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Keep that Poufy Pink Dress Away from my Daughter

by School's Out Washington | | Posted under Opinions

by Emily Emerson, Professional Development Coordinator

On February 13th of 2011 I had a baby girl, Harriet Eulalie Emerson. Having had pregnancy difficulties, we were ecstatic to have a healthy baby. Cute, huh? (Top baby, covered in pumpkin).

When I was pregnant I was always intrigued by folks who would ask, “What is it?” My usual response was “Human we hope” with a smile. Sometimes I would add, “we are going to wait till the child is a teen so the child can tell us what gender it is.” I got some interesting responses.

That “what is it” is a question I have asked others many times and is frequently the first question that pops into our heads when we learn someone we care about is pregnant. And it is something most of us want to know. But why is it the firstquestion?I should make a confession right now; I am a feminist. Not to the exclusion of the other work I do on racism, heterosexism, classism and other oppressions, but in addition to. So thinking about gender is something I have continually done, in my personal life and my professional life. And now I have a little girl. Now I am experiencing first-hand the gender shaping of my child.Because my interests and work have predominately been with adolescents, my knowledge of gender-limiting societal expectations was very much focused on media and youth, peer relationships. What a shock it has been to delve into little girlhood…just shopping for clothes is an exercise in values…do I choose the beautiful pink dress that will look so sweet with her bright red hair or should I go with something more gender neutral? And why is it that people seem to assume a baby is a boy unless the child is covered in frou frou flowers and pink? Hmmmmm.

So our family makes choices. We dress her in all sorts of clothes. We provide all sorts of toys. And I tell her every day she is smart and strong. I am not sure what is right, but I do know I want her to have choices.

And I’ll admit I live in fear of the princess stage. It’s not just the frilly pink stuff that turns me off; it is the sexualization of toddlers, the unabashed consumerism and the dissuasion of the intellectual that really concerns me. I recently listened to KUOW’s Speaker’s Forum with Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie–Girl Culture. And it blew my mind. I like to think I have some knowledge of how gender expectations can limit children and youth’s personal expression and sometimes lead to violence and even suicide…but I hadn’t really thought about or frankly paid attention to the little girl culture that much.

I was instantly interested when Peggy mentioned she her focus on adolescent girls changed when she became a parent of a girl. She threw herself into the toddler to tween world to better understand the dynamics of gender in the younger years. In the talk, she shares a study she reviewed: 2000 elementary school girls surveyed from the years of 2000 to 2007 showed that, through the years, there was an increase of intense concern about weight and appearance. Girls are being taught at a very young age that how they look is who they are and it is getting worse.

Pretty in pink

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie–Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein

Peggy goes on to define “sexualization” as one or a combination of the following: when a girl learns that her value comes primarily form her appearance, especially looking hot OR she is held to a narrow standard equating physical attractiveness with being sexy OR she sexually objectives herself or is objectified, she judges her body by how she thinks it looks to others rather than how it feels to her OR adult sexuality is inappropriately imposed on her. One of the main drivers of this sexualitzation are the companies that sell childhood products. She found that one of these companies use pink for girls and blue for boys so as to double sales. If a family has a little boy then all the clothes, toys and gear must be blue.  Then the family has a little girl, well then they have to go out and purchase all new pink clothes, toys and gear.

Another astonishing tidbit I took away from her talk: Peggy visits a national toy fair. She walks into one company’s display that has a pink banner that reads “Beautiful, colorful and pink” and another that reads “Energy, heroes and power.” Guess which part of the room had the “girl” products and which have the “boy” products.And sure, a pink princess toy is not going to, in and of itself, sexualize my child. But the prolific messages coming from everywhere have an impact. Peggy shares that studies are showing as girls focus on appearance more and more they become at risk for multiple vulnerabilities for distorted body image, poor sexual choices, low self-esteem, etc.I could go on and on and I urge you to take a listen. I like her answers to the parenting concerns that she raises.  My main take away is, as a parent AND a Child and Youth Development Professional, that I limit and not censor. That I expand Hattie Lalie’s sense of what it means to be male or female and encourage her to question and challenge a binary gender paradigm.

Now, how do we do that in practice…I think there is a workshop somewhere in here…

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