Pink Stinks: On Colour-Coding, Bike Saddles & Gendered Consumer Targets

Pink toy aisle

Back in the medieval times, blue was considered a colour for girls.

This is due to the shawl of the Virgin Mary having been that colour.  Blue was considered to denote the womanly virtues of obedience, penitence, devotion, and grace.

Pink, meanwhile, in belonging to the red family, was viewed a colour most appropriate for boys, presumably due to the redness of all the blood they’d be spilling as future knights and fighting men.

I mention this not to argue that pink isn’t truly as feminine a colour as it’s portrayed present-day, but rather to demonstrate that the practice of colour-coding by gender is by no means a modern phenomenon.

Although perhaps the opposition some feel towards it is.

The case of the ergonomic bike saddle

Earlier this week, I was shopping for a new seat for my bike.

My previous seat – a women’s ergonomic saddle, which has a special cutaway to ease pressure on the pubic bone – was eight years old, split at the seams with the foam stuffing spilling out, and had a large chunk of foam missing in a rather strategic area required for the comfort of a daily cycle commuter such as myself.

For my last birthday, my sister gave me a gift card to a popular sporting goods co-op, so I hastened over there to find a replacement seat.

Only to discover that the two best quality women’s ergonomic saddles most comparable to my own both contained pink somewhere on them – one with pink stitching and logo around the edges and bonus sparkly detailing on top, and the other with a pink floral design on the side against the seat’s black background.

I stood before the display rack with just one thought in my head.

You’ve gotta be f*ckin kidding me!

Pink (as well as purple, the pastel version of any colour, and silver or gold sparkles) is the most blatant form of marketing shorthand that a specific product is targeted to female consumers.  A quick trip down the aisles of your local Toys R Us bears testament to that: the girls’ aisle is pink and sparkly, and the boys’ aisle is every other colour but.

Even products that have traditionally been gender-neutral, like Lego, building blocks, and such non-toy items as pens, computers, and even cars have now been segregated to their appropriate gender aisle.

Pink is not an trivial colour choice; there are powerful social connotations associated with it.  It’s a colour associated with being weak, and sweet, and sensitive, and all things stereotypically female.

It’s a colour many men refuse to wear or interact with for that very reason – because to be thought feminine is an accusation of being lesser.  Young boys have been beaten up for wearing pink, leading to the creation of Pink Shirt Day – a day of solidarity against what was essentially an instance of gender-based violence.

We also see this in the words that males use to put each other down: girl, ladies, sissy, pussy, bitch.

The opposite colour-policing doesn’t apply: a woman wearing blue will receive no backlash.  But a man needs to be very secure in himself and his relationship with women as a whole to wear pink in public.

Can and will be used against you

Me just back from the sports shop, with the offending bike saddle.

Me just back from the sports shop, with the offending bike saddle.

The irony of all this, at least for me, is that as a colour in and of itself, I don’t dislike pink.  That day in the sports shop, not only was I wearing a pink shirt, my cycling jacket – which I wear every day – is also of the pink family.

I make a point of wearing pink from time to time to show that I refuse to reject my femaleness (how certain corners of society define and represent my femaleness) to prove that I too am strong – strong in my own way rather than the weaker sex – and not lesser at all.

Even though pink is used as a weapon against women, I wear it to show that my own true colours are far more vibrant.

(It’s a complicated relationship to have with a colour, I fully realize.)

And so, I might well have felt like a hypocrite dressed as I was in the sports shop, complaining to the sales associate that I didn’t like the pink stitching on the bike seat.  But I chose to buy a pink shirt and pink jacket from among a number of different (still gendered, though not as blatantly) colour options.

Meanwhile, a women’s bike saddle is ALREADY a gendered product.  Granted, everybody and every body is different, but for the most part, this was a product inherently targeted to female consumers just by virtue of what it is.

So to further feminize it with pink stitching, flowers, and sparkles serves no practical purpose than to appeal to those who happen to like those things, all the while alienating those who don’t.

Which is precisely how I felt: Othered by a bike seat, even though biking is one of the most inclusive pastimes out there, done by people of all genders, ages, fitness levels, and even by some who are differently abled thanks to innovations in styles of bikes (e.g. recumbent bikes, hand crank bikes, adult tricycles).

