Pink Slows the Heartbeat

There’s a room in Collingwood where you can smash whatever you want.

It’s called The Break Room. Break meaning to smash, fracture, bust and destroy, but also to take a break—to relax. Have a breather. Chill out.

The Break Room is actually two rooms side by side. They’re small—two by two metres. Two of the walls are made of flimsy plywood. The rest are brick. Three walls are painted white, while the fourth remains a rough, raw red; it’s the throwing wall. At the foot of the throwing wall is a pile of rubble almost a metre high. The room smells of plaster dust, stale and powdery.

Ed founded The Break Room when he was working as a project manager in a marketing company. He’s a tall blonde man with a glossy smile. He says things like, ‘Awesome!’ and ‘Right on!’ and seems too laissez-faire for someone who spends their days surrounded by screaming, clashing smashing.

 ‘So, what brings you guys to The Break Room?’ Ed asks. He’s impeccably friendly, and it puts me on edge.

I look over at Max. He’s not as pissed off as he was an hour ago, when he’d sworn at traffic and slammed his hands against the steering wheel. He certainly isn’t as mad as he was two hours before that, when he stormed out of a work meeting and—too furious for words—sat stationary in his car until I got there.

‘Bad day?’ I hedge.

Ed nods, grins and laughs. ‘All right!’

Max steps into the room. He’s wearing white coveralls, thick gloves and a clear face shield. In one hand is a pale pink bat—Baker-Miller pink, the shade used to calm inmates in prisons—and in the other is a white coffee mug. He looks back at us through the thin, plastic window next to the door with a smile. He nods, holds the cup up to the screen of the safety mask and pretends to take a sip. Then, he spins around and piffs the mug at the solid brick wall. The mug hurtles through the air, spinning, then crashes into the wall and bursts apart in a high-pitched shatter. He turns back to the window, top lip curled, brow tense, the whites of his eyes wide.

It’s not real aggression though, because soon he’s laughing. Soon, he’s lobbing dishes like Frisbees. Soon, he’s bashing the pink bat into the mass of rubble beneath the wall and then moonwalking across the concrete floor. Soon, he’s chucking plates into the air and swinging at them mid-fall, spinning the bat around and around like a baseball player.

Everywhere you look in pop culture, there’s anger. Not real anger, of course, but the kind of dramatised anger that dominates video games, music and television. Anger thrums behind TV shows like Game of Thrones, drives games like Grand Theft Auto and fuels tabloid scandals about celebrity feuds. In the film clip to Hold Up, Beyoncé walks down the street violently smashing cars with a baseball bat, showing that anger can be equally creative and destructive. Being angry is normal—it’s part of being human—but expressing anger is rarely seen as dignified. Convey real anger beyond a Facebook ‘angry react’ and it quickly becomes taboo. We have an internal clause when expressing anger—‘it’s okay to be angry,’ but ‘not like that.’ 

Once, on a particularly unpleasant day when I was in a particularly unpleasant mood, a man cut me off on an escalator. My body stiffened, my throat tightened. The escalator crawled, each second drawn out by petty agitation. Finally, at the top of the escalator, I rushed forward to overtake the man and—stopped, right in front of him. He toppled over me, swearing, and I gave him a curt, satisfied grin. He caught his balance and walked away. Once he left, I felt pathetic. I didn’t feel any less angry for having lashed out. Instead, I redirected my anger towards myself. It’s unusual for me to act on my anger, but in that moment I was so out of touch with what I felt, I didn’t know how to stop it in its tracks.

On these rare occasions when I feel the full rush of anger, it’s top-heavy. From my fingers (prickly, clenched, reactive) to my head (swollen, dizzy, pounding). I feel it most when I’m tired, when I’m hungry, or when a bus driver refuses to stop. On the whole, anger doesn’t suit me. Instead, I feel small stings of agitation, easy to push down.

There’s a tension between how we’re allowed to express anger publicly, and our belief that fraught emotions like anger need to be punctured with climax and release.  We believe that we need to purge our negative emotions to return to a state of calm.

‘Although it sounds elegant, it’s completely false,’ says Dr Brad Bushman, professor at The Ohio State University.  Catharsis, while seemingly the natural resolution to anger, doesn’t help.  Catharsis comes from the Greek words kathairein (cleanse) and katharos (pure). In anger, catharsis is often achieved by hitting a punching bag, screaming into a pillow, or, in the context of The Break Room, smashing stuff. Bushman has studied anger—along with catharsis and violence—for over thirty years. His findings show, overwhelmingly, that catharsis—while offering temporary relief from tension—ultimately makes people angrier. Catharsis primes us for more anger by creating a feedback loop. Get angry, break a plate, feel release. It’s quick and satisfying. Over time, the brain learns that anger leads to positive rewards—the feel-good release of catharsis. Eventually though, breaking a plate won’t be enough to feel the same release. Just like regular drug users have to increase their dose in order to achieve the same high, catharsis makes our brains crave increasing intensity: first a plate, then a dining set, then a fist through a plasterboard wall.

