My husband and I didn’t find out the gender of our baby during pregnancy, but gender norms and stereotypes were absolutely a part of the conversation when discussing how we wanted to raise our child. If it was a girl, we wanted to avoid the princess persona. If it was a boy, we didn’t want to take the “boys don’t cry” approach. After all, gender (as opposed to biological sex) is just a social construct, albeit one still firmly planted in almost every aspect of American culture.
Since our daughter’s birth over two years ago, we’ve continued to have conversations around gender and evolve in our parenting approach. I’ve become extremely aware of the language I use, including how often I unnecessarily give innate objects – like stuffed animals – a gender. My husband struggled with whether to buy our daughter a play kitchen because he was scared we would be reinforcing stereotypes about women. We intentionally read books like “Pink Is For Boys” and “Dress Like A Girl” to ensure the message she gets at home is that girls (and boys, for that matter) don’t have to fit a certain mold. And never once have we called her a princess.
So you can imagine my surprise when my daughter put on a pair of bedazzled shoes from her dress-up play clothes (gifted to her by grandparents) and exclaimed, “I’m a princess!” My head whipped around so fast I almost threw my neck out. “Wait, what did you say?” “I’m a princess!” she repeated with a huge smile on her face. I, on the other hand, stood with my mouth hanging open. Where did she learn that sparkly shoes mean princess? It definitely wasn’t from us.
Since this incident, I’ve realized that – especially as she gets older – it’s going to be extremely hard to decipher whether our daughter is doing something because it comes naturally to her or because of gender norms she has unknowingly absorbed. For example, she already loves jewelry. One of her favorite things to do at my parents’ house is getting into my mom’s jewelry box and adorn herself in baubles and bangles. Whenever this happens, I find myself asking, “Does she gravitate towards jewelry because it’s something that innately gives her joy, or has she already watched Beauty and the Beast too many times and internalized the idea of a beautiful princess with a fancy crown?”
Similarly, pink has emerged as an early leader in the favorite color category despite my attempts to banish it from my daughter’s wardrobe (partly because I personally hate it and partly because she’s a fair-skinned redhead). Multiple daycare crafts have arrived home with pink paper, markers, and glitter. When I asked her about them, she said, “I love pink.” Again, I can’t help but wonder whether her appreciation comes from within or is influenced by the outside world.
Now, at this point, you might be saying, “Relax. She’s only two years old.” However, research has shown that children pick up societal norms about gender starting at the age of two. By five years old, most children are firmly entrenched in gender stereotypes, including picking future occupations that are traditionally associated with their gender. And when kids fail to conform to the “appropriate” gender norms, they routinely face criticism from adults and bullying from peers.
I know this from experience. As a 40 year woman, I still remember being described as a “tomboy” and regularly being told by teachers and others that I was too loud, talkative, and aggressive for a girl. I also remember not getting invited by the girls in my class to the New Kids on the Block concert because I played basketball with the boys at recess. (Yup, 31 years later and I’m still talking about it.) While back then I wore the “tomboy” label as a badge of honor, it honestly left me feeling as if I didn’t quite fit in with either gender. And it’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable with loud, talkative, aggressive me (and, frankly, I’m still a work in progress).
I want more for my daughter. Because, at the end of the day, my fear really isn’t about bedazzled shoes, princesses, or the color pink. It’s about ensuring my daughter feels comfortable being whoever she is instead of who society tells her she should be. If she loves makeup, I want her to wear a full face with pride. If she hates makeup, I don’t want her to wear a drop. Whether she practices karate or dances ballet, I want her to find a passion that fills her heart with joy. And if she grows up to be a construction worker in boots or a princess in pink bedazzled shoes, I want her to be confident that her worth in the world doesn’t depend on how well she fits into society’s expectations of who a woman should be.