I did end up buying the pink-stitched saddle, although I don’t at all feel good about it, and may yet return it.  Either that or sending both the company that made it and the shop that sold it this blog post.  And then transforming the saddle with a black Sharpie marker.

What are your thoughts on pink?  Are you bothered by colour-coding and/or gendered consumer projects?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

(Image source)

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38 thoughts on “Pink Stinks: On Colour-Coding, Bike Saddles & Gendered Consumer Targets

  1. I am, at times, quite offended by the stereotypes of the feminine. Growing up I was something of tomboy. I didn`t like the idea of being dressed up in frills and curls and expected to be the perfect little `doll`. As I got older we then were hit with Barbie. And a whole new crop of issues to contend with.
    What is frightening to me is that if you enter a department store the girls` toys still consist of babies, bottles, easy bake ovens, little plastic grocery carts,etc. all designed to prepare the little lady for her future in domestic engineering.
    Head over to the boys`section and you`ll find cars, trucks, helicopters, guns and figurines such a G.I. Joe.
    That we are still propagating these weird myths regarding our gender role is disturbing. I am finding there is a slight relaxation in gender colour coding but we have a long way to go.
    Thanks for the inspiring read.

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    • It does seem like children are being groomed for certain career paths through the toy selection they’re offered, doesn’t it?

      I have no problem with girls or women displaying stereotypical feminine traits – I don’t consider a tomboy inherently better than a girly-girl, or vice versa – but it’s important that children especially are presented with positive portrayals of all types of males and females, and given the choice to be who they want to be rather than moulded into some weird societal ideal.

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  2. I really shouldn’t comment. Because omg Janna, don’t get me started.

    All this was infuriating to me pre-motherhood. Now? Well, what’s a stronger word than infuriating? Especially now that my oldest is in school and coming home saying things like “pink is for girrrrls” with disdain. Or “he screams like a girl.” To which I reply, “Well then he must have an AWESOME scream.” Or that so-and-so can’t do something because she’s a girl. Me: “Really? I doubt that. Girls can do anything boys do. In fact, girls can do more.” Or that he doesn’t want the pink plate because pink is for girls. “Too bad, kiddo, you’re getting the pink one. It’s just a plate. Eat your dinner.”

    So yeah. You raise your child, give him an open mind, a world where all people are equal, and after a couple months of Kindergarten he comes home with this poison.

    The scary thing? These other children aren’t coming up with this crap on their own.

    And the segregated birthday parties. It’s a phenomenon. It could be the subject of a 16-week gender studies class. Boys only invite the boys in the class, girls only invite girls. I don’t care if it’s a princess party. Why can’t boys dress up as princes? Knights? With swords? There’s no similar analogy the other way around because of course girls could go to a “boy” themed party. After all, they’d be making a step UP in status. Who’s going to complain there?

    Imagine what would happen if I only invited the blond children from my son’s class. He’s blond. So, if we’re doing physical traits, that’d be okay, right? Or how about race. Only the kids of our race. That’s twisted, people. And not much different.

    So we fight. We talk our kids to death. When they say that stupid stuff they’ve obviously heard at school, we call them on the BS. We invite boys AND girls to the birthday party and we end up with a 50/50 split (you know, the way it is in REAL LIFE)…when my son was SURE no girls would show. We replace all the kid plates in the house with pink ones. (Haven’t done that one yet but just you wait.) And my husband buys a pink tie. Partially because it was nice, and on sale, and he needed a new one, partially to show my son boys can wear pink. And they look hot in it.

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    • I think I got you started. 😉

      I don’t have children, but can imagine how frustrating it must be that as early as Kindergarten – the place where kids go to begin their education – all your efforts to teach equality and open-mindedness are undermined.

      All a parent (or a educator – I do youth programs as my job) can do is their best, for unfortunately, there’s a huge media/marketing machine out there in whose interest it is to put us all in our “proper” gender aisle. I think (hope!) that as long as kids are exposed to alternatives ways of being a boy or a girl at an early age, they’ll eventually come around. And hopefully without themselves having to be made the object of marketing machine’s greed.

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  3. Really interesting and provocative post today, Janna. I want to add a couple of adjectives regarding pink sparkly products and what they say about manufacturers views of girls: shallow, insipid, easily amused. As in, “Just paint it pink and put some shiny shit on it. Girls will buy anything if it sparkles.”