 In 1969, Alexander Schauss became intrigued by the idea that colour could have a physiological effect on humans. He carried out a number of tests, determining that people associated specific colours with specific moods. Red, for example, was associated with anger.

Schauss ran a series of experiments on the physical effects of colour on humans. One specific shade of pink, created by blending red semi-gloss outdoor paint with pure white indoor latex paint, was able to slow his subjects’ heartbeat. Red, the colour of love, passion and rage was muted with white: purity, light and death. The colour was later named Baker-Miller pink after the two correctional facility directors who were brave enough to paint their prisoners’ cells pink at Schauss’ request. Painting men’s rooms pink wasn’t a popular suggestion. Anger is still less taboo than being seen as girly. The colour was illuminated under full spectrum fluorescent lights to ensure the pink remained intact, undistorted and true to hue. Before painting the holding cell pink, intake officers remarked that hostile behaviour by new inmates was a ‘whale of a problem’.  After switching to Baker-Miller pink, the facility experienced zero hostile outbreaks. ‘Even if a person tries to be angry or aggressive in the presence of pink, he can’t. The heart muscles can’t race fast enough,’ said Strauss. ‘Even the colour blind are tranquilised by pink rooms.’ If his claim is true, he’s never proven how.

Later, in the 1970s, subjects were shown a coloured card and asked to resist the pressure of an experimenter pushing against their arms. When faced with a blue card, they all succeeded. When faced with pink, they failed.

Long before these experiments, in June 1918, an article published by Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department declared, ‘The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’

Sometime after the First World War, the symbolism of colour changed. Advertising boomed, mass-consumption became commonplace and marketing began to shape our identities.

When I was four or five, caught in the pink-tinted craze of Barbie dolls, I asked my dad to paint my room pink. The idea that my suppression of anger is some pink-clad conspiracy cunningly sold to little girls is laughably dystopian. Still, the thought has struck me.

Most of The Break Room’s guests are women.

In fact, the very idea for The Break Room began with a woman. Dumped by her husband of 12 years, Sarah Lavely started a morning tradition of hauling his stuff outside and smashing it on her long, asphalt driveway. Once she ran out of things to break, she still craved the catharsis. So she opened Sarah’s Smash Shack, a place in San Diego much like The Break Room, only with a unique focus on smashing the belongings of ex-lovers. Sarah’s Smash Shack has long since closed, but to many women the appeal of smashing stuff lives on. While Baker-Miller pink is designed to suppress anger, The Break Room is designed to express it. Neither serves to dismantle anger’s underlying cause.

One lunchtime, a woman in her mid-thirties came into The Break Room alone. She stepped into the coveralls, pulled on the gloves and slipped the plastic face shield over her head. Ed stayed outside as she entered the room and kept a half-eye on her through the Perspex pane. Then, her loud, banshee shriek caught his attention. He stood to the side, watching as she heaved her entire body behind each blow, almost hurtling herself into the wall. She gave a guttural yell and thrust the bat a foot deep into the rubble at the base of the wall, stumbling over the force of it. Ed watched her transfixed. Anger like that is fleeting. It dies down for most people before they reach The Break Room. Even in Ed’s profession, it’s rare to see the full force of it.

The woman smashed the final plate with a shout, then doubled over to catch her breath. She stood, shut her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose.

‘So, what’s on for the rest of the day?’ Ed asked, curious but never invasive.

The woman set the pink bat down by the door, removed her gloves and lifted the mask.

‘Oh, nothing,’ she said, ‘just picking up the kids from school.’

Over a decade ago, Deborah Cox co-authored a book on women’s anger, called The Anger Advantage. In it, she claims that anger can be a remarkable, positive tool for transforming women’s lives.

‘Women may be uncomfortable with feeling angry, but when you get right down to it, they often act on their anger just as well as men do,’ says Cox.

My friend’s housemate, a woman in her twenties, used to take the old crockery from her share house’s kitchen to the back yard, hold it above her head with two hands, and thrust it down onto the concrete paving in a satisfying crash.

‘I have seriously contemplated driving my car through my home for “effect”,’ writes Casey Wilson for Lenny Letter.

Courtney Love punched Kathleen Hanna onstage at Lollapalooza ‘95. She lashed out ‘for absolutely no reason’, or so said the media at the time. While Cox claims that anger can transform women’s lives, women have to live with the criticism and denigration that comes with it.

