Feminism Friday: it starts so young

Today I went to a morning tea gathering. A pleasant surprise was that N. was there, who used to babysit my kids and who now has a delightful 11-month-old baby of her own.

As I was making kissy-faces at the baby, I was a bit startled at the level of pink the bub was wearing. Not just the overall, but also the bib, the shoes and the socks were all shocking hot pink. I’m not always startled at the general insistence on pinkifying baby girls, but N. was always a jeans and rugby shirt woman, and still is, so that contrast did surprise me.

So there we were, watching the baby being fed bits of hot-cross bun by her doting nana, when another woman, R., horrified me, and not just because I instinctively react badly to drive-by parenting. As she wandered past with a tray, while we were all happily watching the baby enjoy her food, R. said the following:

Oh, no! Stop! Naughty Nana! You’ll make her fat!

This was said in that plausibly deniable jocular fashion that one is not allowed to take offence at, on pain of being considered (oh noes!) humourless, but the message was clear.
(a) It is unacceptable to watch a woman eat food and enjoy it without worrying about her weight, even if that woman is only eleven months old.
(b) A mother will be judged a failure if her daughter is fat, so the mother has to worry about her daughters weight until the daughter is old enough to worry about her own weight.
(c) A woman becoming fat is one of the worst things that could happen to her.

I wanted to snarl at R. and slap her, but she is otherwise a very nice woman (who would probably be much healthier if she was 5-10kg heavier) and besides, it might have been considered an over-reaction. I only snarled internally, and then I turned to N. and said brightly “Heaven forbid a woman might enjoy being comfortably padded, eh?” and then we went on to discussing the baby’s dimples.

A few minutes later I got my clue as to why the baby is so extremely pinkified: N. was lamenting that baby’s hair wasn’t longer, because she wasn’t able to put a bow in it to show she was a girl.

Yep, as well as making sure baby girls are not offensively fat, we must also make sure that everyone who looks at them knows immediately that they are girls and not boys, otherwise a baby girl might accidentally be treated by strangers as if she had the same potential as a baby boy, and that might make the universe explode.



Categories: gender & feminism, relationships

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35 replies

  1. Great post, Tigtog. I have a highly intelligent friend who accidentally gave birth to boy-girl fraternal twins at 43. (Yeah, whoa. And yeah, Virginia Hausegger eat your heart out! And yeah, that was probably uncalled-for). Anyway. Otherwise highly intelligent friend is always looking for and cherry-picking feminine and masculine traits in these kids to bolster some kind of essentialist position I never knew she had. It drives me crazy.

  2. Reading this I remember a 4 year old girl saying to her dad ‘don’t take the picture from that angle, I look fat’. My jaw dropped and I stared at her mother, who went red. WT………

  3. Oh, Tigtog, how depressing. How deeply, deeply depressing.
    Helen’s story reminds me of that infuriating ad currently on the teeve for some kind of processed spag bol or something, where the brother and sister are saying what their favourite animals, sports, modes of transportation etc are. No prizes for guessing who likes the lion and the truck and so on. The little boy is noisy and violent. The little girl is quiet and apprehensive. The point of the ad is how cute and funny it is that the one thing they agree on is that they both like processed spag bol, which seems to me to argue that the race is doomed in any case.
    I remember sitting on my parents’ patio years ago and watching the 2-year-old grandson of a family friend tearing around my mother’s beloved garden destroying things: ripping the heads off flowers, banging outdoor furniture with sticks, throwing things at the cat. His grandmother, who was babysitting him, did nothing but sit back indulgently and say with pride ‘Oh, he’s such a boy.

  4. Helen, I must admit I enjoyed the occasional frou-frou baby thing for both my kids, (people give you such amazingly fancy gendered outfits) but I got better, and the kids’ tastes changed. The tigling now much prefers simple clothes with a tomboy bent, and the togster likes his long hair (which was much admired in the UK as “surfie hair”).
    CazZa, I had a neighbour who only stocked low-fat/skim milk products for her toddler daughter, so as to make sure that she wouldn’t get fat. I can just imagine that child saying something similiar at the same age.
    Pav, the “such a boy” line usually makes me itch for a good old fashioned switching. It’s also so bizarre – behaviour that would have earned my brother and my male classmates a belt behind the ear from any nearby adult for being destructive and thoughtless gets indulged now without a thought, as if disciplining it would rob the boys of some manly essence. Weird.

