When I was at university, many years ago now, I did a Gender Studies unit. I read one particular thing that I never forgot, and it was about children and gender.
A group of Australian children – aged 4-5 – were shown photographs of women who didn’t fit the typical stereotypes for femininity. Some of them were bodybuilders and weightlifters, or had short hair. Some were simply wearing clothing that could be considered masculine. And some of the children refused to believe that these were women. Even after it had been explained that these were women who just looked different to most, certain kids wouldn’t budge and continued to insist that these were not women.
They had already decided that femininity and being female had certain factors. Their markers for femaleness were very limited and exactly matched social norms of femininity and beauty. The fact that the kids refused to reconsider their stance spoke very strongly to me about what must have been happening in homes to burden our children with such limited views of womanhood.
This surprised me.
When I had my daughter, I started to observe many things that caused me to be uncomfortable. These things seemed to be flying under the radar of everyone else.
The plethora of pink clothing we were gifted. The gushing “oh my, she is beautiful“, “such a little lady”, “so pretty”, “she’s gonna have the boys lining up”. Dorothy the Dinosaur donning her pink tutu and giggling, whilst being revered as “absolutely beautiful” in a program aimed at under-fives. Play School’s princesses always being referred to as“beautiful”. Parents selling toys because they were the “wrong” colour for the gender of their new child.
I don’t think that I noticed a little girl anywhere without someone telling her that she was “beautiful” or that something or other (be it a fairy dress, a plastic tiara, her mother’s lipstick, a headband, a necklace, or sparkly shoes) was “beautiful”, or made her “look beautiful”. I often heard (and still do hear) the opinion that we should be regularly telling our daughters that they are beautiful.
I carefully chose what I said to my daughter and about my daughter. I paid attention to what others said to her and about her, and I became intensely aware of the messages she was receiving – not the messages people thought she was receiving, `or that people wanted her to receive, but the messages she actually was receiving.
I soon realised that beauty or, more accurately, whether someone thought you were beautiful, was being put on a pedestal by the adults in our children’s lives.
This was an ‘everywhere issue’.
One night when my daughter was two, I heard her sobbing in her bed. “What’s the matter baby?” I enquired. “I’m not beautiful” she whimpered. It came out that she believed that if she were not wearing a dress, then she would not be beautiful. Since she was wearing her pyjamas, she thought that she was not beautiful.