My sons’ Sunday morning swimming lesson is a time I look forward to. It’s a guilt-free half-hour in which to read a book, catch up on emails or stare vacantly into space as I sit at the poolside, drowsy in the chlorinated heat (and, let’s be honest, often slightly hungover). But recently, my reverie was interrupted by another spectator stomping self-importantly into view with ‘Pink Stinks’ emblazoned across her T-shirt, and plonking herself down on my bench. She was surrounded – as she must surely have anticipated would be the case – by small girls in shocking pink swimsuits.
Maybe it shouldn’t have annoyed me as much as it did. Any sentient being who occasionally opens a newspaper can’t have failed to notice the backlash against the so-called ‘pinkification’ of our daughters’ childhood. I’m no fan of fuchsia and I broadly agree with the arguments put forward by the anti-pink campaigners, who object to the crude stereotyping represented by gendered merchandise. It’s increasingly hard to find any item marketed at girls that doesn’t come in a shade of salmon – or anything marketed at boys that does.
Indeed, I’ve long suspected that the cult of prettiness – bolstered by the baffling range of pink clothing and accessories available in the shops – encourages a form of female self-absorption that ultimately limits girls’ range of interests and risks shutting down their opportunities. By contrast, many of the boys I know seem less self-regarding and more outward-looking in their passions – which in this household include football, Minecraft and the endless regurgitation of facts about the world. (Yes, that was a crass generalisation, and of course I’m biased – I have sons.)
Nevertheless, it scarcely needs stating that the problem isn’t the colour pink, but something more insidious about the expectations to which girls are subject and which they all too frequently internalise. One small example. The girls’ high school I attended as a teenager ran a joint debating club with the boys’ grammar school over the road. Before each debate, the toilets in our sixth-form block were three-deep with girls preening in front of the mirrors. At the event itself, the boys would deploy their arguments cleverly and confidently, while most of us girls, it shames me to say, remained silent at the back of the room. We were too self-conscious to pay proper attention to the train of argument, let alone speak out – and there wasn’t a pink accessory in sight.
My objection to the mother at the pool wasn’t just her failure to recognise that pink is merely a recent symptom of this chronic malaise. It was that her message, viewed in context, seemed unnecessarily aggressive. Her T-shirt, I’d guess, was worn mainly to show other parents how radical she was. None of the children was in a position to argue back; the six-year-old girl sitting beside me, who’d emerged happily from the changing room moments earlier in a frilly pink costume, seemed perplexed by her father’s mumbled explanation. Isn’t a child entitled to feel confused when one group of adults markets piles of pink junk at her, while another group finger-wags about how she shouldn’t be buying any of it? And is there no room left for a girl who – er – just happens to like pink?
So, what stinks more than the colour pink? How about this: making a small girl feel uncomfortable about her appearance by wearing a provocative slogan at a children’s swimming lesson. If the woman at the pool calls herself a feminist, she really ought to change her top.