by Ng Li Wei
What’s the first thing you associate with the colour pink?
When you see a baby in pink clothing, you naturally assume that the baby is a girl. You don’t even read the labels on washroom doors; the one coloured pink is obviously the women’s. In toy stores, the toys are arranged by colour and the “obvious gender” they’re marketed towards: pink on the left housing Barbie dolls, cooking sets, and princess dresses, while blue is on the right with racing cars, Lego blocks, and superhero outfits.
Shockingly enough, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the 1910s, evidence shows that pink was once a colour associated with boys due to its connection to red, perceived as fiery and strong, while blue was associated with girls, perceived as delicate and calm. Clothes were also largely gender neutral, coloured white instead of showing preference to any singular colour. Boys were even known to wear dresses as much as girls did. Why are these actions shunned nowadays? How has society become so much more close-minded and ignorant?
We’ve been conditioned to believe that colours are an indication of gender. The tables have turned as warmer colours, like red and pink, tend to be considered feminine whereas cooler colours, like green and blue, are considered masculine. But no real reason for this exists – these ideas were borne from social constructs. Colours in general should be gender neutral but due to the enforcement of gender stereotypes, society now finds it difficult to move away from the pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys mindset.
You might be thinking, “They’re just colours, this isn’t really affecting anyone.” However, it has become so much more than just colours. Colour is now related to the qualities of femininity and masculinity, and these qualities have been attached to objects – that happen to be, or are marketed to be – of a certain colour. This then leads to those perceived qualities being limited to a specific gender. It is a concept so deeply embedded in our minds that we blindly translate them to our actions.
We purchase pink objects and clothing for girls, vice versa for boys with blue, and we actively avoid choosing the “wrong” colour to match the gender of the child. Boys can’t be seen wearing pink and playing with dolls. Girls are not allowed to paint their rooms blue and play with race cars. We don’t realise the harmful impacts of such continuous gender stereotyping, especially on children who have no control over the things they’re exposed to. In the long term, this leads to children encouraged to pursue dreams that are characterised of their gender. Girls can’t be engineers or pilots. Boys can’t be models or fashion designers. The only justification society can give is: “It’s not right.”
This returns us to the subject of pink. Being a colour that’s one step away from red – a “strong” and “powerful” colour – pink is currently seen as more delicate, gentle, dainty, and feminine. Women are expected to act according to these qualities, but on the other hand, god forbid any man who chooses to embrace pink – or its associated qualities. On men, suddenly pink is seen as a weak colour, a colour that shows you’re trying to be a girl; something looked down upon because women used to be – and often, still are – considered subordinate to men.
An extension of this spectrum of abuse is the hostile treatment of those whose sexual orientation differs from the heterosexual majority, particularly toward homosexual men throughout history. This was especially prominent during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Homosexuals, significantly men, were severely persecuted and brutally abused because they did not align with social norms. Hitler considered them a threat to the expansion of his regime and the Aryan race, due to their inability to bear children through their partnerships.
How is this related to our discussion of pink? In concentration camps, victims of persecution were categorised by a marking system of inverted triangles sewn into their uniforms that allowed SS guards to easily identify them. Jews were marked with yellow triangles, gypsies and blacks were marked with black, and homosexuals were marked with pink. In spite of the hardships that the LGBTQ community had endured in their history, they have reclaimed and repurposed the colour pink, specifically the pink triangle, and transformed it into a symbol of pride worn in parades and demonstrations. During Pride Month, Nike even released sneakers that featured the pink triangle to show their support for the LGBTQ community. The pink triangle has become a symbol of solidarity, a reminder of the community’s painful past, and a pledge that history will not repeat itself.
Reclamation of the colour pink does not end there. Women have continuously repurposed the colour, most famously in the feminist movement in the United States. Beginning in the 1960s from the novel The Feminist Mystique that sparked a new wave of feminism, it was first called the Pink Power Movement. The movement protested the lack of rights for women, demanded equal job opportunities and improved education, and condemned discrimination on the basis of gender as well as sexual harassment and exploitation of women.
Breast cancer awareness, which began in the 1990s, has also integrated the colour pink and manifested it in their well-known symbol of the pink ribbon. The history of the ribbon was said to have began in the 1960s during the Iran hostage crisis, where people tied yellow ribbons around trees as a tribute to those held hostage in Iran. Over time, the symbol of the ribbon grew and many movements adapted it to fit their motives, breast cancer awareness being one of them.
Of course, there is no question why they chose the colour pink. As breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women, the movement hopes to create an increase in an early detection of breast cancer, an awareness of the importance of performing regular breast self-examinations, and increasing funds towards finding a cure.
As time goes by, more and more people have started to reject the traditional and rigid mindset towards the colour pink and everything it symbolises. We are learning to provide pink, and subsequently feminine qualities, a new life with a new outlook on the world. We should spark conversations, promote positivity, and shatter the barriers of gender stereotyping. Where the colour pink once stood in an accusatory spotlight of weakness and fragility, it is now raised on a celebratory podium of strength and power. Of course, we still have a long way to go – we as a society should continue to question and reconsider traditional mindsets and their implications in the modern world.