My four-year-old son likes the colour pink. He likes it on everything: pink socks, pink toys, pink paint, pink glitter. Sometimes he even wears a pink plastic ring to school.

My son also knows that he is a boy, and that boys are not allowed to like pink. Not one to be deterred, he’s come up with his own solution. From now on, pink will be called orange and orange, pink.

“Are you wearing your pink ring today?”

“Don’t be silly! It’s orange! It has to be orange because orange is for boys!”

Let’s be clear: there’s no real reason why pink should be pink and orange should be orange. They’re just identifying words. Sometimes it won’t even be clear which one you should use, or if either is appropriate. Is salmon pink really orange? And coral? And what if your paint was pink but then you added more and more yellow? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. There is pink and there is orange but not everything needs to be judged on how pink or how orange it is. They’re just the outer shades, not the things in themselves. Even so, I wish my son didn’t feel the need to switch words around solely on the basis that pink is not allowed.

Sometimes — often, in fact — I tell him that it is okay for boys to like pink. He doesn’t believe me and why would he? As far as he’s concerned I’m a lone voice spouting nonsense in a world in which everything is gender-referenced. He has, however, told me that I mustn’t worry.

“You’re a girl, Mummy. You can like pink, and purple too.”

“What about the other colours?”

“They’re all for boys.”

“But what if I say I like blue?”

“You can’t like blue.”

“My dress is blue.”

“No, it’s not. It’s purple.”


“Purple. You can’t have blue.”

And so he corrects my language in response to his fear.


This isn’t the only argument we have over colours. The colour “yellow” is, my son insists, pronounced “lellow”. We have told him that this isn’t so, but to no effect.

“Most people will say yellow. That’s what people will understand.”

“It’s lellow.”



We agree to disagree (were he more pompous than the average four-year-old, he’d tell me language evolves and that I just need to get with it). Anyhow, both of us knows what the other means. What is lellow to him can be yellow to me. That is just fine. Yellow can be lellow. And as for orange and pink? Well, who cares? Anything for a quiet life.

I don’t have much investment in these words — pink, orange, yellow. There is nothing within them that defines me or causes me pain. They don’t capture my sense of self, or things for which I and others have fought. I don’t feel unsettled at the thought of pink ceasing to mean what it currently does. I do not think people would view formerly pink objects as non-objects, drained of all meaning. The pink objects would be just fine.


It’s not the same with other words, such as male and female. Sometimes you need them to articulate who you are and what you experience. You need them to describe your world and to express the things you need. If someone else takes those words from you they take not just language, but context. They make you an unstable entity, subject to the whims of others to define what you are.

If you are a woman with a female body, you will be used to this happening. It will have happened throughout your life. You’re used to being a hollow vessel, a blank canvas, a vacant plot of land viewed as worthless unless a man plants his seed. You’re used to the belief that you’re incapable of self-definition. You exist only for others. The “you” words – those which express the cultural backdrop to your individuality – aren’t really yours. They’re only available on loan. You’re don’t really have an identity in any fixed sense. You are a shape with no inner life. You might experience womanhood, but you don’t really know what it means. You’re a person, yes – we’ll let you use that word – but you’re not one who’s capable of self-knowledge. There’s nothing really, truly real about you.

Why should those with female bodies be permitted to define them as such? Because it matters. Because that is what they are and because self-definition is not an act of violence. It is not an act of exclusion. It’s an act of self-possession, and it is one which the women who choose to access it deserve.

They deserve a context for the violence wrought upon them, and a context through which to describe the hate they experience. They deserve a context which describes oppressive beliefs about their personhood and the purpose of their bodies. They deserve a space in which to say “this is my shape and form, this is the context in which I experience it, and these are the ways in which cultural prejudice erases my personhood. My experience of womanhood is defined by not by internal map, but by being a person in this body and negotiating a world which doesn’t value bodies like mine.”


I am not discussing gender dysphoria in terms of colour preference; I know that that is not what it is. I am discussing words and their relationship to ownership of the self. It’s increasingly assumed that this does not matter to women with female bodies, floating along in their privileged bubble of non-reality. Any claims these women make over language are not related to their sense of self but must instantly be recast as an aggressive rejection of others. After all, aren’t these women always defined in relation to others? Without others to define them, what would they be? The very idea that such a woman could not be accommodating – that she would not be willing to give up the words that describe her reality – is considered beyond the pale. How could she be so non-inclusive! How could she be so selfish! And yet it is not true that a surrender of meaning comes at no cost.

If you are female, I am not female, at least not if female means something different to you and we are obliged to speak your language alone. I become a non-female. Unless you can articulate our common ground – unless you can say what makes us both female in words which relate not just to your experiences, but to our objective realities – then you have taken my femaleness away. Because I can’t accept yours as mine – I don’t actually believe in yours as mine – and you’ve denied me the context in which to speak of what mine means to me. Shared oppression is not enough; we are not life’s photographic negatives. My femaleness is real and substantial and it is not yours. We are different and the same words mean different things to each of us.

Sharing language is not the same as renouncing meaning. I don’t accept that my truth – that female reproduction is a reality and source of oppression – is disposable. I do not think it inclusive to demand that I give it away. There has to be some truth – some femaleness, some womanhood, some something – and if it is not mine, it is yours. Yours is not more inclusive than mine. It does not welcome me and it does not describe the self I know. And that, in some ways, is fine. I’d rather our two truths co-existed uneasily, rubbing each other up the wrong way, lellow and yellow, pink and orange. I’d rather our truths muddled along than that mine was automatically considered inferior to yours, or only read in the context of a perceived fear of you. I don’t read your truth as an attack on me but I am owed the same courtesy in return.

We can use the same word for different things, sometimes. We can swap words around, personalise them, or learn the language of another. I am a linguist. I like learning other languages. They broaden rather than limit my perspective. They don’t take from me, they enhance. But in learning and growing I’ve never been asked to pay for each new word I learn with the ones I already use. I’ve never been told that the price of new perspectives is the meaning I already value.

The world I want is one in which my son will not feel forced to change his vocabulary rather than admit his love of pink. I want his words to express enjoyment of difference, not a fear of transgressing arbitrary codes. But it’s also a world in which I’d hope the when understanding is possible – when it’s either yellow or lellow and it makes no difference – we’d go the extra mile to make conversation across boundaries a possibility. We can and should define the battles that matter. Whatever our definitions, we’re all of us people, not blank canvasses on which to project the fears that are ours alone.