Why the Color Red / by Lillian Cohen

If Blue is the Warmest Color, then red must be the coolest.

Crimson. Scarlet. Garnet. Ruby. Rose. The color red represents a host of emotions. It’s violence, splattered blood across open fields and sidewalks. It’s love and lust, endless passion and romance, noontime kisses to midnight boot knocking. It’s pain, heartbreak, and hurt. The qualities of red are all connected, making up both the struggles of our lives and our insides.

And, being so, red also structures one of the longest held constructs of society: gender. Or at least the expression of it. The scale of femininity and masculinity have always been closely tied with red, the pigment expressing power and dominance, but also menstruation and life.

In fact, pink was initially “considered slightly masculine as a diminutive of red,” said director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Valerie Steele, in The Atlantic. It was Sigmund Freud and his followers in psychology that changed this, creating another layer of stereotype to the strict binary that exists in mainstream society today.

In olden times, if you could afford to have red clothes, rather than dingy neutral browns and grays or greens, you were considered wealthy. Since royalty or those in power could afford such luxuries, such became associated with the desire for beauty and dominance. According to Michel Pastoureau’s book Red: The History of a Color, red was the first color to be developed for painting or dye, and therefore became a symbol for power in society. Red is bold. It gives a likeness in pink. It’s seen as beautiful and captivating. Maybe that’s why it’s also so entangled in romance.

A study run by The Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University built a foundation of relation between love and heartache as a set of goals. Love itself was stated to be “goals” and “rewards” of dopamine in the brain for these achievements.

“Just because the ‘reward’ is delayed in coming (or, more to the point, not coming at all), that doesn’t mean the neurons that are expecting ‘reward’ shut down. They keep going, waiting and waiting for a ‘fix,’” stated a scientific analysis magazine at University of California Berkeley, Greater Good Magazine. “Even though cognitively they knew that their relationships were over, part of each participant’s brain was still in motivation mode.”

Red is the color of distinction. That’s why it relates so much to beauty and strength, or the implementation of those colors meaning to sprout these characteristics in their wearer. Prostitutes used to wear red as a way to separate themselves from ordinary women during the rise of the Roman Empire and Later Middle Ages. Political candidates today wear red, along with blue, traditionally, to present favorably to the public. Businesspeople are said to do so as well for similar reasons. The National Institute of Health reports wearing red as an athlete can make the referees judge in your favor.

And it is within this temptation and lust, this show of strength and dominance, this favoritism towards the bolder side, that the thin line between romance and violence is drawn. There is scorn in love and lust and there is loss. The same fiery center stems from both experiences.

When you meet a prospective partner, no matter their intentions, sometimes we wear rose-colored glasses: only seeing the best in people, avoiding red flags, and signals to take a step back for inventory of the situation. The positive experiences that you have with that person—active attention, unforgettable dates, charming smiles, grand gestures, and great sex—release dopamine in the brain, making it easy to become addicted to them and their attention, like nicotine. People tend to stick around through the bad and sometimes violent moments of love, waiting for the good. The separation, self-doubt, and depression can improve the high. Dopamine actually flows more readily in the brain when there’s “intermittent reinforcement,” an unsteady stream, rather than building up a tolerance.

When having built up this sense of literal need for our partners, we benefit from the pain and loss. We crave it, though we may not know it at the time. We know that getting that person back, those few moments of original charm, will give us the headrush we need. Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and author, even found that “frustration attraction,” dealing with bumps in the road in a romantic partnership, actually made those involved develop stronger feelings for one another, rather than deterring them.

So, rather than the warm-hued tone we’ve known red to be until this point, maybe it’s pigment really is the coolest color.

Photography by: Ben Ayotte and Kate Cunningham