clothing · training · weight lifting

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?).

pink dumbbellsThese 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.”

37 thoughts on “What’s So Bad about Pink Anyway?

  1. Great post, if I hear one more mum say “but she just likes pink, it’s nothing I did” grrr.
    Of course she likes pink, she has been told since day dot that she likes pink…..but apparently their daughters are immune to advertising, cartoons, supermarket displays, shop fronts etc…..

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  2. Well, you pretty much have summarized my whole feelings on the subject of pink. The only thing I would add is that pink has been used as a means of deliberately emasculating men, as in visiting team locker rooms that are painted pink or Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s replacement of white underwear with pink for inmates in the Maricopa County Jail. The association of pink with femininity (and femininity with weakness) is so strong that forcing men to be near pink is considered a psychological punishment in and of itself.

    My personal feelings are very torn. I have a part of me that is kind of oppositional and anti-authoritarian, so I rebel against being told what to do. In this case, I feel like I am both told that I must like pink, which makes me want to stay away from it, and that pink is somehow weak and horrible, which makes me want to embrace it while doing really tough, bad-ass things. But then there is a part of me that takes the longer view and just cannot believe that so much shit has been stirred up over a simple color.

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    1. I share your feelings and ambivalence about pink. How to orchestrate the shift in social meaning? More feminist activism, including blogs. This ambivalence extends to how I feel about lots of “feminine” things. What you added about pink being used as a weapon to emasculate men is absolutely fascinating and shocking.

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      1. I never know what the appropriate decision to make in this regard. How do you push back against the extreme social connotations of the color without appearing to reject femininity altogether? I personally have tried to subvert my use of the color pink by choosing obnoxious hot pink fitness gear and then doing masculine-identified things with it, like running fast or lifting heavy, but I often find the problem with doing things that are subversive is that not everyone picks up on that. I might feel like I’m subverting gender norms by associating badassery with pink, but an external viewer just sees another woman who likes pink.

        And then there’s the whole issue of using what is basically consumerism as a means of activism, you know, trying to fight patriarchal systems through buying certain things. It’s complicated and it makes me angry because there should not be so much ridiculousness surrounding something so simple.

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  3. Amen!

    I have a strong visceral, negative reaction to the colour pink. I avoid looking at the colour. (I scrolled rapidly through sections of this blog post to get the pink graphics off my screen as quickly as possible.) I cringe when girls tell me their favourite colour is pink. (I cringe when women tell me this too, for that matter.) I absolutely loathe wearing the colour myself. It makes me feel icky because it violates the image of myself I want to present to the world.

    And yet–once again this year–I purchased running shoes with pink trim. Because there was no other choice. (The pink bits–as usual–are on material which doesn’t stain well. So I cannot even fix the offense by saving my first wearing of the shoes for a muddy day.) The ubiquity of pink in women’s workout apparel is as offensive to me as that of padded sports bras.

    When I’m not being careful with my language, I tend to use phrases such as, “I hate pink!” Which I realize is crazy. Pink is nothing more than the way my eyes perceive certain wavelengths/brightnesses of light. (And the pinks for which I have the greatest distaste are the ones closest in hue to the colour which is by far my favourite: red.)

    What I do hate is the social consensus that I _should_ like pink because I am female, that the colour pink is somehow “feminine” (and not in an empowering way). What I truly should be able to do–what we all should be able to do–is discard this sort of ridiculous gender stereotyping and see people as the individuals that we are. Sadly, I don’t see this happening until we figure out a way to show big business how it can profit from honouring individuality more than it currently profits from pushing stereotypes.

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  4. I love this post. However, a couple of notes. In the 19th century pink was a “boy” color because it was associated with red and considered strong. I find that interesting as this topic is discussed.

    I also recently came to pink. As a girl in the ’70s pink was discouraged as we were all supposed to be tomboys. If I wore anything slightly girly I was mocked and made to feel less. I had a daughter a few years ago and started by purchasing gender neutral clothing. My mother-in-law, a true girly girl, gave her pink and frilly clothing. Guess what my daughter wanted to wear. And I let her be who she is and she wears a LOT of pink and sparkles. She also began to insist that I match her color for color (I draw the line at sparkles.)

