The day began like any other—a friend stopped by and I showed him a cute picture of my three year old daughter. He was a father of three girls and we enjoyed sharing stories about our crazy little ones. There was nothing special about the picture: it was just my girl sitting in her Disney Cars jammies making a silly face. “Oh, my daughter has the same Cars pajamas,” he commented. “She loves them.” I told him I had to buy them in the boys section of the Disney store, but who cares, she was so excited. He and his wife had done the same. We talked a bit more and patted ourselves on the back for being so progressive—we didn’t push our daughters towards pink and princesses. We embraced when they wanted to watch “boys” movies and play with cars. Gender neutrality, here we come!
Later that day, I shared the same photo with a different colleague—a mother of a son just a bit older than my daughter. She mentioned that her son had Cars jammies as well. No big deal. But what she said next has probably been the single most influential comment on how I raise my children with regards to gender.
“You know, at first he didn’t want the Cars pajamas. He wanted Tinkerbell. He loves Tinkerbell. He watches all the movies all the time. I had to convince him to get the Cars pajamas because that was just too much. I don’t think my husband could handle it and quite frankly I don’t know if I could either. He does wear Tinkerbell diapers all the time though; that was our compromise because we could at least cover those up.”
It was in that moment that I realized where many of us are failing our daughters if we are truly trying to raise strong, confident girls.
Gender equality is important. There is always talk about how far we’ve come, whether or not we’re at gender parity, and what should or shouldn’t be done to support gender equality going forward. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, most of us would probably admit that we would act as my colleague did—try to minimize the way in which a young boy displays any signs of femininity as if there’s something wrong with it. Even though we know rationally that this has nothing to do with sexual orientation—the boy just liked a Disney character.
But we have to acknowledge that this instinct works to the detriment of our daughters. The fact is, we are fine with telling our girls that they can dress in colors other than pink, like trucks and cars, and play traditionally male sports, but we are not fine with telling either our girls or boys that it’s okay to like and do things that are traditionally viewed as feminine.
I hear arguments about the pinkification of our daughters, and I wholeheartedly agree. The problem is that we’re already here. Girls do like pink. And princesses. And twirling around like ballerinas in tutus. And taking care of their baby dolls. And dressing up in makeup and heels like their mothers. Girls are inundated with it from the day they’re born. It’s virtually impossible to avoid in our gender-divided world. We are not really giving our girls choice.
So we overcompensate by telling them to be more like boys, or less like girls. What message do we think this sends? We need to be teaching both sexes that femininity and masculinity are equally as important and not mutually exclusive. And the most feminine girl can be smart, assertive, and daring. And feminine boys are not pansies. They can be strong, decisive, and confident.
Let’s stop patting ourselves on the back for convincing or letting our girls to be less “girly” and instead start raising the perception on what being “girly” really means.
For the record, I now have a son as well. Some days he loves to wear a fluffy skirt and fairy wings, others an Elsa dress. I think he wants to be just like his big sis and that’s great. We’ve never told him to take it off, not even when we were headed out. And the other day, when he walked up to my husband to show how he looked in his Elsa dress, I couldn’t have been more proud when my husband told the little guy how great he looked without hesitation. Some people think we’re nuts for letting him wear it. Others think his sister forced him into dressing up. I let them know that the little guy picked it out on his own, and it is no different than the fireman dress up costume or trains and cars he plays with.
I don’t want my daughter to be a girly-girl. I don’t want her to be a boy either. I just want her to be herself—confident and comfortable in her own skin. Part of my job as a parent is to get her there by showing her how proud we are to have her be whatever type of woman she chooses to be.