The story of pink

Photographer Lisa Kessler unpacks the many meanings of a color

By Eugenia Williamson
July 11, 2010

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We all know what pink means, right? To dress a baby boy in pink would be nearly as verboten as filling his bottle with Scotch. No construction worker be caught dead using a pink hammer, unless he was colorblind or possessed a well-developed sense of irony. Pink means “girl” in a way so direct that no other color comes close.

But when you start to look at the roles pink plays in American culture, the story becomes a lot more complex. It also stands for gay rights and breast cancer awareness. “Pink hats” divide Sox fans, while pink Cadillacs — once the toast of Aretha Franklin and Mary Kay salesladies — rust in junkyards. To understand how Americans use pink, both embracing it and subverting it, is to realize how we feel about femininity. Once you notice that, there’s no turning back.

Boston-based documentary photographer Lisa Kessler jumped down this rabbit hole when a friend asked if she ever worked in color. She immediately thought of pink because of her lifelong aversion to it — she says she gravitates toward subjects that make her uncomfortable — and for three years, she traveled the country in search of the ways Americans use the color.

To prepare for her road trips, she would Google “pink” and her destination and was continually surprised by what she found: the Hot Pink Grannies, a senior basketball league in skirts and shocking pink tights; cowboys dressed in pink shirts to support sisters and wives stricken with breast cancer; strippers in pink string bikinis. What resulted was a body of work she calls “Seeing Pink,” an undertaking that exposes the color in all its unearthly glory. The photos were collected in a show last month at the Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, N.Y., and are online at

Kessler’s previous work has been on even more conspicuously uncomfortable territory: Last year she debuted a feature documentary film, “Heart in the Wound,” about the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston; another project, “Facing Peace,” featured Kessler’s photographs of families in the aftermath of violence.

She spoke to Ideas in a cafe near her home in the South End.

IDEAS: Are you consumed with looking for pink?

KESSLER: I see a hundred pink things and there’s just one I want to photograph. I have a lot of pink pals — I get a lot of phone calls and e-mails about sightings or ideas....My friend Nina Berman told me about Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix. He makes his inmates wear pink underwear....He had his deputy take me to the jail, and they gave me full access. They have pink socks, flip flops, underwear, towels.

IDEAS: Did he do that just to emasculate them, or is there something else going on?

KESSLER: One of my trips was to Iowa to meet a friend. In a Google search for “pink in Iowa,” pretty quickly, you come up with the University of Iowa. The visiting football team locker room is pink. The reason is that the previous coach, Hayden Fry, a famous football coach, had been a psychology major, and he had learned that there were psychological effects of the color pink. It soothes people and calms people down. They use it in certain prisons, too — Pepto Bismol Pink. They use it in holding cells. You put someone in a holding cell that’s a certain color pink and it calms them down. But if you leave them in there too long, they go nuts.

IDEAS: Is it true that pink started off as a boy’s color?

KESSLER: In the 19th century, babies were all dressed in white; it was much more important that babies be distinguished from adults, [and] whether you were a boy child or a girl child didn’t matter so much. Boys wore dresses, and little boys and girls were dressed alike. At the turn of the century, there were changes in dye and fabric technologies that made it possible to make more colors. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a big discussion about what color should be assigned to what gender. A lot of people felt — the quote comes from a Chicago trade journal — “Pink is for boys and blue is for girls.” Some people think it’s because red is a power color, and pink is a watered-down red. Blue was considered more dainty.

IDEAS: So this was an argument among commercial entities?

KESSLER: Yes. Among the trade journals, the greeting card companies, people who were making products. Apparently, it wasn’t until after World War II when the very powerfully separate color-coding happened, where pink is for girls and blue is for boys....Now, parents really want to know if it’s a girl or a boy, and they want to use clothing to communicate that. There are a couple different theories about it. One theory actually says that the thing that put the stamp on it was — I don’t know if you’re familiar with the two portrait painters Thomas Lawrence and Thomas Gainsborough. Henry Huntington was a railroad magnate and art collector. He purchased “Pinkie” and “Blue Boy” and brought them to his mansion in California. Apparently, one of the historians said that the media publicity surrounding the installation of these two paintings side by side is what cemented the color-coding of blue is for boys and pink is for girls.

IDEAS: That’s very curious.

KESSLER: One aspect of the history that’s been really curious to me is that the Nazis used the pink triangle to mark homosexuals as part of their color-coding system. I don’t know why they used pink — I don’t know if it was because pink was already considered a feminine color and they associated homosexuals with femininity, or was it somewhat more random that the Nazis chose pink and that helped cement it. To me the point is the color that’s used symbolically, and then people, because it gets used as a powerful symbol, people over time have reclaimed the color and mapped new meanings onto it. In the gay rights movement in the ’70s, they took that pink triangle, turned it upside down, and turned it into a symbol of gay pride and empowerment.

IDEAS: You went into this project with the idea that pink was a social construct. Has that changed in any way?

KESSLER: I’m one of those women who did not like pink, never wore pink. I thought it was a color that put me in a box...and I wasn’t going to give anyone the opportunity to define me as a woman. I didn’t want to conform to what you were supposed to as a girl....It doesn’t have to mean anything today. I had lunch yesterday with a young friend who graduated from college, and I was really surprised that she described the same experience. She’s 22 years old, and she described rejecting the color pink as a child because she didn’t want to be defined as a girly girl and limited by that notion of what a girl is or can be. She said in college, suddenly the color hot pink appeared, and it’s a color of empowerment. It has very positive connotations to her and her very progressive friends.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and critic living in Cambridge.