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How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, From Birth to Tween
By Melissa Atkins Wardy
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Melissa Atkins Wardy
All rights reserved.
What Does It Mean to Redefine Girly?
As my eyes opened to the entwined problems of stereotyping and sexualization of ever-younger girls, a gnawing question wouldn't quiet down in my brain: Why in the world is my generation — including the most educated, well-traveled, worldly, and accomplished generation of women ever — allowing our girls to be raised in a cultural context of sleeping princesses and sassy, looks-obsessed pop stars? Surely we could do better and demand more.
During a playdate in 2006, when Amelia was a baby, a friend was challenging my stance on Disney princesses and why I didn't like them, when I retorted with something about not being crazy about the idea of teaching my daughter to wish on a star and wait for a prince, but rather wanting her to have the know-how to build a rocket ship and get to that star for herself. I said something about being sick of pink tiaras and wanting to give Amelia a different vision of being a girl but was unable to find anything as simple as a pilot or an astronaut on a T-shirt for a little girl. Hello, a-ha moment! I scooped up baby Amelia, ran out of the house, and raced home to fill two notebooks with ideas for an apparel and toy company that would offset the void I saw.
Later that night, as I was talking with my husband about all these ideas, I tried to convey that there needed to be a broader definition of girlhood. I tried explaining why I thought that tea parties, fancy hair ribbons, tutus, fairy wings, and princess stories were all a fun part of childhood, but with Disney having such a huge hold over the marketplace, princesses came in only one dainty variety and fairies came in tiny green dresses in poses reminiscent of the woman on the back of a semitruck's mud flap. I couldn't understand why there were no pirate or Lara Croft dolls or building and construction stuff in the girl aisles. Where were the detective kits and space or wildlife exploration toys? The message a consumer got in the mainstream toy aisles was that the most adventurous thing a girl might be interested in was becoming a veterinarian.
My husband agreed with much of what I was saying. He said he pictured taking our little girl to ballet class just as easily as tossing a football with her, teaching her to throw a spiral. Much like me, he had no use for passive princesses and all-pink products. He was very turned off by the sexy dolls and the "sassy" theme in girls' clothing. Already the protective father, he was uneasy about the sexualization of little girls and what it meant for their health and safety.
It felt really good to talk to him about these things and to know that he supported how I felt about the childhood I wanted Amelia to have. Yes, I was excited for her to grow bigger so that we could enjoy an outdoor tea party with lemonade and fancy cookies. I just expected we'd be doing that in celebration of capturing a crew of imaginary pirates and tying them to the tree fort as we walked away with their treasure. I wanted her childhood to be balanced. As we talked it became clear to me: We had to change our definition of what it meant to be "girly." We had to include all the amazing things girls were interested in and good at. We had to redefine girly.
The company I would come to form around this idea of redefining girly launched in May 2009 and has given me the opportunity to speak with tens of thousands of parents. Now four years in business, Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies has shipped empowering products to all fifty states and to fifteen countries. My social media sites and blog are active and incredible places for discussion as parents unpack and digest what is going on around their girls. There is most definitely a space in the marketplace for products and companies that empower, inspire, and build up our girls. In fact, things were going so well that in May 2012 I expanded the company to include and advocate for boys.
Redefining girly means that our girls will show the world they are more than demure princesses, sassy divas, or spoiled brats. It means our girls cannot be packaged and boxed into a stereotype. It means not all girls are the same. Our girls will show the world the great potential, intellect, and talents they hold. It means our girls are not defined by their gender. Redefining girly means we can expect the same great things for our daughters, and from our daughters, as we do our sons.
Redefining girly means a girl can love riding horses or building robots or painting or ballet or catching bugs or smashing a softball, and all of those things are girly. Redefining girly means doing away with the labels "girly girl" and "tomboy." The stereotypical girly girl pursuits are often unfairly viewed as frivolous by society, and the idea that a girl loving sports or science or nature is being "boyish" is sexist and insulting. Most girls are not so two-dimensional. Most girls I know are the best of both worlds. My own girl loves dressing up and art. She's never met a mud puddle or a bug she didn't like. She rarely plays with baby dolls, opting instead for "ocean animal rescue center." She is what society calls a girly girl and a tomboy, usually both in the same day.
Just as girls come in all shapes and sizes, so too do their personalities. Some girls truly do love princesses and fashion and baby dolls. Other girls only have eyes for science and sports. The important thing is to provide a childhood and a home where your daughter is exposed to everything, and let her choose her path. We need fashion designers and devoted stay-at-home moms just as much as we do electrical engineers and champion athletes. Our girls need the space to try it all, and follow where their hearts lead them.
We need to accept all girls as they are and encourage all of their interests, from taking care of babies to learning how to use tools, from shooting hoops to wearing a tiara. What I wish the families raising daughters to know is that there is no single right way to be a girl. The possibility that grows inside your girl each day is limitless.