  5. Oh that last point is a killer – what was once considered anti-social is now OK as a display of proto-masculinity. Is this a reflection of the adults’ insecurity with their gender roles? But would hesitate to suggest that we are any more frantic about imposing gender roles than our forebears, but it certainly is depressing that we are no less frantic.

  6. I rememeber being surprised by how twitchy it made me — initially — when someone guessed wrong about C2’s gender. She was a bald little baby and a bald little toddler, and a lot of random strangers assumed she was a boy. Somehow, the first few times, it seemed terribly important to set them straight.
    Deciding to let go of that, and then letting go of it, was an interesting exercise.

  7. Bernice, I wonder if the doubts and anxiety about suppressing essential boy-juice are more a product of the intense nuclear family, as boys aren’t wandering around in the tribal fashion of yore, and parents thus feel more directly involved and responsible for instilling manliness. Previous generations, like the British boarding school system, relied on the boys themselves to maintain the transmission of manliness from older boys to younger boys, and that system is no longer in place in most middle-class neighbourhoods.
    Brooklynite, mr tog had a problem with the togster having long baby curls aged about 15 months. “People will think he’s a girl”. He managed to persuade me to cut the hair, but I wish I hadn’t.

  8. Hoo boy, does this post raise up issues. My mother (from whom I get my big ass) made a comment about being careful to make sure Abigail doesn’t become fat. This from a grandmother who takes pride in being able to spoil her grandbabies with junk food galore whenever they visit.
    Abigail loves princesses more than trucks, though she enjoys both. Evan loves trucks more than princesses, although he has enjoyed dressing up as Cinderella and wearing a princess pull-up. I’ve resigned myself to not bothering to care much about whether satisfying any outsiders — whether they are pro-pink/pro-princess or anti-pink/anti-princess — and simply focusing on making sure my daughter receives all the support she needs from both parents to be the bold hoyden I know she can be. And my son receives all the support he nees from both parents to show his nurturing side. I have to say, I am proud of how my husband smooches and snuggles both kids equally, without any regard for which of them has ovaries and which has testicles.
    When I bought them two large plastic balls [jrh!] to bounce around on in the back yard last year, Abigail chose blue and Evan chose pink. Abigail was bald as a baby, just like brooklynite’s Casey, and sometimes mistaken for a boy. Evan has hair past his shoulders and is often mistaken for a girl even in instances where he is wearing decidedly boy-like clothing.
    We probably are going to get some of Evan’s hair cut off, because it has not grown in evenly. And he is suffering the effects of a “get it out of his eyes!” wipe with the kitchen shears across his bangs. But I want to keep it long, for as long as he will let me, because I love to twirl its silkiness around my fingers.

  9. I was just thinking of this yesterday, when reading a forum conversation, not-so-loosely paraphrased as: “My baby couldn’t POSSIBLY wear X brand of nappy – her bum would look soooo big!”

  10. Hi tigtog
    Two lots of two cents worth (which I suppose would these days have be rounded up to five) ….
    I don’t get the pink thing either. Too hard to keep really clean, and it doesn’t “work” on stupid people. I recall that on one of the relatively infrequent occasions when First Daughter was outfitted as a pink baby, top to toe, I had several people stop me to say what a beautiful boy she was. Go figure … Of course, now she’s a teenager, it’s got to be black or purple, or both.
    And on gender and behaviour expectations … did you see this piece in today’s SMH? [link](link edited – tigtog)
    I don’t think it answers any questions about whether we expect/tolerate different behaviour according to gender, but it raises concerns about what some young men might regard as manliness (or ” make them a big person in the sight of their friends” to quote Deborah Cameron). Not to mention concerns about the ease with which technology allows those without conscience to brag about just how manly they think they are.
    But that’s a whole other discussion thread!
    PS Still unwell and miffed about missing our lunch outing this week …

  11. I loathe drive-by parenting – I don’t know any mother who doesn’t pull herself apart after one of these kind of comments on their children.
    My daughter was the second child – and after the grandfather had bought so many bright and stripy baby outfits for the first child that he grew out of as soon as they arrived, our girl had a whole wardrobe of red, blue orange, yellow green – all colourful non-pink things – because I HATE pink! Unfortunately Miss 4 turning 5 discovered the colour through daycare and the grandfather, and now generally only wears pink or purple. But with the recent conversion to boardshorts, I’m hopeful – and particularly proud of the evil, boisterous streak her brother never had!

  12. Several of you got caught up in the spaminator – sorry it took me a while to fish you out.
    I always make a point of giving babythings that are bright and cheerful greens/oranges/reds. What I notice is that such babyclothes are getting much harder to find over the last five years, outside of the expensive designer stuff.
    Another sign of the backlash? Maybe.
    PS Sorry you’re still unwell, ohmykozy. We’ll have lunch when you’re better.

