Boy in pink

Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside was released 17 February 1978, the same year Carl appeared, mid-term, at my primary school. He was taller than the other boys in Grade 5, and no longer scrawny, if ever he had been. Perhaps he’d been held back a year, or had to start again. He looked lonely, and angry. Handsome, too, with his olive skin and loose, bronze-coloured curls. His eyes were green, or maybe hazel.

He seemed like a man already, with his height and broad shoulders, the way he stood apart from the other boys. Who knows what he was feeling? He was a new kid in a place where I’d always been – someone who’d had to leave somewhere. I saw him as a romantic outsider, emerging from some kind of darkness.

Though I can’t confirm it as historic fact, I have a memory of ‘Wuthering Heights’ airing on Countdown, which I watched with my sister. An aspiring boyfriend had also given her the cassette tape of The Kick Inside. Even I, at ten, couldn’t miss the lush sensuality of Kate Bush’s music.

Did I actually make a link between Carl and Heathcliff, or was there just … something in the air?

Shortly after his arrival, I saw him across the playing field – just standing there by himself, not doing anything. And what was really striking was that his shirt was pink. He was wearing a pink, long-sleeved, button-down shirt.

Many men wear pink shirts these days, but I’d never seen a man or a boy wear pink until then. The people I knew just didn’t dress like that. At school our uniforms were blue and grey, with touches of red. I guess his parents – parent? – hadn’t had time to get him one yet.

Brave boy, burning up in solitude in his pink shirt. Not for a moment did I think the colour was sissy, though I sensed others might. This aching, dangerous possibility drew me to him all the more.

Carl in his pink shirt, at eleven years old or so, was to me the epitome of manly beauty.

* * *

Carl was also the only person to ever properly kick me.

I don’t mean that to be a sinister segue from boys/men to violence. And it wasn’t all that hard, really. As kicks go.

I wasn’t a girly girl. Outside of school, I mostly wore corduroys, T-shirts or skivvies (turtlenecks), desert boots, and ‘woollies’ knitted by grandparents. None of my clothes were pink or feminised in any way.

girl with teddybear

A painting my grandfather did for me.

Though I played with dolls, many of my toys – a farm set, Lego – were what you’d call gender neutral. Books were important. Animals. Just being outside. I don’t remember ever even visiting a toy store, or caring. We had a black-and-white TV, but it wasn’t on all that much. I remember a few ads – such as Palmolive’s ‘You know you’re soaking in it’ – but they tended towards the ludicrous and pannable.

Our house was a place where things didn’t necessarily match. It didn’t matter. But it was fascinating to stay overnight with a friend who had a matching white-and-gold bedroom suite; and to play for an afternoon with another who had a full array of accessories for her Barbie. Come to think of it, every toy she had seemed to come as a complete set. I might have felt a twinge of envy, but it was only theoretical. It wasn’t my world, and I was happy to be just visiting.

At school I threw myself into each subject; considered everything open to me. I was top of the class in maths, along with wiry, black-haired Brian; wrote poetry and stories; drew a reasonably realistic portrait of a fellow student. Mr Esling’s science classes, which took place in different spaces around the school because he wasn’t on staff, actually had a real sense of adventure to them.

The only area where I felt at any kind of a disadvantage was in sports, because with my smaller size I couldn’t compete with my peers who were all both taller and stronger. After I won a white third-place ribbon in an egg-and-spoon race on sports day, admittedly only because someone else fell over, even that didn’t matter all that much. I’d achieved something in sport.

My peers took advantage of my small size in their invention of a game of tag called ‘Witchypoo’, in which I was always ‘It’. I don’t recall minding being It; but I did get very hot at lunchtime, always chasing after others. I’d get home after school with my hair worked halfway out of its ponytails, and my white cotton knee-highs all the way down around my ankles.

Somehow it came about that my physical capacities were challenged in a different way, as if I had to make up for my – hmnmn – shortcoming. Someone had the idea of challenging me to see how hard I could grip their fingers, and for a while that became my thing: proving how strong my grip was. It was quite strong. I did play the violin, after all.

At what point this morphed into something else, I don’t know; or for how long it went on. I’m ashamed to say it involved kicking – showing how hard I could kick. I only remember two incidents: one involving a boy named Stephen, and the other involving Carl.

