It’s the color that divides us, but why?
Growing up, I told anyone who would listen that my favorite color was green. It wasn’t untrue. I’ve always been obsessed with color, and the color green appealed to me on a fundamental level because there was so much of it outside. But claiming green was also about something else: the color connotations of pink were too much for me. As a little girl growing up in the ’90s, surrounded by Barbies and My Little Ponies, it was important to me to reject the color pink. By asserting that I didn’t care for pink, even at the age of seven, I tried to tell the world I was not that sort of girl. In a perfect example of internalized misogyny, I understand pink to be the color of “girly girls,” of Barbie Dream Houses, of blush and lipstick and weakness. I couldn’t fully escape it, but I did my best to distance myself from the color. I wasn’t a particularly tomboyish child, either. I just didn’t want to be a girl who liked pink.
Despite all that, I kind of liked pink. I still do. And judging by the popularity in recent years of so-called “millennial pink” I’m far from alone. People seem to have strong, and often conflicting, feelings about this lightish-warm color. “I am so anti-pink. I feel like I can’t love it,” said Ilana Masad, age 27, when I asked about the color. “I’m locked into this trap of pink being the devil because of gender connections and it feeling forced upon the part of me that is woman.”
But what the hell even is pink? And why do we care so much?
In a fascinating piece on the history of the color, Alice Bucknell explains, “Pink rarely appears in nature, which may explain why the color only entered the English language as a noun at the end of the 17th century.” It can also prove difficult to define. What people consider to be truly pink varies from culture to culture, and even a computer algorithm created to select works of art for an exhibition at Williams College Museum of Art turned out to be subjective.
In searching for a scientific definition, we learn that pink is a combination of red and violet light (this definition leaves out many of the peachier shades of pink to my millennial eyes, but never you mind). On an episode of Radiolab, host Robert Krulwich claimed there’s actually no such thing as pink, since the red and violet ends of the rainbow never touch each other. He was wrong, of course. The fact that the two colors aren’t next to one another in the spectrum is no reason to believe they’d never mix. While Krulwich asserts that “pink is a made-up color,” the fact remains that if pink is something we only imagine in our brains, the same is true for every other color as well. In a 2006 article titled “What Birds See,” biologist Timothy H. Goldsmith explained color as “a sensation that arises within the brain.”
But whether pink is created by mixing red and white pigments (we’ll talk more about pigment later), or red and violet rays of light, it’s cultural significance is difficult to deny. Color connotations affect how we view our world and how we express ourselves within it, and much like the rest of culture, these views are constantly changing.
My childhood concept of pink as too feminine to be acceptable turns out to be a somewhat recent cultural phenomenon. According to Bucknell, when pink first came into fashion in the West, in the 18th century, it was popular and gender neutral for the European bourgeoisie. Pink didn’t come to be associated with gender until much later. For centuries, babies and young children in the West wore the same clothing regardless of gender: white dresses. In Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, Jo B. Paoletti explores the attitude shift toward color as a gender signifier. Paoletti was heavily quoted in a 2011 piece in Smithsonian, which also offered up this delightful quote from a June 1918 article in the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Over time, this flopped, but Paoletti asserts that it could have gone either way. Pink’s position as the girls’ color was cemented by increased availability of sonograms (parents-to-be started preparing nurseries for either a baby girl or a baby boy, rather than just a baby) and a rise in marketing. Over time, it became expected that anyone would be able to tell the gender of an infant simply by a glance. The color connotations reinforced themselves. If pink was how you knew a baby was a girl, parents wanted to dress their baby girls in pink; and the more all the baby girls wore pink, the more the rest of culture saw pink as intrinsically linked with girlhood.
In the 1970s, pink clothing largely fell out of popularity. According to Paoletti, gender neutral clothing stayed popular until around 1985. This tracks with my own understanding of the color. I was born in 1985, and although I remember being surrounded by pink in the ’90s, I’ve never seen a picture of myself as an infant in a pink outfit. In contrast, my spouse was born in 1990, and her babyhood was suffused with pinks.
Remember, though, pink is a difficult color to nail down. Different shades of pink might have different meanings, and color is used for far more than fashion. During the pop art era, a bolder pink found its way into the art world, far different than the pastel pink of the nursery. Emily Franklin, 32, explains her relationship with different shades of pink: “For me, there has always been a big difference between light pink (which I very much do not like) and fuchsia/neon pink (which I’m obsessed with). In my mind, pink was quiet/chaste/reserved, and fuchsia was loud/fun/contemporary.”
As an artist, I tend to think of colors in terms of the pigments used to create them (rather than the wavelengths of light that allow us to see them). Because pink is a composite color, many different pigments can be used to create various shades of pink (including my favorite red, cadmium, the pigment that is a mineral also used in the production of batteries). One of the oldest pigments used to make pinks is rose madder. It’s made from the roots of the common madder plant, and traces of it have been found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun and in the ruins of Pompeii and ancient Corinth. Nowadays many use a synthetic approximation, but a few still use rose madder genuine. Other red colors have been made of crushed beetles and are still used in some food dyes. So if you’re eating a perfectly pink cookie, there’s a chance a beetle may have been harmed in its production.
Which brings us back to the rise of millennial pink. Generational color trends have more or less always been a thing (that’s why certain color schemes look so “retro” to our eyes). According to an article in The Cut, millennial pink first started appearing in 2012 and was known by its current name as of 2016. Similar to the pink of the bourgeoisie, this newer-generational pink is more gender neutral. And in the grand tradition of the color, millennial pink is hard to define. We know it’s a lighter shade of pink…but is it a pinkish neutral? A peachy pink? Or a jarring pink reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol? No one seems to agree. But predictably enough, the backlash against it has begun. An Architectural Digest piece that was supposedly exploring generational color trends called it both “that lifeless salmon-flesh” and “cheap rose.”
So where did I, the little girl who wanted to hate pink, settle on this conflicting color? Well, I’m afraid this is my “Reader, I married him” moment. The rise of millennial pink gave me an opportunity to take a good look at my own prejudice against the world of light reds and reddish violets, and having a child gave me a deep desire to view colors as just colors, rather than a set of gendered expectations. This past fall, when the Midwestern weather turned unbearably cloudy and I could no longer handle the beige walls of my living room, I went to the hardware store for paint. I came back with a rather pale shade of pink. I love everything about my pink living room — and I was only a little embarrassed when I found the IKEA catalogue cover that must’ve inspired it.