‘What is your favourite colour?’ is a very important question for children. And the answer is a defining part of identity, of classification and one of our first expressions of personal choice. Kirsty Mackay’s new book My Favourite Colour Was Yellow explores the relatively recent phenomenon of little girls’ obsession with the colour pink, and in doing so prompts us to think more deeply about why, of all the colours of the spectrum, pink has such power.
The book is hardbound, with a bright sunshine yellow linen cover, a single defining image tipped in, and forceful neon pink end pages and fore edges. Even the stitching is fuchsia. It is a beautiful thing, carefully designed and produced, containing 48 photographs. In a limited edition of 200, it is more of an ‘object’ than a standard photo book.
In some ways, it’s a small issue; the ‘pink thing’; and yet, it is indicative of a larger, pervasive and arguably unwelcome gendering of all things from a very early age, something that has only really happened in the past few decades. The day that Mackay noticed that her small daughter’s clothes were so predominantly pink that she could do an entire laundry load of it, was when she really began to investigate the phenomenon. “I was thinking how bizarre it is that all these girls, their favourite colour is pink, when there’s a whole spectrum of colour out there. It’s just really strange if you think about it that way. From my own experience, from growing up in the 70s, the pink stuff wasn’t really dominant and there was much more choice. So I knew from my own experience that it started after that. I could also see that advertising became directed straight to children in the ’80s. My conclusion from working on the book is that the people who benefit are the manufacturers. I don’t think it benefits children; it benefits big companies. There’s more money to be made if things are gendered.”
The photographs in the book show us baby-pink balloons obscuring a little face, candy-pink buggies and wendy houses, rose-coloured satin skirts, bubblegum pink t-shirts and dresses, and hot-pink jumpers and coats and cushions and duvets and curtains and walls, even a sparkling neon-pink Christmas tree. At first it’s sweet, it’s ‘cute’, it’s a harmless phase that small girls go through. Progressing through the pages though, pink begins to become oppressive, blocking out other colours. It’s everywhere, casting its candy glow over everything, while at the same time bringing joy to the girls who love to surround themselves with it, to create their small pink worlds. The images are clean and clear, something that often comes with the use of a rangefinder Mamiya 7 – there are reminiscences of Siân Davey’s work, both in content and in style, but Mackay is more precise than Davey in her execution; somehow the lines are more tightly drawn. The girls pictured vary in age, but few are older than ten, as the pink phase tends to give way to purple and then a wider range of favourites, as they grow older and pink is rejected as being too infantile.
At some point society decided that little girls should like pink, so they do; it’s part of being a girl. Girls should, indeed must, like pink. And so they do; surrounded by positive affirmations of princess outfits and pastel sandals, praise for being ‘cute’ – it’s no surprise that so many children don’t appear to consider other colours in the rankings of favourites.
“It’s a small injustice in the grand scheme of things. I realise that I’m talking about children who’ve got the ‘wrong colour’ clothes, and there are many bigger issues to be tackled. And I think it’s quite easy to overlook the pink thing, but what really bothered me about it is the lack of choice. Childhood is such an amazing time, when anything is possible, and I would just love children to be able to choose. Choose their own favourite colour and find their own way, and not have these outside pressures, telling them what they should like and what they shouldn’t like.”
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Lottie Davies
My Favourite Colour Was Yellow by Kirsty Mackay is available for £40 + P&P from www.kirstymackay.com in a limited edition of 200, each book signed by the artist.