    I have found the wearing of pink to be freeing. My only pink gym wear are my Nikes (which I love and were available in other neon colors, but Miss Thing got to pick…) I also find it empowering to wear my pink, carry my pink computer cover and still command the professional respect of my colleagues.

    I guess, while I respect your ideas on the wearing of pink at the gym, I cannot allow others’ opinions to decide what I wear. I will continue to wear my Nikes. Interestingly enough my very tough trainer generally wears pink workout wear. We discussed your blog the other day and have decided that we like the pink and, while acknowledging your point, will continue along our girly ways while continuing our tough workouts.

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  5. Interesting post. I struggle with the choice to wear pink or not, among other “feminine” things (like doing my hair, make-up, wearing jewellery, etc.). A few years ago, I had a stylist help me revamp my wardrobe for my new career, and her #1 rule was no pastel pink because it is associated with weakness. This is coming from a woman who loves fashion/make-up/etc., but has a clear understanding of the importance of first-impressions based on the way one looks/dresses. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality. I don’t know how we can change it.

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  6. what a great post–i have so many thoughts on this.
    First, i dressed my daughter in orange as her ‘come home from the hospital’ outfit, and one nurse in particular said “why would you put a beautiful baby girl in orange?!” No one said that about my son when he wore orange home.
    Second, that same daughter (age 8) lives in pink, and was distressed during ‘anti-bullying’ week at school that one day was dedicated to boys wearing pink. and none did. and for the life of her, she couldn’t understand why boys wouldn’t wear pink, when it was such a cool color.
    Third, I love soft pinks paired with neutrals (chocolate brown, for example), and bright pinks in my workout attire, but that’s because it’s a color that suits my skin tone. Being nearly 6 ft tall (and even taller in my work shoes–3″ heels), though, sometimes I feel I’m more approachable (less intimidating) when I wear softer colors.

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  7. I totally love this post and think you’ll love this.
    http://www.pinkstinks.org.uk

    You and the pinkstinks folk, sum up why I refuse to have pink in my life if I can help it!
    We can’t have true equality anywhere else until society stops enforcing gender roles on children. If only children could grow up without the gender prejudice the world might be a better place!

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  8. With two young girls (4 and 6) I have thought about the colour pink and gendered clothes a lot! I agree with much of what has been said about pink in the discussion and I have been annoyed many times not to have many choices when shopping for clothes. Even at the age of 5, kids have asked my daughter why she wears “boys clothes”.

    I wanted to add in addition to the fact that almost all girls clothes are some shade of pink, I have been even more annoyed about the styles of the clothing. Take jeans for instance. Girls jeans are slim fitting while boys jeans are wide cut. Why on earth does a 4 year old girl need to wear skinny jeans that make it impossible for her to jump and play freely?! I don’t have “skinny” girls, so these aren’t even an option for us. My girls hate jeans anyway (because they find them constricting), but I can’t say the same for the colour pink. I’m just glad they are passed the phase that they only want to wear pink! Now, if I can convince my youngest daughter that she doesn’t have to only wear skirts that spin, I’ll be happy!

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  9. I don’t know when pink sportwear became common but I recall as a lover of pink clothing that in 1982 i wanted to buy pink sneakers and had a hard time finding them, I found a pair with some pink trim in a running store and when I tried to buy them, the salesman suggested I put them on and run to see if they were the right shoe. I replied that i wanted those ones because they were pink to which he responded that he didn’t sell shoes by colour and declined to sell me the shoes. I did eventually find a cheap pair in bright pink with rainbows at Zellers and wore them all through grad school (along with pick t-shirts and pink pants). Alas, now I could not do that as my love of pink is no longer politically innocent. Does anyone remember when pink became so ubiquitous for women? Because I swear it wasn’t then.

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  10. I just worry that being “anti-pink” will allow more women to express disdain towards girls and other women who wear pink, and I already find plenty of that already happens. Wouldn’t the way forward be to resist any associations you feel with a color, so that normative associations
    with color get less traction in general? To suggest another color is better to wear than pink only seems to play into the hands of people who are trying to pink normative. I don’t see where that gets us in the long run, since it will always be a back and forth (as soon as yellow is what you think ditzy women like, we will need to switch back to pink).

