I am not embarrassed to admit it—I had a pink phase. For those of us who grew up in an era when toy stores weren’t pink ghettos, Barbie dolls wore red swimsuits and stylish blue shift dresses and rani pink was just another colour that jostled with green on Kanjeevaram saris, the discovery of pink came a little late in life.
Post Babyjaan, my favourite colour, black, seemed an inadequate expression of my new motherhood. Fuchsia was livelier. And I even had my own office couch to prove it.
My sports idol Serena Williams loved it too. Remember her pink leopard-print Nike dress from the 2014 US Open? Of course she once tweeted an image of herself in a full-length, skin-tight, pink onesie—so clearly her pink phase was deeper and darker than mine.
In modern times, pink started off as a colour for a young demographic but it’s since taken over half the world. Forget the travesty that is pink and lavender Lego, in recent years even the electronics and sporting goods industries have embraced this colour. You can buy pink Callaway golf balls, adidas soccer balls, snorkelling gear, bicycle everything, cross trainers and LED camping lights.
Thank god the resistance has grown alongside. Williams may carry off a “fierce” pink (and there’s the occasional pink that makes you proud, like the Pink Chaddi campaign) but from toys to women’s safety initiatives, the colour now firmly represents what the world thinks girls are like: pretty, plastic, and in need of protection.
One of artist Mithu Sen’s early solo shows, I Hate Pink, critiqued this stereotype. There was also some personal history. “My mother once took my sister and me to a festival and bought us both baby-pink frocks. Someone in the crowd told me that pink was not my colour—pink was not for dark skins (my sister has a fair complexion). At that young age, pink was removed from my palette and it became the parting point between my sister and I,” says Sen.
The Wikipedia entry on pink is outrageous: “According to surveys in Europe and the United States, pink is the colour most often associated with charm, politeness, sensitivity, tenderness, sweetness, childhood, femininity, and the romantic. When combined with white, it is associated with innocence. When combined with violet or black, it is associated with eroticism and seduction.”
The corresponding entry for blue doesn’t list a single emotive adjective. Instead it talks of wave lengths, clear skies, deep seas, Judaism, stained-glass windows of ancient cathedrals, and Vincent van Gogh. Prussian, cobalt, navy, lapis, cerulean, ultramarine…there are so many spectacular avatars of blue. Scientists discovered a new one just last year.
Pink has magenta. If you’re a nail-varnish company, of course, there’s no limit to inane synonyms for the colour: Suzi & The Lifeguard, Knockout Pout, Pink Knickers, Ballet Slippers, Rosy Future.
So if not pink then what colour should women own?
My artist sister-in-law Gitanjali swears by the painterly insight Van Gogh shared with his brother Theo: “Cobalt is a divine colour.” If you see an attractive Indian woman staring at white and cobalt houses and tiles in Greece next month, obsessively photographing the colour that speaks to her of great design, art and a Mediterranean summer, don’t be afraid to walk up to her and say, Hi. You can use my reference.
“It’s a strong, old, vibrant colour,” Gitanjali says of the colour of Van Gogh’s skies and Ming dynasty vases. Her other favourite colours have a close association with nature, like the coral hue from safflower or the rich mustard from pomegranate peels and turmeric.
The most famous of all these natural colours, one that could be a serious contender for Indian femininity if it weren’t for one tiny detail, is indigo. It’s natural, it has a rich history, it’s as Indian as you and I, it’s the colour of a pair of jeans—the garment that irritates Indian patriarchy no end—and it’s…oops…a shade of blue (technically it’s somewhere between violet and blue, but you know what I mean).
If we look to famous artists to help us pick a new, more impactful colour, there’s Van Gogh’s favourite: yellow. “Oh yes, he loved yellow...those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul, that abhorred the fog, that needed the warmth,” Paul Gauguin said of the artist who was known for his “yellow vision”. There’s an untrue story about how he ate yellow paint because he thought it would make him happy.
Feminist Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s women were often clad in a particular shade of yellow gold, one that is now referred to as Artemisia Gold. Impressionist painter Claude Monet had an intense relationship with violet.
Then there’s always black to fall back upon. Black is rarely just black in art, my niece points out, quoting Japanese printmaker and painter Katsushika Hokusai: “There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.”
I could go on but I keep circling back to blue. It clearly belongs to us women. Renaissance painters used the most extravagant blue sourced from lapis lazuli to paint the Virgin Mary’s robes. What more proof does one need of blue’s feminine origins?
Until World War II, pink was a boy colour and blue was for girls. After the Allied victory, Rosie the Riveter, a factory worker at a Detroit bomb-making plant who became the poster girl for America’s female contribution, was quickly sidelined by the domestic goddess in pink. From there, it was all downhill. An article on Smithsonian.com says that by the 1980s, after the advent of prenatal testing, parents began shopping for a “girl” or a “boy”. Increasing affluence and consumerism killed gender-neutral shopping.
There’s only one thing left for us to do now. Let’s return pink to men; they’re welcome to strip it of all the feminine baggage they have helped load on these past decades. It’s time women reclaimed blue.
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