    That picture up top is very telling. Having worked for a a big retail organization in the past and been on the receiving end of space-planning directives, I’m sure they are taking what they view as the simplest route to getting the “right” eyes in front of the right products, but it is depressing that this is the girls’ aisle. Because there are probably 5 more aisles just like it, but with Boy Stuff.

    When I was a kid, I certainly loved my space toys and dinosaurs, but one of my favorite things to play with was a doll house. Also, my sister had a friend whose basement was devoted to the world’s most epic play kitchen. I couldn’t wait for that girl’s birthday parties so I could play down there. Luckily, I was the only boy present, so no one was there to mock me for wanting to use Girl Stuff.

    I’m probably a horrible disappointment to you most of the time, being a pantser who hates research and all, but you may appreciate that I have and have had plenty of pink and purple garments and wear them as part of my regular rotation. I also carry a pocketbook of sorts (no it’s not a “messenger bag.” It’s about 7″x10″, big enough for wallet, cell phone, nail clipper, chapstick, and sugarless gum and hangs on a long, narrow strap), and I plan to switch over to a nice Coach one if I can find something small enough (and on-sale enough). The point of my statement being that I’ve grown into an adult who doesn’t care what people think of his masculinity, and I’ll beat the crap out of anyone who makes fun of me.

    That last clause was a joke. I really don’t care if people laugh at me, though. And, once again, I’ve managed to spend half my comment talking about me. You really should start charging me for this.

    Like

    • When I was a kid, I had a babysitter with three sons. I have no brothers, so these three boys were responsible for my education in “boys” toys: Transformers, G.I. Joe, dinky cars, and WWF wrestling figures, among others. I loved it. Then, one time, one of my babysitter’s friend’s asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her the Voltron action figure (do you remember that from the 80s?). Her response: “What do you want that for; that’s for boys!” (I never liked her anyway.)

      But you know what? I got my Voltron for Christmas, and every other “boy” toy I asked for over the years. But I also liked Barbies and She-Ra and Rainbow Bright and My Little Pony. It’s called having diverse interests, toy manufacturers, and you’ll find that most kids have them when given the opportunity to play with toys without a value-laden gender bias attached to them!

      I love that you have a pocketbook, Eric, and wish that all men (and women too) could feel the same freedom of not giving a crap about people’s opinions of how masculine (or feminine) they are. I personally think the whole “man-purse” trend was started by my stepfather back in the early 2000s, but some designer in Paris or Milan is probably taking all the credit!

      Oh, and as always, my invoice is in the mail. 😉

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      • A lot of men would rather experience the discomfort of jamming car keys, cell phones, and wallets in their pants pockets than be seen carrying a handbag, not to mention the lack of space for grooming items, hand wipes, etc. Ah well. Maybe if they came out with Malibu Voltron, things would start to change.

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      • In the medieval times, everyone carried a purse. Of course, it was just a little pouch solely for money; your servant carried all the rest of your stuff. Unless you were the servant, in which case you could’ve used a handbag.

        I wonder now if I managed to have a similar influence on my babysitters’ boys with respect to an interest in “girls” toys. I can’t remember now.

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  4. I am really glad that I bought my new bike seat a couple of years ago before done marketing idiots decided it needed to have pink on it. I HATE PINK mainly because of the connotations that go with it (feminine, weak, airhead). I have never aspired to be anything remotely ladylike, and I get angry whenever someone assumes I can’t do something myself just because I have boobs instead of a penis. And I also get angry with parents who perpetuate these gender gaps (e.g. teach sons how to change a tire, but not daughters, so they’ll have to call their boyfriend/husband/man friend for help if they get a flat).

    On top of that, pink looks terrible on me. I might not mind wearing it if it looked great on me. But I grew out of my pink glitter flowers on everything in grade 7 and I think most other women did too. So please don’t put that crap on things marketed for WOMEN. I won’t buy it. In fact, I’ll assume it means you used inferior quality materials (because you think women are girly, which means you think we are weak, which means our stuff doesn’t have to be as durable as stuff made for men, so you can cheap out on the materials)

    At least the pink stitching isn’t too obvious (at least in the photo) and a good black sharpie should solve your immediate problem. Too bad you’d get in trouble if you used it to fix every seat in the store.