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    1. I don’t believe in being anti-pink. I just believe in being aware that it isn’t “just a colour.” I’m all for change but I think effective resistance has to go beyond individual women resisting associations they “feel” with a color. It’s culturally prevalent, so we need to find ways to challenge the culture surrounding pink. I’m not sure that the majority of women and girls who choose pink do so for subversive reasons, to challenge its social meaning in a conscious way. Also, there is no one “in charge” of making pink have the normative force that it does, even if there are all sorts of influence out there that perpetuate it. I”m also a bit confused about the point about ditzy women at the end. I think lots of women love pink — I just want us to examine how autonomous that preference actually and how much actual choice there is surrounding our acquisition of pink things.

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  11. I try my best to make non-pink stuff for my neices, mostly because my sister is trying to raise her daughters to be strong women who can fend for themselves and she finds that all the pink princessy stuff out there tends to negate that whole belief. Most people who know my neices think they are pretty spoiled to have an aunt who makes them such pretty outfits that aren’t all plasticky and gross like the polyester Disney crap that they have on the market. I tend to not go for pink as much for myself because I believe that the Komen Foundation isn’t as great as they say they are, and I don’t want to be mistakenly marked as someone who supports them.

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  12. When my triplets were babies (they turn 19 next month) we didn’t have to buy a single sleeper. We had BOXES of them — hand-me-downs from friends, which we accepted gratefully. We had all colours, including a few pink ones. Anyway, one day we’d gotten behind in laundry and I ended up putting my son (we have 1 boy, 2 girls) in a pink sleeper. When the woman who came by to help each afternoon saw him, she went ballistic! She washed an outfit especially for this “situation” and got him into it as quickly as possible. I was quite amazed by the power of pink.

    Thankfully, my girls have never been particularly interested in pink. I like the colour (esp. fuschia) but seldom wear it. I agree — pink is more than just a colour. Most disturbingly, it’s frequently an “industry.” I really dislike “pink-washing” via breast cancer donations. I’m all for supporting breast cancer research, of course, but the whole pink ribbon thing makes me want to gag.

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    1. Wow. Triplet 19 year olds! I once had a repair guy come over when my daughter, an infant, was wearing a red onesie. He gently punched her in the arm and said “Way to go tiger, grrrr.” Made me realize how differently we treat boys and girls right from the start.

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  13. That stuff about the difference in the way girls and boys are treated from the get-go makes me so frustrated. And that story about the helper who had a fit when your son was in his pink sleeper as well as the “grrr way to go tiger story”! Geez!

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  14. Thanks for writing this. I’m glad I’m not alone in my aversion to pink workout gear. I don’t wear pink in any other context of my life, unless it’s just one of many complimentary colors and not there to say, “Hey! I’m female!” I prefer androgyny in my colors, leaning towards browns, greys, and greens. However, if I want to buy any athletic clothing, pink or pale blue are inevitably the only color choices. My options are even more limited because I’m fat, and fat girls don’t want to buy workout clothes, right? (another of my pet peeves) I’m happy if my sisters *choose* to wear pink at the gym, but I’d like the option to choose not to. Luckily for me, my feet are wide enough that I end up buying men’s sneakers, so the color schemes are more to my taste.

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  15. I know I’ve mentioned this before, on Caitlin’s blog, but I really, REALLY want brightly colored dumbbells in the weights I use! I keep seeing ads for cheery, Crayola-colored neoprene weights that only go up to 12 or 15 pounds. If they made colorful 20-, 30-, 40-, 50- and 60-pound dumbbells I WOULD BUY THEM. I would buy them and I would smile every time I saw them in my house.

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  16. ok, i’m a man. i have a freind who is a female, and is a radical feminist. she has a daughter. the daughter is three years old. she has made a determind effort never to let her yd have anything pink she always carefully moniters what is on tv. she has even refusd to take her to see people who she knows are not radical feminist.
    now try and imagine her complete and utter confusion when she asked this three year old girl what colour she wanted her bedroom painted and the girl replied, with great enthusiasm PINK. with picures of fairies. grow up feminists some females, of all ages, just happen to like the colour pink.

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    1. Interesting how ‘some females’ happen to like pink. Must be something biologically determined. Same reason little girls love princesses. Definitely hard wired. How silly to think that it has anything to do with socialization. Your friend’s experience shows just how pervasive and influential cultural messaging is.

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      1. and those women who DON’T like pink. who have never liked pink even when they were brought up in pink. what exactly have they been brainwashed by?

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