Redefining girly means we will not limit our girls to the ideas and toys marketed to them, but rather let our girls define for themselves who they will be in this world.CHAPTER 2
Redefining Girly Starts Before Birth
Most people make the jump into parenting with little understanding of children's media and marketing. How could they? Media literacy — the ability to analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres, and forms — is not a skill our culture talks much about or assigns value to, and it's the rare young couple without kids who are actively tuned in to products and media marketed to children.
I can see how new parents get swept away in gendered marketing without even realizing it is there. There is such excitement and newness to having a baby and registering for gifts. All the new items coming into your home for your baby look adorable. Most couples are not thinking about gender stereotypes when they are picking out nursery decor, they are simply joyful over the idea of creating a happy home for their growing family.
If these couples were to take a step back and take in the big picture of children's marketing, they would notice these prevailing themes as they shopped for infant nursery bedding and room decorations:
Girls: flowers, butterflies, pink animals, ballerinas, princesses, and feminine patterns
Boys: cars, trucks, planes, trains, ships, animals in their normal colors, Noah's Ark, Wild West, pirates, and sports
And so it begins, before your baby is even born; the messages marketed to soon-to-be new baby boys and girls are very different. Girls will be told with no words at all to be pretty and delicate and stay close to home, while boys are urged to be masters of their universe and travel around their great big world. The girls' colors are very soft and quiet; conversely, the boys' colors are bold, bright, and strong. If these are the messages we accept for our infants, could this in some way alter the way we treat and parent the different sexes?
Nearly every product relating to infants — from baby shower invites to pacifiers to crib sheets to car seats and strollers — is color coded by gender. The infant clothing sections in the big box shops and mainstream department stores are nearly entirely divided into pink and blue. The divide is so commonplace that people fail to even think about it. In fact, I often hear people argue that babies are biologically predisposed to prefer their assigned colors, never mind that these assignments didn't actually appear in our culture en masse until around 1985. When our grandparents were children, blue was the preferred color for girls, red and pink for boys.
With advances in ultrasound technology, couples can learn the sex of their baby as early as fifteen weeks of gestation. Sure, parents want to know the sex of their child to help bond with the baby or ease the stress of pregnancy or to find out if they're finally having a girl after having three boys, and all of those are good reasons. Healthy babies and happy families are what we're after, and if knowing the sex helps your family, then that is great. But I have had more than one friend say they have to "find out what they are having" solely so they know what stuff to buy. What they are really saying is they need to know which colors to buy. This isn't really the fault of the parents, as virtually all baby products are color coded by gender and I'm sure a lot of families feel like they don't want to buy the "wrong color."
But parents who buy into the pink-and-blue divide should realize it has nothing to do with child development and everything to do with marketers wanting to increase consumerism. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that more than 66 percent of parents would want to find out the sex of their unborn child. Companies know this and adjust their products accordingly. Why create and sell one baby item when you can sell the same family both a girl version and a boy version of that item? When families buy color-coded and gender-themed products, they eventually purchase more stuff as they continue to have subsequent children of the opposite sex and thus require the opposite color or theme.
Say you are a family like mine, and you first have a baby girl and then a boy. If my husband and I had found out Amelia's sex before she was born and had received all pink and "feminine" items, how compelled would we have been to then acquire all blue items for our second child, a son? How accepting is our culture of boys draped in pink or flowers? Not very.
The interesting thing is, I have yet to meet a baby who cares what color its clothes and stroller are. If you think about it, most babies are pretty much the same, and have the same needs. Pink or blue is not one of them. Whenever I'm buying a baby gift for a family, I like to put together a themed gift basket (such as safari or farm animals) and include board books and bath toys and a gift certificate to a locally owned clothing store or the Pigtail Pals shop. I try to find items that represent a rainbow of color.
My husband and I did not find out the sex of our children before their births. Both times I was expecting, I was heavily pregnant over Christmas and thought it would be fun to have the doctor write down the sex and seal it in an envelope we could open on Christmas morning. My husband was adamant we wait and be surprised at birth. Looking back, I'm so glad we made this choice. When people heard we were expecting, they would ask what we were having. My answer was always the same: "A small baby." Several people were exasperated with me, saying they had no idea what to buy "it" because they needed to know if it was a boy or girl. I usually replied with something like, "I am so happy about your excitement for the arrival of this child. Children's books and toys would be a wonderful addition to our home."