Stephen, unlike Carl, I found annoying. I have a suspicion others felt like this as well, which may partially explain how things unfolded. We were in our classroom, and somehow Stephen ended up wriggling on the floor at my feet, taunting me in a girly high voice to kick him as hard as I could.

I thought he was contemptible – a worm – baiting me like that for attention. I was not such a fool as to think it was my attention he was after: Stephen knew perfectly well we were in plain view of the teacher. What’s more, it went against the tacit schoolyard code that such things weren’t done in front of adults, or ever discussed with them.

So I kicked him. Perhaps not fully as hard as I could – after all, I could actually have hurt him. But hard enough to feel brutal.

The teacher was appalled, and of course she told me off. An experience to which I was not accustomed.

‘He told me to’, I retorted shakily, though I had enough of a moral compass to be aware that this was no excuse at all. I felt moronic as I said it, as if I’d just morphed into a completely different person. I’d kicked him because hatred had welled up in me, and because he had given me an opportunity to do it. It was deeply shaming.

Some time after this, Carl challenged me to kick him.

He must have had some idea of how I felt. Even if no one had told him that I ‘liked’ him, I had held his hand on the bus all the way back to school from our field trip to the Botanical Gardens. (Why on earth had he let me do that?) I remember being boiling hot and exhausted after a day of running around outside, jumping in piles of leaves. On top of that, I was on fire with happiness. He just looked out the window, his feelings unreadable.

I answered his challenge. I think it was the only time he had ever said anything directly to me. My friend Cathy and I met him down beneath the school building, in a sheltered spot which was often deserted, as it was on that day. I stood opposite him, and I kicked him. The boy I was completely crazy about.

Of course, he kicked me back. Just once. Hard. It was perfect justice.

It shocked me and it hurt. I had to wash the deep, gritty scrape on my leg in one of the bathroom sinks afterwards. Cathy and I didn’t discuss it, and I didn’t tell anyone about it.

I didn’t kick anyone after that.

I wonder: did he?

* * *

On Sunday I was listening to an interview on Radio National with Cordelia Fine, a research psychologist and the author of Delusions of Gender (2010).

She says that many claims in popular science writing about the hardwired nature of ‘male brains’ and ‘female brains’ are based on a misunderstanding of the findings of scientific studies.

In some cases, studies have been conducted and/or interpreted from a gender essentialist bias, which assumes from the outset that the differences between the sexes are fixed and natural.

There are sex differences in the brain, but it’s a mistake to assume that certain biological differences necessarily lead to predictable and consistent male or female patterns of behaviour.

Fine talks instead about ‘mosaics’ of male and female characteristics – and a huge amount of overlap in behaviours – resulting from the many factors which work alongside each other to produce gender.

Given what we know of the impact of experience on the brain, and the brain’s plasticity, it is clear that the ‘gender socialisation process’ goes far beyond either biological hardwiring or the role of parental influence – even if parents are determinedly gender neutral in their approach to raising children.

Gender is one of the very first human categories that children learn, along with age. They start to recognise which side of the gender divide they themselves fall on when they’re about two to three years old.

Gender is important to children because it’s one of the few ways, early on, they can assert their identity. It’s through gender socialisation that they learn how, in their culture, male is expressed or rejected, or how female is expressed or rejected.

In other words: pink isn’t just for girls, unless boys and girls learn that it is. And they learn, as we know, like sponges, by absorbing everything around them.

* * *

I have a silk velvet scarf dyed deep pink with cochineal which, if you don’t know and haven’t read A Perfect Red, is an insect from which a brilliant, colour-fast, truly red dye is derived. It produced the crimsons and scarlets worn by kings and queens, merchants and cardinals, and was one of the most valued commodities to come out of Mexico for several hundred years.

The scarf is draped over the back of the chair next to me like a still-living thing. The colour hums. Though pink and not red, it in no sense seems to be less than. It’s as saturated as it gets.

Do I love it because I’m female, because it’s feminine?

Or do I love it as a painter loves the colour in the world?

* * *
In a letter to a man I loved, I told him that his kisses on my cheeks felt like the pink blossoms of a tree in my memory dropping onto my face.

Did this image feminise him? And if it did, would that matter?

I have learned that even tenderness doesn’t always mean what it seems to.

But gentleness in love – that’s to be adored.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

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