Seeing pink: why is sports gear for women still so gendered?

Starting the year by browsing fitness kit for your new exercise regime? You won’t be able to avoid pink sportswear in the women’s sections. Here’s why.

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It’s the New Year, when many of us vow to kick-start our workouts. If you’re a woman shopping for new gym gear, however, beware. Pink kit is everywhere, and it may leave you looking like an escapee from Barbie’s Dream House.

The colour’s sheer ubiquity only dawned on me recently while looking for some new trainers. In the shoe aisle of a major sporting goods retailer, I encountered a colour divide as drastic as a toy shop’s. On the men’s side, blue, black and splashes of neon yellow. On the women’s side, a hot pink hellscape. I searched carefully for some non-pink shoes and then started to wonder. Was I in the kids’ aisle?

If you don’t believe me, consider these snapshots. At the time of writing, on JDSports.co.uk, 70 per cent of the Nike accessories specifically for women only come in pink. Just five products meant for women, a few bags, a cap and some head bands, eschew pink for other colours.

At the time of writing, nearly 70 per cent of the women’s running shoes on Decathlon’s website have pink on them, as do almost half of those featured on JohnLewis.com. Almost 60 per cent of the women’s running clothes in Sports Direct’s Karrimor line that are not black, white or grey are pink, or have pink trim (and that’s not even including the Karrimor logo that often appears in pink).

What is going on? When I think pink, I think Power Rangers. My Little Pony. Peppa Pig. “It’s a very infantilising colour,” says sports sociologist Professor Cheryl Cooky of Purdue University, Indiana. “It’s a colour we associate not simply with femininity, but with a kind of youthful femininity, a girlish femininity.”


A selection of women-only Nike items available on JDSports.co.uk in December 2016. Photo: a collage of images from JDSports.co.uk

Even if not every women's sports item is pink, it’s hard to argue that the colour is not overrepresented. Why are brands and retailers dressing adult women like pretty, pretty princesses?

There’s no denying that pink is a political colour. Just look at the furore raised recently when an English Football Association document intended to get girls into sport recommended providing them with “pink whistles”, as well as pink water bottles, pink shin pads, pink gloves and pink hairbands. “We aren't brainless Barbie dolls. We don't all like the same colour (pink),” one ten-year-old footballer called Grace wrote in response.

The movement to end “pinkification” of products for girls has been gaining momentum for years, with campaigns like Pinkstinks and Let Toys be Toys convincing children’s retailers to give up their “pink for girls”, “blue for boys” signage and marketing. But what about grown women? Are we happy to accept our pink water bottles and hairbands?

This isn’t just a matter of colours. As with toy shops, it’s about suggesting, even subconsciously, which activities are appropriate for which gender. John Lewis sells own-brand hand weights, for instance, which progress from bubblegum pink to purple to grey to navy as they get bigger, implying that your femininity drains away as you lift heavier weights. If you doubt that this colour-coding carries any meaning, imagine if it were the other way around, and the heaviest weights were baby pink. (John Lewis responds that “there is not a conscious link between the colours and the weight”.)

On the JD Sports site, meanwhile, there’s a “shop by activity” tab, which, for women, offers “Running, Gym, Yoga, Spin, Cardio”. For men, there’s “Football, Basketball, Tennis, Running, Rugby”. At the time of writing, footballs are included in the men’s accessories section, but not the women’s. What would the young footballer Grace have to say about that?

When I contact stores to ask why they stock so many pink sports items, the reasons vary. John Lewis says that “to a large extent” their colours are “predetermined” by suppliers. Decathlon says its palette of pink and turquoise is a feminine version of the red and blue it uses for men: “Originally, [the colours of sportswear for men] were [mainly derived from] flags and blazons. Products intended for a male public. Blue, white, red dominate flags and thus became the basic (basal) colours of performance. To widen the target to the feminine market, the pink and turquoise replaced the red and the blue.”

It adds: “Pink and turquoise are sport colours [used for] ten years in Decathlon. After black and white, which are the more basic colours, blue and red (so turquoise and pink for women) were the two other colours added in our ranges.”

Both Decathlon and John Lewis, however, also point to sales as a driving force. While John Lewis’ most popular sportswear is black and grey, pink and particularly purple have recently “generated great interest and sales”, a spokesperson says. And Benoît Buronfosse, the brand design manager of Decathlon sub-brand Kalenji, notes that, based on a decade of sales figures, “pink is the preferred colour for women!”

JD Sports and Sports Direct declined to comment.

Sports industry analyst Matt Powell, who writes the blog Sneakernomics for Forbes, backs this up. “Brands don’t make many products that no one wants to buy,” he says. “Tough way to stay in business.”

But if pink is popular with women, there’s still the question of why. After all, it wasn’t until the 1980s that pink became associated with femininity, according to historian Jo Paoletti, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of the culture blog Pink is for Boys. “This stuff is culturally constructed, it’s artificial, it changes over time, it’s different in different cultures. So the idea that women have a natural desire to dress in a certain way is just wrong,” she says.

To be sure, some people just look good in the colour. But Purdue’s Professor Cooky suggests there may be something else. “Sports in most societies are still male-dominated,” she says. “For some female athletes and fans, wearing pink may be a way to reassert a notion of conventional femininity in those highly masculinised spaces.”

In other words, if you’re a woman in the sports world, you may feel the need to wear things that shout, “I’m not a dude!” The stereotype of the manly sportswoman clearly weighs on the mind of many female athletes. In a day and age when Serena and Venus Williams can be referred to publicly as "the Williams brothers" by a member of the International Olympic Committee, no wonder active women are reaching for hyper-feminine signifiers.

Still, there is evidence that not all women want all pink, all the time. Take the USA’s National Football League. Around the year 2000, the NFL entered the women’s apparel market. (Women, it turns out, account for nearly half of NFL fans.) At first, the NFL focused on pink products that could stand out on the shop floor. “At the time it was maybe the easiest way to communicate that we had moved into that space,” says Rhiannon Madden, the NFL’s director of apparel.

Since then, however, the NFL has broadening the range to include team colours in green, yellow, red and brown. "As we got smarter and engaged more with our fans, and learned more about what they were looking for, we expanded our offering,” says Maddon. The switch, and an ad campaign in 2012 to promote it, resulted in a triple-digit growth in sales.

The NFL’s early approach, common in the sporting industry, has come to be known as “shrink it and pink it” – the practice of downsizing a men’s product and slapping a “girly” colour on it. And while many companies have come a long way from “shrink and pink”, there’s still room for improvement, says Powell. “The female consumer has been horribly underserved by the sports brands. There are not enough women-specific products,” he says, adding that companies need to focus more on products that will, “help female athletes perform at a higher level”.

In the meantime, it would be nice if sports retailers would offer us more non-pink options. Using the colour may, like the FA’s pink whistles, simply be an attempt to include women in sports. But, as Professor Cooky points out, it can also alienate those who “may not wish to subscribe to that sort of girly colour palette”. One such woman, a friend in her early 30s, told me how at the two triathlons she has raced in, the women were handed pink swimming caps. Her reaction? “Give them to the dudes!”

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a freelance journalist based in London, and former Features Editor of the New Scientist.