Here’s a familiar scenario: Preschool-aged girl walks into a room sporting a pink tutu, butterfly wings, and a plastic tiara. She’s wielding a fairy wand and spinning on child-sized high heels emblazoned with the cameo of a Disney princess. She seems delighted with both herself and her appearance, and you can’t help but notice she seems to “sparkle” both inside and out. You comment, “Oh, you’re so cute. I love those shoes!” Harmless right? Um, maybe not.
Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, says this is precisely where we’re leading impressionable young females astray, indicating to them that appearance matters above all else. In her Huffington Post piece, “How to Talk to Little Girls,” Bloom suggested that these typical icebreakers with little girls might be an important reason why “25 percent of young American women would rather win ‘America’s Next Top Model’ than the Nobel Peace Prize.”
If you think that’s a stretch, consider that while females have closed the gender gap in math and science achievement on standardized tests in recent years and now outnumber men in undergraduate, graduate, and professional school programs, they still remain significantly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering, according to the most recent studies of the National Science Foundation.
Now consider what you might say upon meeting a preschool-aged boy. Would you gush, “Oh, I just love your cargo shorts”? Probably not. More likely you’d probe his interests to get him talking: “So, do you like dinosaurs? How about trains? I bet you like trains!”
Let’s excuse, for the moment, the possibility of the boy feeling oppressed by the stereotypical expectations underlying those questions. That’s a topic for another day! The point is that by asking him about what he likes, you’re getting at what he thinks, not what he looks like—and that matters.
It matters, because these social interactions fuel children’s implicit biases about what it means to be a girl or a boy—
what they should do, like, wear, and play.
It matters, because as Bloom discusses in her book, women are spending exorbitantly more time and money on daily grooming and cosmetics than in decades passed, and just how are girls supposed to change the world when they’re stuck obsessing in front of the mirror all day?
Dr. Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at UVA and one of the authors of a 2002 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Math = Male, Me = Female, Therefore Math ≠ Me,” explained it this way: “A stereotype is information that gets encoded in our memories and shapes us. You don’t have to believe the stereotypes to be impacted by them.”
In other words, if you asked our little tutu-wearer, “Can girls like dinosaurs?” She might, in fact, say yes, because maybe her well-meaning parents have told her that explicitly. The notion that a dinosaur-loving girl is an exception, however, won’t be lost on her, nor will the fact that the dinosaur display at the big box toy store features only boys in the advertisements and the clearly marked “girl” toys are relegated to the back of the store in a sea of dizzying, Pepto-Bismol pink.
“A lot of who we are is in reaction to the social expectations of us. We select the options that are attractive to us, but what shapes what is attractive to us is what culture expects of us,” said Nosek.
Praising little girls for their appearance might be nothing new, but when you combine that kind of talk with the larger societal phenomenon that is the recent monotonous pink-ifying and princess-ing of girlhood, the effect of these little conversation starters seems much more coercive.
But let’s back up: Don’t girls just like pink?
Growth of the “girlie” girl
According to Jo B. Paoletti, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, the color pink started to become primarily associated with femininity only as recently as the 1950s. It wasn’t even until the mid-1980s, says Peggy Orenstein in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, that amplifying age and sex differences became the dominant marketing strategy for children.
Boys and girls actually are quite similar at birth, explains neuroscientist Lise Eliot in her book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It, and it’s parents, teachers, and the culture at large who unwittingly reinforce differences into gender stereotypes. It’s what happens to kids’ brains that’s the truly scary part, however. Just one word: neuroplasticity. This is the scientific fact that our brains are constantly being rewired by our experiences, and for developing children, this is especially potent.
Of course there’s much more to the science of “nature versus nurture” than can be explained here, but Nosek sums it up in practical terms: “Once you learn something, it’s typically hard to unlearn it, and the early exposure matters.”
From “cute” to hot
Is it really any wonder that many a “girlie” girl moves on to feeling compelled to achieve an amped-up, boob-augmented, Botox’d version of what it means to be a woman shortly thereafter and would rather win a reality show than run a lab?
Orenstein explains the trajectory this way: “[Girls] rebel against the ‘cuteness’ in which we’ve indulged them—and, if we’re honest, imposed on them—by taking on the studied irony and indifferent affect of ‘cool.’” And for girls coming of age, Orenstein said, being “cool” means looking hot. Well, there’s no shortage of available indulgences there—I’m looking at you, tween-sized thongs.
The American Psychological Association recently evaluated this issue in a 2010 Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls in which they found the culture’s increasing emphasis on young girls’ sexiness has negative effects on their cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.