Women get angry (for absolutely no reason). Women act on their anger (for absolutely no reason). And when they do, women face the consequences. Courtney Love was the bad girl, the wild child, the bitch. When she acted on her anger (for absolutely no reason) she was punished. She should have held it in, taken a deep breath, and acted her age.

I have friends who have carried knives (for absolutely no reason) ever since their assault. They’re angry (for absolutely no reason) and irrational. They’re dangerous. More dangerous, perhaps, than the men who assaulted them.

Max steps out of The Break Room, pulls off his plastic mask and fluffs his red hair with a white-gloved hand.

‘That was fun,’ he says. ‘Your turn.’

I pull my own, clunky mask over my eyes and step into the room. The mask, while clear, is smudged in places, giving the room an eerie Vaseline glow.

Within seconds, I realise that I hate breaking things. Not only that: I’m bad at it. Really bad. Most of my attention is spent trying to hold the bat the right way, then coordinate throwing a glass while wearing thick gloves. I throw a cup in the air, swing and miss. The cup falls to the ground with a clang, but doesn’t break. I pick the cup up and lob it at the wall. It shatters, and the sound is piercing and unsatisfying. I flinch away from it. I don’t feel angry. I just feel anxious. My chest is tight and I want to get out of there.

I find myself breaking things for absolutely no reason and I hate it. The Break Room is supposed to be a sanctuary for women who can delay their anger until an opportune, socially appropriate moment. ‘Break things, feel good’ is Ed’s slogan, but I don’t feel good at all. Despite the sanctuary, I’m no good at being angry.

Part of me worries that I’ve delayed my anger too long.

“It’s no coincidence that women’s monstrosity manifests during times of hormonal flux”, Rebecca Harkins-Cross writes in The Lifted Brow.

Teenage girls make good monsters, and I was one. I never lashed out in anger, but withdrew and hid in my room. Like a good daughter, I directed it inwards. Still, anger is catching in nature, and it hummed between my mother and me.

“Look at Gandhi over here,” she’d say. “Queen of passive resistance.”

I took my anger and folded it in on myself. I’d see red seeping, wet and dark, into white underwear and write off my anger as some kind of menstrual madness.

‘Do you feel suppressed?’ a friend later asks.

‘No,’ I say, then pause. ‘Maybe.’

Suppression is hard to recognise when it’s all you’ve known. Since days playing with pink Barbie dolls, I’ve been taught to be meek, polite and quiet. I’ve learned to subdue my anger, or face the repercussions.

Anger glows red beneath the white, ghostly gloss of indignation. Anger shows us the world as it is, and the world as we want it to be. Anger, red like revolution, drives us to be better. In a 1981 speech, Audre Lorde declared, ‘My response to racism is anger … Focused with precision [anger] can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.’ Authors like Roxane Gay have written some of their greatest essays in two hours of rage-driven inspiration. Anger is loaded with potential. It gets us fired up, ready to take to the streets and fight back against the injustices we see in the world. It’s no wonder society teaches women to tread lightly around our anger—otherwise we might change the world.

Using catharsis to self-medicate anger perpetuates cycles of unspoken emotions and patriarchal violence. Still, I want to feel anger’s destructive throes. I want anger to be physical—then, at least, it seems more real. If I can unlock my anger and indulge it—even destructively—perhaps I’ll be able to access its constructive power, too.

Maybe, with anger as my fuel, I’ll be able to rise up when I’m told to stay small.

Our connection with colour runs deep: red enlivens, blue soothes. Yet wars have been fought over rare ultramarine pigments, and the red glow of sunset calms our bodies into sleep. Red symbolises warning and danger, but in nature, blue warns us ‘do not eat’. Wherever there’s a rule, there’s a contradiction.

The symbolism of colour never interested me as much as the physicality: how blue suppresses appetite and pink can slow a heartbeat. Now, however, I believe the two are intertwined. Perhaps pink does soften us, but maybe that’s only because we’re taught that pink is soft.

A few years ago, a team of European researchers attempted to replicate Schauss’ experiment. They went to a prison, repainted the rooms and witnessed the results of Strauss’ study replicated before their eyes. The only difference? They painted the cells white, not pink. Perhaps, the researchers argued, a fresh lick of paint made all the difference. They called it the ‘fresh paint hypothesis’, claiming that repainting a room any colour, even garish hot pink, could reduce violent outbreaks. But even if fresh paint works for a while, it does little more than gloss over the root cause of anger layered underneath.

There are few studies on colour that demonstrate an innate, physiological effect. Strauss lived in an era of experimentation and psychotherapy. While his findings are now contested, prisons around the world are still painted pink. The inmates in pink painted rooms, despite doubtful evidence, remain calm. Perhaps it’s what we learn about colours—what they symbolise to us—that affects us most of all.

This essay was originally published in Voiceworks No. 110, Summer 2017–18.

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