Kirsty MacKay has two daughters, one ten and one two; when her oldest was a baby she didn’t buy much pink, she says, but “kind of accumulated it anyway”. “We had so many pink clothes I could do a separate pink wash,” she says. “Although as a parent I didn’t like it.
“I grew up in the 1970s wearing boiler suits and dungarees and playing with Meccano and Lego,” she adds. “So what I couldn’t understand was how we could have gone back when feminism has moved so much.”
Intrigued by the power of this cultural norm she decided to start photographing it, starting with her friends and friends’ children in Bristol, then widening the scope to include strangers and those based elsewhere in Britain. She ended up shooting for six years, amassing over 3000 images.
“I took a lot of photographs, but I ended up not using very many from the start,” she says. “They just weren’t good enough, because I was uncomfortable with the idea I was going into someone’s house and potentially criticising their choices.
“Then I realised that we’re all in the same boat, navigating it together,” she continues. “I’m not going into someone’s house where the mum alone has decided that they want to have a pink bedroom.”
MacKay has now published the project as a book called My Favourite Colour Was Yellow, which includes an essay by Jo B Paoletti, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland and author of the book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Boys in America. In the text, Paoletti points out that pink only started to become associated with girls in the 1950s, when the burgeoning children’s clothes industry started to push it.
“Then in the 1980s advertisers started to aim directly at children, where previously they had marketed products towards the parents,” says MacKay, adding that children latch onto these markers.
“Girls and boys learn their sex very early, at about age one or two, but initially don’t realise they can’t change it,” she says. “They think that perhaps by wearing boys’ clothes they can become a boy, and vice versa. When they learn their identity is male or female they really grab hold of it and want to look like a girl or a boy, and so will choose what they’re told is male or female.”
These children then reinforce the stereotypes to each other, she points out – the title of the book comes from a 14-year-old she photographed called Rosie, for example, who as a young girl liked the colour yellow, but felt obliged to say pink or purple to her friends. But this pressure also extends to parents, she adds, who might dress nursery-age boys in pink tutus, but “abruptly stop when they reach school because they’re worried their child will be bullied”.
MacKay says she doesn’t have a problem with pink per se, but feels that the pink products marketed to young girls emphasise what’s pretty – what’s “pretty in pink” – and therefore their appearance. “There is this kind of power coming from big companies and advertisers, but it’s not benefitting the people they sell to,” she says. “It is benefitting them and their profits.”
But she adds that she’s optimistic for the future, pointing out that today’s teenagers and twenty-somethings see things quite differently. “They have very different ideas on gender fluidity,” she says. “So I think when they grow up and have children, they won’t buy into it.”
My Favourite Colour Was Yellow by Kirsty MacKay is available via her website www.kirstymackay.com. To celebrate International Women’s Day, MacKay will donate £5 from every sale on 08 March to Womankind, a charity fighting discrimination, poverty and violence against women and girls around the world www.womankind.org.uk.