I’ve always been invested in girly things. My wardrobe is undoubtedly very feminine and predominantly pink: there are mini-skirts and princess gowns; schoolgirl outfits and ballerina-inspired accessories. I’ve also been told that I look like a doll. With this remark, tone seems to be key; some mean “Barbie” as a compliment, but to others, it’s an insult.
I’m never quite sure how to take it, especially as the conversation surrounding this issue often seems to be reduced to rather simplistic truths. Yes, misogyny drives the social disdain towards hyper-femininity. Yes, it’s my decision to dress this way. Absolutely, there are social pressures that factor into women’s decision-making when it comes to fashion and beauty.
However, I’m very hesitant to leave the conversation there.
From my position at the very heart of this complicated debate, binary perspectives don’t seem helpful. In this piece, I’d like to unpack pink in all its complexity, hopefully sparking a more considered conversation about this highly controversial color.
Navigating femininity is different when you’re not white and able-bodied.
When the Princess and the Frog came out, I was very young. Had you asked me to explain “representation in media,” I wouldn’t have gotten very far. But contrary to popular belief, the concept itself doesn’t have to be taught. Children understand otherness and exclusion; we learn it on the playground. Seeing a Disney Princess with my wide nose was pure elation. She had curly hair; her father looked like mine. And yet—although I loved her, and her green dress, and her admirable ambition—the thing I remember wanting most in the film was Charlotte La Bouff’s bedroom. I wanted it desperately, and presumed I would never attain anything like it.
In the same way, I desired Barbie’s Dreamhouse. Fabulous was my favorite High School Musical song. Princess Peach was my choice of character on the Wii. In just a few years, I would come to idolize Elle Woods and Cher Horowitz, and long for Regina George’s wardrobe, if not her personality. If you’re noticing a pattern with these characters (for those who don’t know, they’re white and rich), I eventually did, too—but it was a while before I could vocalize what I was feeling. For this reason, I always struggled to resonate with the idea that hyper-femininity is something I shouldn’t choose.
As Sojourner Truth pointed out in her famous speech, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’, black women were rarely stereotyped as dainty and weak like their white counterparts. Rather, they were portrayed ‘as domineering matriarchs or exotic sexual objects’. Association with “masculine” traits such as anger, aggression and a high libido—stereotypes that persist throughout modern media—means that black and mixed women have a fundamentally different experience of gender.
When I was a child, I never felt as if “girliness” was forced down my throat. Rather, it seemed like it was being withheld from me. I do remember loving Hilary Banks and Angel Coulby’s Guinevere, both of whom I definitely wanted to be, and remain grateful for to this day. However, neither embodied that absurd excess that characters like Barbie or Sharpay did. They didn’t wear that signature color; pink, still, signaled a glittering world that I wasn’t quite allowed to touch.
I then entered that world during a time of struggle. In my mid-teens, a random seizure sent me into a health spiral (that I’m still dealing with) and upended my life. With previous hobbies like reading or running requiring too much physical or mental energy, I resigned myself to spending most of my free time either resting, or scrolling through social media. It was there that I fell into the world of fashion and began to celebrate my love of all things pink.
Social media gave me an outlet to express myself, but it isn’t without its problems.
Like a lot of young girls, I grew out of my “pink” phase before my teens, but illness plunged me right back in. I realized fragility could be beautiful, not just painful. I think I also valued the escapism of a curated and unconventional “look.” Putting together a beautiful outfit, or an Instagram-worthy photo, gave me a sense of control in a time where I had very little.
Fashion also gave me a community. Online there were plenty of pink-obsessed women that weren’t blonde. Many of them, I would come to realize, were also sick, or undergoing similarly traumatic struggles. I wasn’t the only one using it as a retreat.
Social media was also where I found “aesthetics,” a relatively recent online phenomenon in which each “aesthetic” represents a different style. These don’t just encompass the wardrobe—they blur the boundaries between internal and external in a way that’s slightly different. Although there are intersections, the aesthetic that probably best describes me is “princesscore.”
Importantly, though, I’ve never seen social media as a pure, safe haven. It may be more representative than mainstream media (at least, depending on where you look), but it still very much perpetuates unrealistic and damaging beauty standards. Especially in spaces where the entire point is for everything to look “aesthetic,” filtering and editing are rife. I also spend a lot of time blocking “thinspo” or “pro-ana” blogs, which encourage eating disorders and often intersect with fashion communities, and “tradfems,” who are very strongly committed to gender roles. (And by that, I mean that I’ve seen these women use the hashtag #propatriarchy.)
Even if you avoid these particularly toxic pitfalls, there’s danger in feeling the need to always perform a certain “aesthetic.” I do believe that many in my generation are very resistant to stereotyping based on appearance in overtly harmful ways (such as slut-shaming or profiling). However, aestheticism does subtly push us to consider fashion as reflective of character. It’s exhausting to constantly live as if you’re being watched, and it’s difficult to try and organize everything about yourself into one cohesive, stylized identity. I’m careful to ensure that I’m using my wardrobe to express, as opposed to confine. I want my aesthetic to be a kind of freedom, as opposed to something that dictates to me. But even if I’m fully comfortable with my self-perception, I’m still left with the problem of other people.
When we’re reliant on others, “not caring” about people’s opinions can only take you so far.
As I’ve said, I’m used to assumptions. Most commonly, people—particularly men—presume that I’m stupid, and I do find the following condescension frustrating. I’ve also been told that I dress “slutty” or, in other outfits, old-fashioned and prudish. On a purely social level, I don’t care very much. What value should I assign to the perceptions of people who have already proven themselves not perceptive? But, these judgements can’t be reduced to matters of day-to-day interaction, opinion, or artistic taste. In professional and political contexts, we must always be mindful of how we’ll be perceived by others.
