When I was 5 years old, my mom painted my bedroom pink. Not hot pink, like the 1980s would have demanded. Light pink. Girl pink. With a wallpaper border of multicolored pastel hearts near the ceiling.
When I tell people this, they usually guffaw, punctuating every syllable with a strident interrobang. “Pink?! Hearts?! You?!”
“I know,” I reply, stone-faced. Because it’s as true now as it was then:
The great bedroom color mix-up of 1987 happened innocently enough. I liked, and still do like, purple. It’s lush, regal, and the same color as Grimace: the fat, egg-shaped toy from the McDonald’s Happy Meals, which I saw as the pinnacle of fine dining in my youth. (Not to drift too far astray, but I did once write “McDonelds [sic] Please Please” on green construction paper, tape it to a yard stick, and parade around my kitchen like a protester who knew she wouldn’t get anything unless her demands were both exceedingly polite and on the way to Shop Rite.)
But purple, my mom thought, was too dark for bedroom walls.
So, using the omnipotent power of motherhood, she decided to go with pink instead. It wasn’t even a discussion, really. It was just a benevolent mom making inferences and decisions the same way Amazon makes product recommendations using prehistoric artificial intelligence: a mother’s intuition.
Customers who like purple also like:
According to Barbie and Huffy and Caboodle, if you can’t have purple, try pink. If you like one, you’ll probably like the other. Right?
If only. I would have preferred any color—doodie brown, obnoxious orange, even boring beige—to pink.
The second the paint dried, I spent as little time in my room as possible.
I did my homework in the kitchen, danced alone in the basement, and kept my friends outside in our backyard to play. Anything was better than going into that oppressive, pink tomb.
I felt betrayed and dishonored. How could my mom not see that her little warrior tomboy wasn’t a pink-with-hearts kind of girl? It’s not like I kept it a secret. And it wasn’t just a phase. Not to be so hipster or anything, but I was gender nonconforming before you even heard that term.
I caught turtles and hated dresses and when my Aunt Kathy asked what I wanted for my birthday, I replied—without irony—“Weapons.”
The crazy thing is, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell. Here’s why.
At some point in the history of the world, for no good reason, someone, or a group of someones, decided that boys and girls should be treated differently. They built entire civilizations around that fiction, assigning girls to sugar and spice while boys will be boys. They built a hierarchy—which, let’s be honest, is a patriarchy—that relied on our unknowing deference to these conventions. And to make sure the hierarchy really stuck, they started treating boys and girls differently as early as possible.
So, right after the moment you started breathing with your own lungs, a nurse wrapped you in a blanket, color-coded by your ding-dong or hoo-ha, and set you on your path. You didn’t even know it was happening. You were so confused. You were helpless.
From birth, girls are swaddled in pink so that people know to treat them like girls. So that people know to buy them baby dolls that need to be nurtured, or child-sized vanity mirrors with makeup kits so they can make themselves prettier. So that people can condition them to act softly and sweetly, just like the delicate shade of pink that adorns their pajamas, Easter dresses, and hair bows.
Blue, as we all know, has been assigned to boys. It’s the boy color. But blue also gets to be the sky on a sunny day and long into the night. Blue gets to be the deep, dark ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Blue gets to be Irish eyes and American flags. Blue gets to be Cinderella’s dress, Tiffany’s boxes, and Beyoncé’s daughter.
Blue is versatile! Blue has range! It’s the world’s favorite color. Blue gets to be whatever the fuck it wants to be. And why shouldn’t blue enjoy those liberties? In fact, most colors get free range. Red, yellow, green, white, black… and no one even really knows what indigo’s doing, out here being all mysterious.
But pink is totally pigeonholed. It means one thing: WARNING! THIS WEAK SHIT IS FOR GIRLS.
You won’t find pink anywhere near the armed forces. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a pink pickup truck. And with the exception of the audaciously dope Miami Heat’s “vice jerseys” and one month of Susan G. Komen pandering, pink is almost entirely absent the world of sports, which has forever been my home.
Thanks to the marvels of modern marketing, pink is submissive and subverted and subjugated. Many dudes reject pink outright, casting it out as such an anathema to all the things that it means to be masculine, strong, or powerful.
Because to me, the color pink is a social cue. A signal. A frequency. And as a lifelong tomboy, frankly, I resent the implications.
Now, at age 5, I didn’t hyper-intellectualize the color pink the way I do today. I didn’t realize then that I couldn’t even see the color without saddling it with my complicated feelings about gender expression. I didn’t even know what gender expression was.
I just knew how I felt, how I wanted to feel, and how I wanted to be. I had the very same feelings I have today; I just didn’t have the vocabulary for what I was feeling.
I didn’t want dolls. I didn’t want to put on lipstick. I didn’t want to wear dresses. And across the board, I still don’t. I haven’t outgrown those feelings, like, at all.
It’s probably really fucking rad, to be honest, but I’ll never be able to see it because I am unable to divorce my complicated feelings about my own identity as it pertains to expressing my gender from something as simple as a fucking color.
I think empathy is the only reason the world hasn’t ended. And sometimes, I watch makeup tutorials, with absolutely no interest in trying makeup, just because I think it’s cool.
Some people make a good living by saying that, explicitly or implicitly. I’m just not one of those people. Because those people are fucking idiots.
I knew I was a girl, but I wasn’t that kind of girl. I wasn’t pink. And I didn’t want you to treat me like you treated the pink girls.
I wanted to define who I was and how you saw me. I didn’t want to send the wrong cues and wind up having to fake-smile about getting a Cherry Merry Muffin toy at my birthday party (this definitely happened). And I didn’t want to not get invited to your birthday party because it was at Grand Slam USA (until 4th grade, I was definitely at your party dunking on people and lighting it up in the batting cages).
Maybe I’m making too much of it. Pink is just a color, right? And maybe I shouldn’t have hated the color of my bedroom walls so much. But man, it really felt like they were boxing me in.
What I think I wanted to show people was my true colors. I wanted them to see that I was more of a purple girl… bright-ass red, with a good bit of blue mixed in.