At the very least, our girls are not digesting this notion of “girlie” without the potentially negative undertones also conveyed.
Whitney Morrill, local mom of two and creator of parenting blog thecoconut girl.com, was concerned when she recently heard her young son and daughter using “girlie” to describe a toy in what seemed a derogatory way.
Speaking of herself and her husband, she said, “We don’t use that term. What does it mean? I worry about the connotation. Does that mean something is uninteresting? Weak?”
Even local mom Lisa Stewart’s 4-year-old daughter has gotten wise to the subtle insult of girlie-girl cues, or at least the unwanted attention on appearance. Says Stewart: “Cute is a loaded word in our household. I was told, ‘Cute makes me uncomfortable.’”
An uphill battle
So what’s a parent to do? Forbid princess dresses? Outlaw lip-gloss until the age of 18? Never praise our daughters on their appearance? It’s hard to know how to raise girls.
Surely that’s not the answer. Orenstein even speculates that backlash against a “neutered” form of femininity fed to this generation of mothers by their bra-burning, leg hair-embracing predecessors might contribute to acceptance and endorsement of this “post-feminist,” girlie-girl culture.
And what happens when we do outwardly reject behavior and interests society has programmed our girls to radiate? If we tell our daughters that princesses are stupid, but they’ve already fallen in love with Disney’s Ariel, will they come to believe they’re stupid too?
“It takes a lot of effort to raise children,” said Morrill. “Comments that don’t get course-corrected can become a belief—attitudes about everything from race to war to food. It’s hard to be on top of everything.”
As an example, Stewart said she even has to be vigilant about filtering catalogues that come unsolicited in the mail. (You know, those Halloween ones hawking sexy pirate costumes for 6-year-olds?) And she laments: “Now I have to choose between the pink box of Legos and the blue box of Legos? My brother and I were just happy to play with Legos.”
Recently, Stewart said, she felt compelled to buy one of each to balance out the message—clearly, a toy marketer’s dream scenario.
The bottom line
“It’s almost impossible to avoid implicit biases. There’s no way to prevent it from happening,” said Nosek. Also, he said, directly insisting on the inaccuracy of the bias doesn’t generally work either. Instead, providing alternatives that challenge our daughters to rethink the stereotypes themselves is key.
“Have her reason it through,” said Nosek. “Ask, ‘Why do you think that?’ Get at the origins of the belief and then provide some counterexamples.”
Morrill said that with her daughter, “We’ve made a concerted effort not to say ‘Oh, you look nice’ the moment she comes downstairs in the morning. We try to greet her as a person and talk about something other than her appearance—‘How did you sleep?’”
Nosek said that it’s everyday experiences like these that matter: “Even a subtle clue such as a female teacher con-
veying that she doesn’t like math herself could have a big impact on whether stereotypes are reinforced or not.”
Nosek may have it easier than most. Both he and his wife are scientists so there’s an obvious implicit bias-busting example right there.
Morrill, who’s an architect, said, “I think the most important thing for my children is to see me thriving. Whether you choose to be a software engineer or a stay-at-home mom—what’s injurious to girls is seeing their moms unhappy or in a place of inner conflict. I want my daughter to see that whatever choices I make are ones that support my joy. Then she’ll know to seek that even if her joy will be different than mine.”
The bottom line is parents are not powerless here. We can provide positive examples for our daughters; we can offer them a license to question the mainstream girlie-girl culture; we can, occasionally, buy the blue box of Legos. With our words, actions, and wallets, we can encourage them to embrace being girls without limiting their options or full potential as human beings.
FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE
Try these alternatives to mainstream “girlie” fare.
If she’s obsessed with the Disney Princesses: Introduce her to Disney’s Mulan, which tells the Chinese folk tale of a peasant girl who saves the kingdom and the prince, turning “happily-ever-after” on its head. (Just don’t let her see the crappy merchandise, which royally screws up the message.)
If she loves to play dress-up: Opt for accessories that encourage creativity and imagination. Simple play silks like the ones offered at Sarah’s Silks can become princess headdresses, wings, capes, and doll slings.
If she likes books about fairies: Read her some of Elsa Beskow’s line-up of picture book classics that emphasize the magic of nature, such as Children of the Forest and Peter in Blueberry Land.
If she likes to play with dolls and dollhouses: Try the Schleich line of action figures, which covers a wide gamut from fantasy characters to “farm life” figurines, with animals and related scenery.
If the Lego princess castle set was a hit: Try Magna-Tiles—an assortment of colorful building shapes that can be made into an infinite number of buildings and objects.