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    • Rhonda, I’m so glad you dropped in to comment because it was actually you who gave me my original female ergonomic seat back in Leamington. Do you remember that? God, I loved that seat, and all the more now.

      I have my ladylike moments, but I too hate it when someone assumes my sex is a liability to my knowing how to do things. I was lucky that my father taught me a few handy tricks, and the blue-collar job I had for two summers taught me a few more. Let me just say I can repair a malfunctioning toilet like no one’s business!

      That’s in interesting theory you apply to pink products vs. durability; I never thought of that, but it does have a certain logic. Personally, I’d have no problem wearing a pastel pink field shirt, as light colours are cooler in the sun and better at repelling mosquitoes, but it has to be MY CHOICE to do so, not just what I was forced into because some sexist marketer didn’t think women worthy of tan, grey, or light blue.

      Like

  5. I was going to suggest the black marker before I even read your last line! I highly suggest you do that, or find a nice green or blue market. Yellow or orange probably wouldn’t cover the pink very well.

    Personally, my relationship with pink is a more shrug and walk away. Granted, I don’t shop much and I haven’t been shopping in North America lately, so we will see if I change my tune on this soon. Honestly, you have to wonder if the advertisers and designers are being lazy. Though one pink item that stuck out ot me was a pink lip stick container that was actually a disguised thumb drive…..

    Still not sure how I feel about that!

    Supposedly companies sell what people buy. Of course, in monopoly situations, we buy the colors they sell. So we may need to be looking at ourselves and our friends and family and where we shop to effect real change. By all means, please write the store/manufacture, etc! I’m just glad Apple hasn’t messed with my silver computer and issued a bunch of pastel colors!

    Btw, my brother wore a pink colored dress shirt to my wedding and it was gorgeous on him with his black shirt. Best I ever saw him. No one said a word.

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    • I agree with you that companies sell what people want to buy, but I also believe marketing is what convinces people to want what they want (e.g. Apple vs. PC), unless they consciously reject it (which many people don’t, or can’t). And even when one rejects one aspect of marketing, there are countless others that worm their way into our subconscious beliefs, for it’s insidious like that. We have to pick our battles, and that day for me, unexpectedly, the battle lines were drawn with pink stitching.

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      • Good point. A lot of people can’t see the manipulation and walk away. Part of my educational background is in propaganda, which is essentially marketing on steroids. It’s annoying for me to watch TV adds because I can just watch the way they want to steer my mind. Of course, some marketing these days borders bleeds into propaganda. Take your pick on definitions. These forms of communications aim directly for the subconscious. As you said, insidious.

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      • I did research on Chinese Communist Propaganda in Art and Literature a summer research grant a while back in university. Fascinating stuff. Most of my work had to be original because I couldn’t find much written on the subject. Then I went and lived in China, came back and wrote paper on the propaganda and silent messages and historical references in the opening ceremony and architecture of the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Maybe I should do a post on that soon. I love it, in a weird way. I’m repulsed by it, but because its so deceptive and subversive, I feel like I have to understand it. It’s manipulation on the highest form. Unfortunately for China, I think most people missed the message they were trying to spread during the Olympics. I’m not as surprised by some of the stuff China’s doing now, because of what they were saying before.

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  6. A minefield that I’m not going to step into, but very interesting Janna about how the colour stereotype was different back in ye olde days. I wonder if the blue/pink thing differs today in other cultures?

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  7. I totally agree with you, Janna.I was shopping for a 3 year old girl’s birthday last year and didn’t know what to get so I asked a woman who had a little girl with her. She told me anything pink will do and also pink prams and baby dolls dressed in pink. I thought ‘that’s easy and sexist’! LOL
    So I ended up getting a jigsaw puzzle of a dinosaur. Apparently it’s been a great hit (or so the mother tells me) 😀
    I find it very interesting that the colours have swapped over the ages and wonder how and why it happened.

    Like

    • [Sorry to hijack your comments, Janna]. Dianne, your comment reminded me of something from my childhood that speaks to this topic. When I was 7 or so, my mom used to babysit her friend’s daughter after school (I was the same age as the girl). I recall getting a coffin-shaped monster-themed jigsaw puzzle for Christmas, with Dracula on one side and a pretty gruesome mummy on the other. That girl and I probably put that puzzle together a hundred days in a row. She couldn’t wait to come over everyday and make that grisly mummy picture again.

