What’s So Bad about Pink Anyway?

female_symbol_color_colour_pink_1-999pxLast week’s strength training tips for women drew lots of feminist commentary, as you can see from this and this and this and this, as well as the comments on the original post (to which, for the sake of principle, I have vowed never to link again).

One of the observations made in the original post is that women tend to like wearing pink to the gym. I’m not sure why this comes across as a criticism, but it did.  That might have to do with the rhythm of the piece, in which criticism and misogyny are delivered in disguise, as “tips” and “observations.” By the time I got to the pink comment, I was just waiting for the next blow to women.

Commenters on the post and commentators from other blogs have had varied responses to the point about pink, ranging from “sometimes it’s hard to find something functional, that fits, and that isn’t pink” to “what’s so bad about pink anyway?”

The post’s author admitted that he hadn’t given any thought to the difference in availability of pink clothing for women and for men.  He was completely bewildered one day when five of his female clients showed up with some pink on their outfits, remarking that none of his male clients would ever do that.  Seriously?

I want to say that I like pink, especially hot or neon pink, and I own a pink winter running hoodie that I love, another pink winter running top, and a pair of casual sneakers with pink trim.  I love them all.  For each of them, when I purchased them, I had no alternative with respect to colour.

What’s so bad about pink has nothing to do with the color itself. It’s lovely.  The issue is more about a lack of choices coupled with the social meaning of pink.

In the Western world, girls are socialized into pink before they are even born.  Prospective parents who know they are going to have a girl have a green light to start decorating the nursery in pink, buying pink clothes for the baby, stocking up on pink accessories.  When the baby is born, assuming the sex is clear (it is not always clear at birth) and assuming it is a girl, she will be put in a pink blanket. And so the socialization into pink begins.

I have gone shopping for children and requested clothing in gender neutral colours. If you want the salesperson to look at you as if you have three heads, ask for gender neutral products for children. One of the most prevalent tropes for distinguishing the girl stuff from the boy stuff is pink. It’s not the only marker of the feminine, but it’s powerful, consistent, and virtually inescapable. Enter the girls’ clothing department or even the girls’ part of a toy shop and you will find yourself in a sea of pink.

It’s not much different for women seeking workout clothes. Yes, there are some choices sometimes. But last weekend in Toronto, I passed the storefront of an upmarket yoga clothing retailer and of the five mannequins in the window, not one of them had a top or a bottom on that was devoid of pink. Either the item was pink or it had some pink trim.  The “observation” about pink gnawed at me some more and I started to feel, well, pissed off.

I’d purchased a running top from said retailer the week before, hadn’t yet worn it. It was black with pink trim. On Sunday, I returned it for a refund. I will not be coerced into wearing pink, even if I like the colour.

So what’s the social meaning of pink? It’s all about feminine—girlish, dependent, a little bit silly, a little bit soft, a little bit fickle, cute, and just generally weak.  I don’t mean that girls and women are actually this way. I mean that femininity as a cultural ideal likes to represent us this way.  Add a bit of zip to the pink, going for neon instead of pastel, and you’ve got sexy too.

If women have pink (i.e. femininity) foisted upon them, men have few pink options.  Pink’s association with femininity means that men who choose to wear pink are either openly gay or leaving themselves open to speculation about their sexuality. If a boy likes and wears pink to school, he risks ridicule and becomes subject to bullying.

The only exception is when a thoroughly macho, straight man in a position of power wears pink. In those cases it has the paradoxically opposite affect of making people even more enthralled by his masculinity. He’s SO masculine he can wear pink without having his sexuality called into question (because powerful, masculine men are never gay, right?).

These days it’s not just pink workout wear that’s available to us, but also pink dumbbells and pink stability balls. Recently there was a big promotion of pink Bosus for breast cancer awareness.

I lift weights to get strong. I am sorry, but I just don’t find the associations with pink to be all that empowering.  Not to mention that the high end for pink dumbbells is usually about 5 pounds, with 2 and 3 pounds being more common. No one is going to get all that strong lifting only pink weights.

I agree with what Samantha said in her Play Hard, Look Cute post (she took this pic while out shopping): if you want to wear pink, if you want to look cute in the gym, then you have a right to do that.  But I also think that pink doesn’t do us any favors in the gym at the moment. And given the plethora of pink items available to women and not to men, I wonder how much choice there really is.

Now, one way of responding to this point is to say that we need to change the culture. Maybe bringing pink into a traditionally masculine domain like the weight room might be just what is needed.  I use similar logic when I knit at a philosophy conference—it feminizes a traditionally male-dominated environment.  And it also means that (unless I ask a really good question of the speaker in the Q & A) I risk being taken less seriously by other philosophers.

I don’t agree, of course, that the feminine should be considered less valuable and taken less seriously, either in philosophy or in the weight room.

In much of my feminist work and life, I worry about the way our choices and preferences are shaped by social forces.  It’s not some biologically innate feature of girls and women that we like pink stuff. Pink is just a colour and for that reason may seem innocuous. But its social meaning can be undermining in certain contexts.  And at the moment, the gym is one of those contexts.

Changing entrenched social meanings doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen without an awareness of the pernicious messages associated with those meanings.  As a woman, when I choose to wear pink, I need to be aware that I am choosing more than a colour, and that my desires, preferences, and options have been heavily influenced by my upbringing and environment.

Sometimes that awareness alone will make me question my choice long enough to ask, “Is this available in another colour?” And when I do ask that, I would really appreciate it if the answer, at least some of the time, could be “Yes.”

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