When I think back to my Oxford interview experience, I remember feeling uncomfortable. Almost ridiculously, I think I was most uncomfortable because I hadn’t brought anything pink.
I packed a few outfits, as depending on the candidate the interviews can take multiple days. Although I didn’t outright object to any of them, they were generally not very representative of me. To my first interview, I remember the exact outfit I wore: small, stud earrings, check trousers (yes, trousers!), and brown lace-up boots that I had worn on a walking holiday. The pamphlets we had been given urged us to dress however we felt most comfortable, but I was very aware that I already didn’t fit the Oxford mold. Would I perform better if I felt completely like myself? Perhaps—but I wasn’t prepared to miss out on a place at such a prestigious university because of any assumptions (even subconscious) that my interviewers might make.
Now that I actually know my tutors, I don’t think it was a necessary precaution, but the fact that I felt the need to take it in itself says a lot about pink and power. I do genuinely consider self-expression to be empowering, but it’s simple truth that you can’t dress your way out of institutionalized bigotry.
In that situation, it was clear that I was dressing for the interviewers, not myself. I didn’t enjoy the experience, but I completely understood what was happening. However, the waters get a bit murky when I start thinking about my everyday clothes. Is my typical adherence to traditional femininity a similar performance? Am I dressing for male approval?
It’s very difficult to negotiate an individual sense of self alongside social pressures.
In many feminist circles, there remains a common critique of girly pink as a tool of the patriarchy. You might be familiar with a famous Margaret Atwood quote, where she proclaims:
“Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
This sentiment rings true for many. No matter how women dress, they are subject to objectification from men who consider their presentation the ultimate fantasy. We are constantly internalizing conflicting opinions and messaging on what the “ideal” woman is. Because of that, as soon as we start wondering if we’re performing for the “man inside,” we begin to question whether it’s a train of thought that can ever end. What does freedom from the male gaze look like? How should I take “like a doll”?
Well, for one thing, we can at least be aware of these mechanisms. An interesting insight from an article about Lolita subculture is that it’s a “self-centered undertaking…not connected to socially productive presentations of self that achieve a goal such as dressing to get a job, dressing to get a boyfriend.”
Whether this is true or not, I find that eliminating this idea of ‘social [production]’ from my wardrobe has made me a lot happier. To privilege self-expression over survival isn’t a source of power, necessarily, but it is non-compliant. From that perspective, maybe pink isn’t about power, but defiance: it prioritizes your comfort and aesthetic preferences over the dictations of social pressures and norms.
To that end, I wear what I want. I like macro-skirts and crop-tops and thigh-high socks with bows on them, with little thought granted to those who might shame me for it. Similarly, I hate bikini bottoms (swim-skirts for life), love a baggy jumper/midi skirt combo, and think there’s a lot of joy to be found in dressing like a giant, frilly, shapeless cupcake. I value my own self-expression more than the opinions of the group of teenage girls who heckled me with “too much pink!” as I exited my local Tesco, or very earnest male advice on how to be more “appealing.”
However, as per my interview, sometimes situations feel too high-stakes to make an aesthetic stand. Not “dressing to get a job” certainly feels empowering, but for what sort of person is that kind of defiance possible? The more disadvantaged a person is, the greater the need to conform, and yet, those of us who are undergoing a lot are the ones that are most likely to value the ability to self-express.
Individual strength is not always the answer.
For women who have struggled with other axes of identity, some of the above debates might hit a bit hollow. Although this doesn’t affect me directly, women who fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella also have unique experiences with femininity. As I’ve said, race is another factor.
It’s also true that the phrase “like a doll” definitely took on some extra weight after my diagnosis. There are days where I feel like one of those very valuable, very pretty China dolls, ones that you have to be careful not to break. And yet, able-bodied people seem to judge you by their limits, as opposed to yours, even without meaning to. You are “in battle” with your various illnesses. However unwell you are, someone will tell you that having accommodations put in place, or taking a day to rest, is being lazy or “giving in” to your disease.
Of course, I definitely wish that I was physically stronger. Not to bang on about Barbie, but I’ve often wished for the sheer indestructibility that the plastic dolls have. (If you played the kind of sadistic games I did as a child, you know what I’m talking about). I used to run cross-country, and now sometimes I struggle to even get out of bed. But Barbie can survive almost anything—and, being made of plastic, she’s never had to worry about her nervous system flipping out on her.
Being human, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that such a constitution is simply not compatible with my reality. As such, I’m very suspicious of rhetoric that stresses perpetual perseverance, especially as much of the weight of it seems to fall upon certain demographics. For example, many still view the “strong black woman” stereotype as a positive.
However, having it be constantly demanded that you remain, whatever your situation, “strong, resilient, self-contained and self-sacrificing’ actually has a negative impact on mental health.” I know that, by virtue of achieving all that I have despite my many issues, I am strong. But nobody can maintain the facade of invulnerability all the time, and it’s bizarre that anyone would ask someone to. I felt the weight of this expectation of constant strength very strongly as a teen, and I think it fed into my desire to be perceived as dainty and delicate.
Where we go from here is complicated….
I can say with reasonable certainty that my love for pink isn’t derived purely from a desire to conform, since I already face consequences for not doing so. We all understand, subliminally, that there are consequences for presenting yourself outside of the norm. As such, I think pink is a declaration that we’ll be fine regardless, that we can succeed despite the ill-informed judgements that we encounter in our everyday lives.
My style represents a confidence in my own vision, in a world where I’m being consistently pushed to doubt it. Is that power? Perhaps, perhaps not; but it is a re-adjustment of what power is, a refusal to succeed purely on pre-existing terms. That, I think, paves the way for new perspectives to break forth.
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