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      • That’s a great response, Eric 😀 Sometimes the simple things are the most exciting (I remember when my kids used to have more fun with the boxes their presents came in, than the presents themselves 😉

        Like

    • Totally sexist, Dianne.

      I have a four-year-old niece, and last year wanted to buy her some colouring books. So I went to good old Toys R Us to find some. I just wanted something nice and gender-neutral – pictures of houses and landscapes and boats and animals. I had the HARDEST time, for even the colouring books were gendered: cars and trains for boys, with blue covers, flowers and butterflies for girls, with pink covers.

      I did eventually find gender-neutral ones, but it was the very last two in the store (maybe people like me bought up all the rest; hopefully), and they were well-hidden behind all of the gendered crap.

      It was that day I decided I wouldn’t be shopping at Toys R Us anymore.

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  8. Pingback: An Apology to My Sisters: Looking for the Line Between Survival and Betraying Myself | Ciara Darren

  9. hmmm. Good job dealing with the complexity. I don’t mind pink, though it isn’t my favorite color, and I don’t wear it or most other pastels because they’re terrible with my complexion. I will wear hot pink, on occaision, though, and see plenty of problems with the marketing color code.

    I do think you have a good point here about the bike saddle. It’s especially problematic since you were looking at the best two in the store. There’s a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) implication there that women won’t recognize the quality, so they need something pink and sparkly to close the deal.At the very least, there should be versions with the pink and versions without it.

    Found you because Ciara linked to us both in a post. I love your blog.

    Like

    • Hi Gene. Thanks for visiting and for the comment. Ciara is a cool dudette; nice to meet one of her WordPress friends. 🙂

      Yes, this saddle I bought is supposed to be the top-of-the-line for women, specially designed for long-distance riding and bike touring. Why they would go and gussy up something like that with pink and bling is beyond me. One of the things I always liked about my bike before this was how unisex it looked, it’s metallic bronze colour being one that both women and men would find appealing. The pink clashes horribly with it, and looks more like something I’d see on the bike of my four-year-old niece.

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  10. I haven’t bought anything pink oriented for cycling…though I realize I probably look good in some pink. (I have garment pieces for off-bike life).

    For myself personally, I just want to avoid looking too pinky on bike. But a tiny pink accent is not a big deal to me. Who is going to notice anyway, when I whizz by on the bike anyway.

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    • As a colour in and of itself, I don’t mind pink, and it looks pretty good on me as well. I’m just really offended by the lack of non-pinky options – whether a result of the company not making any or the store not stocking any – and the presumption that since pink is a “girl’s” colour, I should be okay with that.

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  11. Dear Janna,

    First, I would like to say thank you for choosing a Terry saddle despite the pink and stating that it is one of the two “best quality women’s ergonomic saddles”. I, personally, am always happy to see someone critically thinking about the gendered implications of products being sold to consumers and am very glad to have been given the change to respond (from your tweet).

    Terry is an incredibly unique company in the cycling world because we are the only company that makes cycling apparel only for women; designed by and for women with women’s bodies in mind. We are very proud that we take the time to understand that female bodied people deserve their own clothing line that is made specifically for them rather than just modifying cycling clothing that is made for male bodied individuals.

    In my experiences with female cyclists who have just discovered terry, they are elated that we have a much wider range of color choices in apparel and saddles than other cycling companies. We have apparel in every color ranging from black to white to orange and pink; high visibility green and fig purple. Rather than seeing these options as an affront to women and their “frilly” preferences, I see it as a vital change for the cycling community and acknowledgement that women cyclists deserve the clothing they want, they deserve to not ride in an ill-fitting black men’s jersey because this is not a male sport; this is our sport.

    I see your saddle conundrum in much the same way. The saddle that was offered in your bike shop is actually only one of two saddles that is offered in any color other than the gender neutral black, white, and grey. This is the option for female bodied people who would like color on their saddle but we also have fourteen other saddles for women to choose from that are specifically designed for their body that are not pink. You had stated in your post that you were not upset about purchasing pink clothing because you had a choice to not buy pink clothing, and we do have both options for those who would like to purchase our saddles. I agree with you, people of any gender expression should be free to purchase bicycle saddles and other items without having anxiety about the stereotype that they may be filling but taking away a color because it is often linked to femininity is not the way that that will happen.

