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Is It Time To Reappropriate Pink?

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Young girl in a pink dress.
Bart Sadowski/iStockphoto

"Pink is clearly freighted with sociocultural significance. And much of it isn't pretty."

So writes philosopher Liz Camp in a blog post titled "The Socio-Aesthetics of Pink." In the post, Camp discloses her 2-year-old daughter's deep love of pink, exploring why she herself is so irked by the little one's palette-based passion. The post is part parental reflections, part hard-core philosophy and part cultural commentary.

As the mother of a 3-year-old girl myself, the preoccupation with pink that Camp describes is all too familiar. Last week's tantrum was about the loss of a pink Band-Aid. Our attempt to replace it with a peach-toned Band-Aid (of arguably pink hue) was met with weepy outrage. That was not the right pink. And how dare we. This from a child whose parents much prefer blue dresses and dinosaur pajamas.

Camp's daughter, and my own, are not exceptions. Researcher Diane Ruble and her colleagues have identified a phenomenon they call PFD, for "Pink Frilly Dress." A 2011 review paper explains:

"Recently, preschool- and kindergarten-aged girls seen flitting around in pink, frilly dresses have caught the attention of both the media and psychologists. ... Glittery chiffon peeks out of their winter jackets even on the coldest of days. These girls not only love pink — they demand to wear pink and refuse to wear pants nearly every single day and for every occasion, even when inconvenient and inappropriate, such as when they have run out of clean pink clothes or when embarking on a day of strenuous outdoor activities."

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Confirming the prevalence of PFD, a study published earlier this year found that almost 70 percent of the 3- to 4-year-old girls whose parents were queried reported relatively strong, gender-based rigidity in the way their daughters chose to dress, with pink frills and dresses well-represented.

Boys, by contrast, were much less rigid about their dress. But when they did have strong preferences, it was very often to avoid girly apparel rather than to embrace stereotypically boyish attire, such as superhero gear or baseball caps. "He wouldn't be caught dead in girls' clothing," one parent reported.

This asymmetry between girls and boys highlights part of the problem with pink. Pink isn't just the color choice that's marked, that deviates from "neutral" or "normal." It also comes with considerable cultural baggage. For Camp, the connotations differ by hue: hot pink goes with cupcakes and poodles, dusty rose goes with woodland fairies and tea. A study of color preferences found that pink was associated with bubble gum, lipstick and rosy cheeks.

In a post at The Cut titled "What's the problem with pink, anyway?" Yael Kohen writes:

"If we've made pink the most visible representation of girl culture, and also treat it as a symbol of frivolity, then we're unwittingly telling girls (and boys) that the girl world isn't important."

It isn't just young boys who eventually come to reject pretty pink frills and — by extension — girliness. By elementary school, PFD is no longer the norm among girls.

In a review of research on the development of gender identity, May Ling Halim and colleagues write that only about 30 to 40 percent of girls in the post-kindergarten years identify as "traditional" girls or as having interests that are typically associated with girls or women. Many instead reject the girliness they'd once embraced, with up to half labeling themselves as tomboys. Meanwhile, boys, who don't receive such conflicting signals about the value of their gender identity, don't characteristically experience a similar reversal, first embracing and then rejecting the stereotypical trappings of boys and men.

If girls need a vision of girlhood with more robust cultural value, one that withstands their own scrutiny and that of their peers, is "pink pride" the solution? Is it time to take back the hue?

There's no question that pink's contemporary cultural baggage is just that — an accessory of our time and place. At the start of the last century, blue was considered delicate and dainty — and pink the stronger color, more suitable for boys. Things can change again, and they inevitably will. But Camp raises doubts that reappropriating pink can be enough:

" ... reappropriation can't be achieved in isolation; in the absence of a coordinated counter-cultural movement it just perpetuates established stereotypes. Besides, 'pink pride' is easily coopted, so that apparent re-valuation becomes a more insidious form of accommodation. (I've decided this is why I hate Frozen.)"

The trouble is that "pinkifying" the nonfrivolous (think pink power tools and pink Legos) merely marks the hers, in some ways confirming that "neutral" was his all along. And on the flip side, dignifying the girly (think Sparkle Science) can only go so far when the fabric of the girly is so thin.

Girliness — by which I mean what little girls are really made of — is rich and diverse and multihued. Let's start there.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo.