The tyranny of pink
If you're the parent of a little girl, you'll understand: their world has turned decidedly pink, and there's no escaping it. The effect, says Eleanor Bailey, is like living in a one-party state run by Barbie - sinister, fascistic and devoid of any choice
Saturday March 29, 2008
It began the week our daughter, Catrin, was born. In a card, a friend with a daughter wrote menacingly, "Welcome to the world of pink ... "
We had a boy already, so we knew that certain behaviour is innate - we deprived our son of a toy AK-47, so he made guns out of sticks. Equally untaught, our now two-year-old daughter will wrap the same sticks in a blanket and attempt to cheer them up.
Hunting and nurturing, it seems, come naturally, and that's quite sweet. But retailers exploit these instincts for profit. Girls might naturally be drawn to femininity, but never have their fantasies been so vividly available in material form, and never so young. Pink, and all its sparkling paraphernalia, has become unhealthily desirable.
"Pink is just the marketer's way of getting at girls' psyches," says Sue Palmer, former headteacher, literacy guru and author of the bestselling Toxic Childhood. "It's grooming them for a lifetime of consumption. Companies started marketing to very young children in the 90s, when they discovered that babies could recognise logos before the age of one."
Christmas shopping last year, I was overwhelmed by the sickly glow in the girls' toy department at John Lewis. Ever brighter, the latest pink toys vibrate on the shelves until the walls seem to close in. The words "fairy", "princess" and "ballet" (often all three) are written on anything to up the pink factor. In Marks & Spencer, looking to buy pyjamas for my daughter, there was nothing untouched by pink fairy dust. The saleswoman there told me there is "no call" for anything plainer. It felt like I'd woken up in some kind of one-party state (led by Barbie, naturally); a pink dystopia, and no one has even noticed.
"People think it is harmless enough," says Lyn Mikel Brown, psychologist, activist and co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes, "but we don't see the full picture. When you put all the little pink things together and see how girls' choices are narrowed, how the marketers have created desire in little girls to express their uniqueness through accessories, you realise how pernicious it is."
"Pink sells," says Noreen Marshall, curator of dress dolls and childcare collections at the V&A's Museum of Childhood in east London. "It's the most commercial route, but it has got out of hand. It has snuck up on us in the past 10 years. Pink has always been there, but now it is omnipresent. We need an anti-pink campaign."
The only way out of the pink clothing problem is to pay a large premium. And even then girls' clothes are dotted with sequins and pink details, beading, random roses and silvery bits - all very pretty, but it's like being forced to douse your girl in floral scent and hang a sign round her neck saying, "Female: only interested in how I look."
"It has gradually become normal," says Mikel Brown. "Girls grow up thinking that's what it means to be a little girl. Parents forget that it was ever different."
It's true. Friends who I assumed would be on side say things such as "But girls' stuff was always pink." It wasn't - look at books from a generation ago and you'll find girls in green T-shirts and white shorts and brown dungarees; they look old-fashioned now, strangely androgynous, like little Jodie Fosters. Or people say: "But we all wanted pink, too, we just weren't allowed/it wasn't available." Yet I have a photographic record of the purple and green striped bedroom wallpaper I chose because they were my favourite colours. Or they even say: "But if you've got the money and girls like it, what's the problem?"
There are two big problems. First, the lack of other options in an era when we are supposedly overwhelmed by choice tells girls that there is only one, highly prescriptive, way for them to be feminine.
Second, the desire created for pink and fluffy soon morphs into a desire for pink and sexy - the next girl - purchasing stage.
While naff boys' clothes suggest that your lad is some hybrid of Einstein and Rambo - with words such as "genius", "roar" and "tank" splashed across chests - the aspirational look for girls is more alarming. Along with "princess" and "born to party", the legends on young girls' T-shirts include "porn star".
"The sexualisation of pink is happening younger and younger," says Mikel Brown. The so-called Kagoy (kids are getting older younger) phenomenon sees young girls sporting frilly, pink play bras and thongs (Sue Palmer says she commonly sees five-year-olds in them when visiting schools), and playing with sexy-shaped dolls such as Bratz much earlier than a generation ago. "The American Psychological Association," says Mikel Brown, "has a taskforce on the sexualisation of girls in the media, which connects pink and sexy with girls' depression, eating disorders and self-esteem issues."
So what's to be done? Well, if girls' love of pink isn't going away, perhaps it can be used as a force for good.
Lisa Clark, agony aunt for Mizz magazine, has written a self-help guide for teen and tween girls called Think Pink. It stars a character called Lola Love, who promises to bring out your "sparkly, gorgeous, happy-to-be-me self".
Clark believes pink evokes happy, positive thoughts. "And when you wear the colour pink, people respond to you in a positive way," she says.
"I make no excuses," says Clark, "I'm a girl and totally embrace my femininity by wearing pink and thinking pink, and really can't see a time when pink isn't the colour of all things girl."
"Be confident, be gorgeous, be glamorous," concurs the new, very pink, The Girls' Book of Glamour: A Guide to Being a Goddess, by Sally Jeffrie.
Must confidence be inextricably linked with gorgeousness and glamour so young? I want my daughter to feel OK on the inevitable days when she looks like an old dishcloth, too. The message here seems to be that the way to happiness is to look gorgeous - and the same as everyone else.
At Clarks shoes, I was unable to buy pink-free girls' footwear and had to compromise with a shade I call "least pink" - a kind of purplish brown, with pink trim plus obligatory flower. Suzi Smith, girls' senior range manager at Clarks, says, "Plain doesn't sell. We are seeing more children being given consumer power, being asked to choose at a very young age. Parents want to make the experience enjoyable for the child. Often they are working and they just want to go with the flow. They think it's important that their child is fashionable. It is a different world now."
No one can blame wholesome Clarks shoes for trying to keep pace with fashion - it's move or die in retail, after all. Nor can you blame individual parents for not wanting their child to be the odd one out.
"You love your kid, you don't want to deprive them, so you join the merry-go-round," says Sue Palmer. "I have no problem with consumerism, as long as it's not manipulating children, but the fact is that multi-million pound budgets and the best psychological minds are being deployed in this battle. Parents recoil in horror at the pink phase, but we have to wise up to the consequences of our materialistic society on our children."
And while we recoil, we carry on buying the pink, girly, fairy, sexy stuff.
"Why are our toy shops more gender-segregated than ever?" asks Rosalyn Ball, a writer for The F-Word, an online magazine about feminism, because "stereotypes sell ... the human brain responds more readily to things that it can recognise. Stereotypes allow our brains to do less 'searching' when we evaluate new people."
Pink is a popular stereotype, and it seems to be one that many of us want to believe. Research published last summer suggested that girls naturally prefer pink, and it made the headlines around the globe. The fact that it was merely the opinion of 208 people was overlooked, as we lapped up far-fetched theories that cavewomen needed to be able to spot berries and flushed cheeks in dark caves.
So perhaps I should give up the fight and let Catrin turn into a pink fluffball? I know she'd love it - she already picks the pink jigsaw and chooses pink clothes given half a chance. But, I wonder, do straitjackets come in pink?
*Re-printed without permission. I hope they won't mind.
** I want to know how to do those post cuts with a link to the rest of post. I've tried lj-cuttext="readmore" but it doesn't work (And I left of the <> things so you could see the command) Any suggestions greatly appreciated.