  13. Regarding that SMH story link – I think the Salvos Major hits it right on the head when she points out how the distribution of the material electronically multiplies the humiliation of the victim. It’s a strong support for the hypothesis of rape being about domination and humiliation more than just sexual gratification.

  14. I envy the Surfie hair, I can’t let Boychild have long hair because of the virulence of the varmints aroung our way. I had a look today, didn’t find any critters but about a dozen eggs. Ah well, it’s Easter. 😉

  15. having recently bought a baby gift, I can perhaps offer some additional insight into why the baby was so pinkified – they only make baby stuff in pink and blue. seriously, it was SO HARD to find something that wasn’t pink or blue (the sex of the baby wasn’t known until she was born). I settled on an impractical but lovely white chenille blanket. it was the only thing in the whole store that wasn’t pink or blue. Not even the usual unisex green or yellow or orange! crazy.

  16. Lauredhel sent me some links to online stores that eschew the compulsory pinkifying and blunating (it’s there, but it doesn’t dominate). Perhaps we should start a bit of an online campaign on the feminist blogs and the mummy blogs to promote these places? If department stores and main street boutiques start losing business to the alternatives, then they’ll start offering the alternatives, yes?

  17. Gem wears a lot of pink, because it’s cheap and available and I get some gratification when she crawls through the dirt and gets filthy in it. It is really difficult to find gender neutral clothing in bright colours.
    Speaking of haircuts, I was fifteen with really short hair, tight pink jeans, grey and pink jumper (about the only time I ever wore pink) and obviously a girl in the chest area and people still thought I was a boy. They saw the hair, assumed I was a boy and didn’t look any further. I didn’t grow my hair though.

  18. Saturday Night Live had a fake-commercial skit a few years ago with thong diapers. Mothers worrying about their babies not looking sexy enough or slim enough. Sure, you had to change the diapers twice as often (since there wasn’t as much material in back) but who cares, the kid looks good!

  19. The two Pawns enjoy very girly things, and this is without any conscious effect one way or the other. They like their hair long and flouncy dresses and their bedrooms would be explosions in pink if they had their own way. But they also have a train set and a hot wheels racing set and toy power tools (all of which they like to play with) and love fishing (for real – the Younger Pawn more than the Elder).

  20. It’s natural for people to like dressing up in fancy things every now and then. It’s just that despite the current vogue of men eschewing flows and flounces, that really is a historical blip – one doesn’t have to examine history very far to find men peacocking about without their masculinity being impugned.
    I think it’s good for people to enjoy dressing up and playing around with drapes and capes, for fun and special occasions. It’s the everyday compulsory femininity costuming, with all the extra effort of washing and ironing and the impracticality of the costume that’s problematic.

  21. “It’s the everyday compulsory femininity costuming, with all the extra effort of washing and ironing and the impracticality of the costume that’s problematic.”
    What I want to know is why the hell they want to go through 3 or 4 changes of clothes each day. I assure you that is not learned behaviour, from me nor their mother!
    Maybe they should start doing their own laundry. Then maybe my white shirts won’t come out pink. (I’ve nothing against pink. It’s a good Victorian colour. I was tempted yesterday by a Van Heusen shirt with pink stripes. It just doesn’t suit my red hair and pale complexion).

  22. BK, the only pink that suits ginger hair is a pale pale icy pink, and that’s not around that much. I do like a redhead in mauve, though.

  23. It looks good on my dad, BK. When we can persuade him to ditch the tweedy browns that don’t suit him at all, that is.

  24. My son Chatterboy had blonde hair as a baby, which made everyone assume he was a girl (obviously we’ve all learned that as adults, only women have blonde hair, quite amusing really).
    Now that my boys are 3 and 5, they wear pretty much any colour but pink and purple (Chatterboy loves pink, but after a bit of soulsearching, we rarely let him wear it outside the house, as we are worried about teasing). But the girls of their acquaintance only wear pink, with the occasional purple. It seems so unfair that the girls get so constricted to a small part of the colour spectrum.
    Back when we couldn’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe when we got a child of the opposite gender, particularly in the early baby stages, where they grow out of clothes in 30 seconds flat, I’m sure there were more gender neutral clothes out there.

  25. My siblings disagreed when I mentioned it at a recent family gathering, but certainly my impression agrees, Jennifer: far fewer gender neutral clothes around the last few years.

