their interiors in shades of green to influence patient moods – it’s a peaceful colour and the colour of growth and recovery. Marketers tell us that lighter and softer shades of pink represent compassion, nurturing, sentimentality, romance, tenderness, care, and calmness. It’s usually used in businesses relating to the female market such as cosmetics, fashion, beauty and romance. It’s seldom seen in the corporate world, in finance or technology.

One could argue that the association of pink with femininity is learnt, that when my preschooler chose a pink t-shirt and purple tights, or my mother bought a loose pink top, the colour choice was driven by the cultural conditioning that surrounds us. But there’s credible research to show pale pink is soothing – violent children tend to relax, stop yelling and banging and often fall asleep within 10 minutes in a bubble-gum pink room. It seems that our preferences for particular colours come from somewhere deeper in us; we choose colours that match or reflect an internal state, or have the power to induce a state of mind or mood. Shades of teal with their mix of blues and green have been my favourite colour since childhood, cooling the high-pitched clamour of my thoughts and calming the jangle of my busy days. Pink has come and gone in my life; and now it’s coming back. Please don’t tell.

2 thoughts on “Pretty pink things

  1. Wow! What a terrific essay, wandering in and out of the whys and wherefores of your mid-life pink attack. No solutions, just a wondering enjoyment of a change. In my wardrobe is one oldfashioned pink petticoat, fraught with nostalgia. I wear it but nobody knows.


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