I've had some friends use very clever ways to announce the arrival of their girls. One friend found out they were having a second daughter and posted a Facebook status update that read, "The Girl Power is about to double in our house! Baby Girl arriving in September!" Another friend announced the arrival of her gorgeous daughter with a birth announcement that read, "There's a new sheriff in town, and she means business!" Both were great ways to set the tone for how they wanted their friends and family to regard the new little girl who had joined their lives. I watched those posts with interest, because most of the comments were about how awesome girls are to raise, how fun it will be to have a girl, how cool girls are, and so on.
On the other hand, I have another friend who announced the impending arrival of her daughter with, "Our world is about to turn pink!" and nearly every single comment was about being excited to meet her "new little princess." This is a great example in the difference between the color pink and "pink culture." I like the color pink. I wear it frequently, as does my daughter. My favorite shoes are fuchsia pink and I've even been known to put dark pink highlights in my hair. But I don't subscribe to pink culture, for me or my daughter. My daughter has never worn a piece of clothing that refers to her as a princess or an entitled shopaholic. We managed to go six years with virtually no Disney princesses or Barbies in our house, we don't refer to her as a "drama queen" or "sassy diva" as if it is something to achieve, and we steer clear of senseless gendered marketing (often called pinkification).
Pink is a lovely color among many to be enjoyed by both boys and girls. Pink culture is an assuming and limiting way to box a little girl into a preconceived notion of what she will like, how she will act, and what she will do. Essentially, pink culture (also called princess culture) tells a girl how to be a female, and the definition is a very narrow one.
From the time she was born, we have never called Amelia "Princess" as a nickname. Store clerks and nurses have, and she has set them straight, since the age of three, astutely correcting them that she is indeed not a princess. She has never liked princesses. We've called her Lia, Chippy, Choodle, "my babes," Pumpkin, Sweetie Bee, Smooch, and for the entire year that she was three years old she demanded she be called Amelia Dinosaur. I call her Smalls because she is my mini-me. My husband calls her Chippy because when she was a baby her laugh sounded like a chipmunk. My dad calls her Beetle because of the way she crawled as an infant. My mom calls her Rascal Pants. Her beloved uncles also call her Smalls, in reference to a great movie character from The Sandlot. Her auntie has a South African-Canadian accent and has the most beautiful way of saying "Amelia My Girl." My best friend met Amelia when she was twelve hours old and has always called her Buddy. Her baby brother Benny calls her Nama. Her little cousin calls her Mia. If you were to meet Amelia and mistakenly call her Princess, she would let you know that she is a "science-exploring girl" named after a heroic aviator. If nothing else, I am proud my daughter is not a foregone conclusion.
On the flip side, of all the nicknames we have for her little brother, we've never called him Prince, nor has anyone else. Have you noticed that there is hardly any focus on boys being princes or acting in a princely, gallant manner? In fact, they are told and encouraged to be rowdy, loud, sporty, mischievous, messy monsters.
I'd much rather we let our children define childhood for themselves while we adults take our gender stereotypes, forced upon them before they even take their first breath, and get out of their way.CHAPTER 3
How to Start Redefining Girly in Your Home
In the early years of parenthood, we have a lot of control over what our kids are exposed to. As the parent to a small child, you are the authority on what toys, clothes, and media come into your home.
This becomes less true as the children grow and move into their school years (or day care) and as their development shifts and friends replace parents as a central influence. We don't parent in a vacuum: Gender stereotypes and sexualization are going to creep into our home. They are a pestilence. Both elements are part of our culture, as are our children. We cannot escape that culture, but we can be smart parents who raise children who know how to think critically and who will not be defined by it.
Parents never really lose their clout, and children want our guidance, so it is important we stay on top of our game. Even in my house, where my husband and I are vigilant, our kids are not immune to picking things up from our culture that we would prefer they hadn't. Some of the things I hear them parrot drive me up the wall. But I do not feel as though I've failed as a parent or that they have done something wrong; I take it in stride and remember the foundation they are getting at home is what is most important.
When your kids come home saying keen things like, "Pink is only for girls and blue is only for boys" or "I'm going to grow up to be a princess and marry a rich prince and be a mommy," and your Free to Be ... You and Me self is standing there in shock, you keep calm and carry on, as the saying goes. We always say, "Colors are for everyone" at our house. The kids can have their favorite colors, which generally change on a monthly basis, but they are not allowed to limit what someone else may like. Whenever the kids repeat a stereotype, I try to find the positive in their words and work from there. I would respond to the "I want to marry a rich prince" comment with, "Oh, it is so fun to grow up and fall in love with someone special. I love being a mommy, but I also like that I support our family by working and traveling for a job I love. Do you want me to tell you a story about that?" That way you are not making your children ashamed of what they are saying, but rather repackaging it and giving them a wider idea to work with. There is a great amount of power in telling your own stories to challenge what they are absorbing from media and our culture.
Excerpted from Redefining Girly by Melissa Atkins Wardy. Copyright © 2014 Melissa Atkins Wardy. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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