The Power of Pink

 The color of pink has preoccupied me of late.  When I decided to redecorate my bedroom, finding the right color to paint it became an obsession. 

According to my decorator, Alexis Parent, “Area rugs are an anchor piece and design inspiration for most of my projects,” explaining that this is how you determine the color.  Alexis continued, “With this particular Master Suite, we were working with a lovely traditional styled rug that has some soft tones within it.  We chose to pull out a "barely there" pink as our focal color.  I love this tone for a bedroom because it is subtle and calming in nature, and also offers a sense of femininity.  A masterful bedroom should provide serenity, especially in the heart of busy Manhattan."

However, finding the correct shade of Alexis’ recommended “barely there” pink was no easy task. I combed through the racks of paint swatches at my local Janovic paint store.  Eight shades of pink were then painted onto 10 X 12-inch poster boards.  I circulated around the room holding each board checking to see how the color changed based on how the light from the various windows affected it.  None of the pinks worked.  I went back for a second round of choosing the right shade and again, no success.

Sherman Williams #1184 to the rescue

Lamenting this situation during one of my knitting classes, Joanne piped up.  “Last year I painted my entire office a light shade of pink.  Everyone loved it for the first week.  By the second week, they were less enthusiastic. By the third, my staff rebelled insisting the color be changed. And, I did with Sherman Williams #1184.”

On my way home from class, I returned to Janovic and picked up a small can of #1184.  This time, the color was perfect.  My painter went to town and now the room looks radiant in the quietest tone of brick-pink. The shade has just enough terracotta in it to not read girlie pink, something I wanted to avoid. 

Given the fact pink preoccupied me for a month, I wondered if it might not qualify as a theme for this week’s post.  After all, everyone has something to say about pink, pro and con.

The meaning of pink

If you asked most Americans what the color signifies for them, they might respond as my Merrill Lynch financial advisor, Jim Carle, did, “Soft, feminine, loving and romantic.” Jim went on to tell me a favorite family story about the color. Jim and his wife Nancy have two girls and a boy. Joseph, the last to arrive, loved fiddling with his older sisters’ play vanity set when he was a toddler.  He was oblivious to the fact that this was a “girl toy” not intended for him.  It had a hot pink nail polish brush made of rigid plastic that he loved to toy with.  When Joseph’s grandfather saw him the first time with the brush, he was horrified.  He immediately implanted on Joseph the notion that he was really playing with a screwdriver, albeit a hot pink one.  To this day, the family still laughs about the grandfather’s well-intentioned stereotyping.  

Pink is not just for girls

Pink is usually associated with girls.  At least in this country it is.   However, the meaning of the color depends both on the context and the culture in which it is used. Turns out in Japan, pink is associated with masculine traits. In Belgium little boys go home from the hospital in pink and girls in blue blankets.  In the UK, British bankers and barristers (lawyers) have a long-time tradition of wearing pink shirts.  The Brits even have a chain of high-end men’s clothing stores specializing in shirts called “Pink.”

When did white turn into pink or blue?

So, what is going on here?  My research showed that gender color preferences didn’t exist prior to the 1920s in America.  Before that children primarily dressed in white essentially because it was easy to bleach and keep clean if they made a mess in their clothing. Then Time Magazine ran an article on gender color identification supposedly based on a survey conducted at three department stores: Felines (Boston), Best & Co (New York) and Marshall Fields (Chicago.) They claimed boys look better in pink and girls in blue.  Their mercurial message to parents was mainly to drum up business.  If you had a boy and lots of pink clothing, the stores hoped their customers would then feel obligated to buy a new blue wardrobe when their baby Rose was born.

Retailers once again turned the world on its head by reversing the order in the 1940s claiming boys really preferred blue. This boggles the mind as how in the world did they manage to survey baby boys to come to their conclusion?  In the 1960s and 70s, this notion of color preference by sex went out the window with young feminist mothers preferring gender neutral clothing. They felt it was important to raise awareness of pink and blue stereotypes in the hopes of eliminating rigid gender roles for future generations.

What is the meaning of “gender normative?”

Despite their efforts, the blue for boy and pink for girl mantra still dominates in our country. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is not a growing number of young parents who are looking for a corrective solution to “gender normative” behavior. This was a new term for me.  It means how a society predetermines how a child is supposed to dress, act and speak based on their assigned sex. With the heightened awareness of today’s young adults, it is no longer a given that little girls are supposed to be feminine, polite and nurturing (and wear pink!) while little boys are encouraged to be aggressive, bold, and mischievous.

According to today’s child psychologists, by following the old rules of pink versus blue color coding, parents are telling their children there is only one way to be a girl or a boy. Given some girls are tomboys, putting them in frilly pink dresses is definitely not communicating a positive message. Luckily, modern parents are pushing back on the gender/color stereotyping our mothers and fathers followed religiously.