    Thank you for giving me this opportunity,
    Whitney McKiddy
    Retail Sales and Service
    Terry Bicycles

    Like

    • Hi Whitney,

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you that people of all gender expressions should be free to wear whatever colours they desire. This is a much larger problem within the retail sector where we see ranges of colours that are targeted towards men and those targeted towards women and very rarely do the twain meet.

      As I mentioned, I’m not opposed to pink in and of itself, nor do I believe taking it away due to its association to femininity is the solution. To me, it all comes down to choice – about providing that range of options and allowing women to choose for themselves. I’m pleased to hear that Terry offers a full spectrum of colours for women, thereby providing them with the choice that many retailers don’t. That day in the sports shop, my choice was taken away from me, and I seriously considered walking out of there empty-handed. I’ve since offered them the feedback that this is not an ideal situation, so hopefully they will begin stocking a broader range of colours.

      Regards,
      Janna

      Like

  12. Well this is going to be interesting. Like my mother, I’m a graduate of a major woman’s university. I’m now a 57 year old woman who while growing up, felt I always had to explain why I didn’t need guys to do things for me, marry me, open doors for me, provide a roof over my head etc. Yeah that was another era, but the undercurrent is still there for many women. For myself, I have done many long distance rides (AIDS ride 3-8). I’m now dealing with the challenge of being able to continue doing any riding at all because of my age and specific challenges of being a woman aging. I made it my mission a few years back to take back pink. I have a pink recumbent, a rebuilt vintage pink mixte (which was a creative piece of art for me), and a pink helmet, just as a woman warrior might wish to have. No spikes dammit. I love many other colors. Pink was never my favorite, but it’s starting to be on bikes. I’m damned if I’m going to feel inferior because of a perfectly fine color on a wonderful piece of equipment. I’m all for options. Maybe some day, I won’t need to be so vehement about pink being just fine and in fact, rather glorious and defiant. I just bought a new (pink) Terry saddle because I’m hoping it will help me ride more comfortably. Pinkishly yours,
    A fellow rider, JD

    Like

    • Hi JD, thanks for the comment. I’m glad that you are proudly taking back pink, and also finding new cycling options that work for. Your biking setup and getup sounds very eye-catching and exciting. Most of all, it is your choice. That’s all I really want when it comes to consumer goods. Colour-coding is a bunch of BS; I bet there are plenty of men as well who would like to wear something other than grey or blue or orange all the time.

      Pink was never my favourite colour either, and I doubt it ever will be due to its societal associations. The poor colour was never given a fair chance with me! That said, I too will continue to wear pink from time to time to prove that whether I’m girly or not (and, to be honest, it changes from day to day) has absolutely nothing to do with it.

      Best of luck with your new Terry saddle. I’m quite happy with mine, performance-wise.

      Like

  13. Pingback: Gender rules: Why does breaking them freak us out so much? | ericjohnbaker

  14. Oh, the war we can have with the smallest of things. But I feel ya. I have always felt alienated by pink because I genuinely didn’t like the color (as much as one can dislike a color) but it was forced on my.
    My room was yellow and when I changed it up I painted it a light blue. At my confirmation I wanted green or blue napkins but was forced to have violet ones “because green is a boy color”.
    Well, y’know, not in my imaginations. I had wanted a sort of forest-like theme with napkins looking like fresh leafs.

    The problem with all of these little things is that when you fight them they seem, by themselves, harmless. But it’s in the larger picture that they add up.

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    • Hi Gry! That’s terrible that you weren’t allowed to have the colour you wanted at your own confirmation. That’s exactly what I mean about pink being used to put us in our place. It seems insignificant at face value – it’s just a colour, after all – but the underpinnings of it are substantial, as you say.

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      • Irony: I wear a pink shirt now. it doesn’t get pinker.
        It has taken me many years, due to incidents such as this, to realize that pink is a pretty cool color.
        That’s the thing when people try to force something down your throat – you can never tell whether you genuinely dislike it or dislike having it forced on you.

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