  26. After commenting on the discussion earlier in the week I had a look next time I was in a major Chain dept store. I found one (and I mean one item) red hoodie to fit Gemma, so I bought it. Just about everything else in the baby section for girls was a really horrible eye assaulting bright/dark pink colour, or pale pink. Or frilly or overly embroidered in pink thread to make sure you know it’s for girls. The baby boy clothes were covered in trucks and such so you knew they were for boys.
    At another chain store I found baby tracksuits in a range of colours and all the grey marle ones were pretty much gone while the navy, pink and purple were still there. I’d say that this argues that parents want gender neutral clothes and are having difficulty finding them. I know I am. I have set myself the challenge to dress Gemma in colours other than pink at least once a week. It’s tricky though. (without buying her a completely new wardrobe).
    Disclaimer: I have nothing against pink, she looks rather cute in it, but when everything in uniformly pink I start to get a bit irritated. I don’t want to dress my baby in white, which is my only other option, because I don’t want to spend the rest of her childhood handwashing and changing her dirty clothes every five minutes.

  27. I hear you Mindy. Dressing up all genderised is great when that’s what you want to do, (and of course she looks cute in it) but obligatory genderising SUX.
    Anyway, Lauredhel emailed me some websites for genderneutral bright baby clothes last week, so I’ll reproduce them here:

    Jumping Jack Flash for Bright Bots and Ka-boosh. Some gendered stuff, but lots of brights and stripes.
    Ozebaby is a WAHM (work at home mum) mall run by an online friend of mine. The stock comes and goes, but there are some really nice things – handmade clothes, hand-painted T-shirts, knits, amazing quilts, little leather shoes, hippie tie dye, and so on. There’s a fair smattering of pink and frilly, but it’s avoidable. And some rather nice beaded jewellery.
    Cheeky Possum ebay store, for rainbow stripes. We just got a rainbow cotton knit jumper for the Lad.
    Oh, one more: the “Duck Home” branded square muslin cloths, available at Myer/DJs. Sometimes found in a three-pack of light purple/mango/lime, and also in a four-pack of bright primary colours. I keep a pack of these in our “present box”.

  28. More gorgeous bright unisex children’s clothing: Tirrin Tippin.

  29. Great post, great comments. What amazes me is that after all this indoctrination we still think girls are like girls (or boys will be boys) entirely because that is the way they are born. You couldn’t brainwash a child more if you tried than what we do with gender in this world. It is saturating.
    I remember people were always so apologetic if they guessed the wrong gender for my baby daughter and even though I was weirdly proud to have a daughter (I am very close to my mother and sister so I liked the idea of having another girl in the family, I know that doesn’t make me entirely guilt-free), I just couldn’t care less whether people thought she was a girl or a boy, I don’t find the opposite gender an insult for your child.

  30. One brand we’ve had really good luck with is Carter’s — don’t know if they’ve got a presence in the antipodes, tho.
    They do plenty of green and yellow, including for babies, and mostly gender-neutral designs. Even their blue stuff doesn’t usually “read” as boywear — I remember a lovely bright cobalt blue onesie with yellow duckies that we used to put Casey in all the time.
    Hmm. Elvis would probably fit into that by now. Wonder where it disappeared to?

  31. No Carter’s here that I’m aware of, but the closest equivalent might be Bright Bots and Ka-Boosh. Lots and lots of brights and stripes, good quality basics. (Except the BB pilchers, they suck.) They seem to have added an awful lot of pink to their range since the lad was a babe, but the brights are still there. We also liked Plum, which, like Bright Bots, has plenty of room for cloth nappies.
    Brights show stains much less well, also.

  32. It’s hard finding clothes for my son that don’t have:
    army prints (because at 7 months I think he’s too young to enlist)
    trucks (my Dad was a truckie, I don’t see any reason to indoctrinate the lad with dangerous manual labour before he’s even started school)
    I also keep in mind that he isn’t the only kid that’ll wear the clothes, if not for subsequent children of ours, then handing down to my neice or friend’s kids. My friend has twins, a boy and a girl. Obviously one stash of clothes and dressing the kids in the closest thing that fits is the easiest way to get through the day. She decided very early that if that meant her son wore pink and her girl wore blue it didn’t matter. But clearly all the people who gave them clothes thought genderfying them was important, and bought them colour coded clothing. Now if people in public talk about her kids’ gender she just agrees with whatever they’ve guessed, she’s too tired to explain to every random stranger that her son is the one in pink and her daughter the one in the blue hoodie with a car on it.

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