Color trending

Amy Chiu, a spinning instructor and children clothing designer, is expecting her first child.  I asked if she were planning to follow the pink/blue rule.  “As I already know the sex of my child, I plan to dress my son in black and grey.  As a New York designer, I think out of the box.  Using pink as the dominate color for girls is changing, by the way.  I am using more coral for little girls these days.  And next season the color is trending toward yellow. In our business, we follow the trends and the numbers,” inferring that traditional norms were diminishing in importance.

Is it just us?

I wondered what was going on across the pond in the UK in the pink versus blue gender color stereotyping debate. So, I queried several young mothers who are colleagues in the food business. This is what Rachel Davies had to say. “I didn't want to put my baby girl in pink because I felt that there are other ways of being a girl than being typically 'girly'. However, most gifts we received were pink, and it didn't take long before she (my daughter) got the cues from her peers that pink was the best. She's now five and that has worn off a little, but the social messages are there.” While Rachel bemoaned the fact that most British stores have not yet gotten the message, at least “Scandinavian brands tend to be gender-neutral and they're available here.”

Her friend Nicola Lando agrees. “I don't think it's so formal anymore, grey is becoming popular if friends don't yet know the gender (and the prettiest outfits were all gifted). I had both my babies at home, and they wore cute hand-me-downs in whatever colours we had - though for the boy it is mostly blue hues, and girl pinks (or her brother's blueish clothes).”

Old habits die slowly in the UK as they do here in America.  Nicola lamented that colors of pink and blue are still strongly gendered associated.  “If my 18-month-old girl wears blue, everyone will refer to her as "he". Even yesterday at a party, when I gently corrected them, one person said ‘Oh, she must be wearing an older brother's clothes.” In fact, she wasn't!”

 The fashionably of pink for adults

Over the past few years pink has been popular in adult fashion.  Each spring, yet another interpretation hits the racks, with this year’s nude being the latest shade of pink.  Why this popularity?  Because it makes almost everyone look good.  Deborah Mintcheff, cookbook editor for Weight Watchers Magazine, explained that it softens her look.  “Pink is almost a neutral shade now plus it is less jarring when you put it with black,” referring to the dominant color in a New York woman’s wardrobe.

But pink looks great on men too.  When my late husband, Ed Lauber, first started wearing pink shirts and pink ties, I thought it was rather daring.  Just yesterday I saw on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s May issue Kyler Murray—a quarterback and the #1 draft pick for the Arizona Cardinals—wearing a double vested, two-tone pink pinstripe suit. He looked amazing, by the way, and you can bet no one would ever accuse this talented football player of wearing an effeminate color. 

Earlier in the week my head turned when I noticed Lenox Hill Radiology had replaced their institutional green hospital gowns with pinkish coral ones.  I commented on this to the technician who was handling my mammogram. “So far,” she pointed out with a shrug and a chuckle, “none of the men who come in for their MRIs have made any negative remarks on the color choice.  But in truth, why should they? Doesn’t everyone look better in pink?”

 The psychology behind the color

Like all colors, there is a psychological side of pink.  As the color is so heavily associated with femininity in our culture, other female stereotypical attributes— such as softness, tenderness, kindness and nurturance—also follow. However, when pink is associated with certain words, new meanings, some less flattering, arise.  For example, the expression of “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses” refers to viewing things through excessive optimism, not necessarily a positive image. In certain circumstances, pink can also conjure up images of weakness, vulnerability and shallowness.

My friend George reminded me of another one, “seeing pink elephants.” This refers to an old-fashioned euphemism for drunken hallucination caused by alcoholic excess. Let’s not even talk about someone having a highly contagious ”pink eye!”

 Pink can backfire

The color is known to have a contradictory side to it, too. It is an accepted fact that pink has a calming effect on people.  There is even a shade called “drunk tank pink.” Often the most dangerous prisoners are housed in cells painted this color as it is supposed to drain energy and calm aggression. 

The same rational has been used by football coaches who paint their visiting teams’ locker room pink supposedly to emasculate them and inspire feelings of weakness.  Turns out in both cases, using pink might work initially but later it can have the opposite effect causing more aggressive behavior in players and inmates alike.  

You can drink pink too!

The term “Pink” also refers to rosé wines which are having their moment in the sun these days in our country.  After a rocky start with white Zinfandels (a Californian invention favored by women because of its sweetish taste), French Provençal rosés started making inroads in America. Their superior quality showed wine lovers that a rosé wine could be seriously made and delicious, too.  

Before long, every wine producing region around the world was cranking out their version of a pink wine.  Fueled by the Millennial generation and social media hype, sales of rosé wines have skyrocketed. The current popularity of pink wines is based on their being perceivedf as being fashionable, versatile and affordable.   And, they are no longer reserved just for women. 

So, it seems that pink is gradually losing its gender identification even though older generations may be a tad slow in accepting its new image. Could we all agree that pink has the potential of becoming a universal favorite of everyone?  Whether or not you believe “everything is better in pink,” I challenge you to find a color which make everyone look better—and maybe even feel happier— than this one.