Advice please

First, a little background. I do not wear makeup, I rarely wear dresses I think I only own one apart from my wedding dress which is floating around somewhere. My clothing of choice is tracksuit pants or comfy jeans.  While I don’t eschew pink, I don’t wear much of it preferring instead dark plain colours. I don’t have a wardrobe full of shoes, in fact today because I hurt my foot on the weekend, I’m wearing black socks and red Rivers men’s sandals. I am the epitome of fashion, not. I do dye my hair to cover greys and wax my eyebrows, but I have been known to forget to do either for several weeks because although I put on moisturiser each morning, I don’t actually look that closely in the mirror. So that’s me and my fashion sense in a nutshell.

I have a three year old daughter. She loves pink, she loves dresses, she loves shoes. I have no problem with this. I think she is adorable and very much her own bossy little person. I do have a problem with her only saying that she is beautiful when she is wearing a dress or a particular t-shirt with a little frill on the bottom. I do have a problem with her saying that she doesn’t want to eat from the blue “boys” bowl, she wants the pink “girls” bowl. This isn’t coming from me. It’s not coming from her Dad or her big brother. I don’t think it’s necessarily coming from daycare, at least not directly because they are pretty progressive.

More importantly how do I stop it? How do I tell her that she is beautiful whatever she is wearing, or running around in the narky-noo? How do I tell her that colours are for everyone?

Categories: Culture, education, Life, relationships


12 replies

  1. I had exactly the same thing happen with my daughter at about the same age. Adam (daddy) or I would pull out whatever was a) clean and b) appropriate for the weather and half the time Caitlin would get dressed perfectly happily. The other times we’d have major dramas over getting dressed. It took us ages to work out why. Eventually in the midst of a melt down she announced she “had to wear a dress or she wouldn’t be pretty.”
    What I realised was that although no-one in her life was actively indoctrinating her there were things happening that sent the messages to her loud and clear. Whenever we met anyone – grandparents, daycare staff, family friends – they were greeting her with compliments on her looks, and if she was wearing a dress or particularly “girly” outfit the praise would be directed at her clothes. In contrast her older brother’s clothes were almost never commented on, people would find other things to say instead. So she was hearing that she was beautiful all the time but that she was most beautiful when wearing girly clothes and that being beautiful was what people thought was important for girls.
    I dealt with it by asking all the adults in her daily life to avoid complimenting her looks at all – I’m fortunate in having family and friends who were receptive to the idea. The daycare staff were equally willing to help and actively looked for other ways to greet her in the mornings. I chose that approach because I wanted to avoid reinforcing the idea that being beautiful was important. It worked pretty quickly actually, in the absence of positive reinforcement about her clothing she stopped worrying about it quite as much.
    The pink obsession finally wore off about 6 years later 😉 We’re now heavily into black with a smattering of purple – she’s 10.

  2. Hi there;
    let me preface this by saying that we do not have any children, yet, but I do have a degree in evolutionary psychology. It was the latter which drove me to answer – I do not pretend that it has given me ‘right’ answers, only a means of approaching questions.
    having said that, I was very pleased to read the response above after I clicked on the title of this post in my feed reader. Approached logically – and as something that I have spent significant amounts of time being concerned about with reference to my brother’s children etc – my response would have said that such behaviour MUST come from some source, even if it is not reinforced in the home. Indeed, one might go so far as to conjecture that its very lack of home-based reinforcement is a reinforcement in and of itself … if one is (randomly / not gender-reinforced-clothing-based) complimented at home, but dependably in the social environments beyond the home, then it stands to reason that one might prefer and opt for the structure that is dependable. Such learning patterns can be seen in non-human animals when (for example) a table which has dual use for humans is permitted at some times and not at others. Cats / (insert animal of choice) / children will get confused when something is not clear – just as adults will, removed from context.
    I loved the approach taken above – it does, of course, beg a question not to be broached here which relates in my mind at least to the problem of absences. For example – as atheists and limited consumers, we would prefer that any children we bring up do not celebrate the Christian festivals such as Christmas. It is logical then that the tooth fairy is also persona non grata … however, if you take the long view that such constructs serve a purpose, how then fill this absence?
    Certainly both negative and positive reinforcement have a place in the presentation of self in everyday life; my mother always took the view that we did not need eg a new raincoat because the (old, battered) raincoat we had was ‘perfectly fine’. That’s as maybe .. but her own inconsequential behaviour made such a message hard to follow and incoherent. Allowing a child to move away from gender reinforced requirements is one thing; providing the appropriate surrogate behaviour may prove to be more difficult.

  3. I am in a slightly different situation, since I am raising two cis gendered boys right now. But, I do hear biases from the greater world reflected in their interactions with me, sometimes based on gender, skin color, or ableism.
    I try to consistently, gently, point out the error in their comment in a mild, age appropriate manner. I also try to stash that away for future teaching points. Although my younger son was brought up in a house with a roommate with a daughter with dark brown skin who he adored and worshiped, he came home from school one day a year later with the idea that darker skin was somehow bad.
    Not only did I point out immediately that no, that wasn’t correct, people have all different skin colors, hair colors, and eye colors, and what we like about them is if they are nice, or smart, or kind, etc. I also remember to point out other examples of people with different physical characteristics who we respect in the future, without making a big deal about it. A sentence or two, not a lecture. He’s four now.
    When it comes to gender issues, I think I lead mostly by example, but that may be easier with boys whose gender expression has tended to be rather culturally typical, which by default is more “feminist” than typical young girls’ gender expression. My younger son very rarely says something is a girl’s toy or a girl’s occupation, although it has come up. He has always been a fan of pink, since he idolized everything his former housemate loved, and she loved pink.
    Once my older son came home from school and told me that some kid at school had said his favorite color, purple, was a girl color. First, I told him to ask his friend if their was a penis or a vagina on a crayon, because I wasn’t really sure how you could tell. (Inappropriate for an eight year old? Maybe to some, but we’re scientists in this house).
    I also told him not to really say that at school, but to just say purple is the color of kings, and to tell his friend not to limit himself.
    Maybe you can focus on how great it is that girls can be pretty wearing dresses and wearing jeans, and how lucky we are to get to have so many choices that are acceptable. You could point out articles of your own, not frilly clothing that you especially like. It can be for reasons other than their appearance, too. This fabric on this old tshirt is so soft, I can climb a tree in these jeans, etc.
    It may be tempting to totally discount being interested in looking pretty, but that may be too contrary to her priorities right now. Maybe you can just show her that pretty can be a very wide definition.
    I am not sure if you would find this appropriate at all, but as a totally not into fashion and models person, I have really liked the real-life models they use for this site. (Totally unsolicited link, I have never even bought anything here, although some stuff is certainly cute). They have models of various sizes and ethnicities, and they wear t shirts and all colors. Maybe you can find ones you both think are “pretty” together?

  4. The gender binary is insidious. It is daycare, it’s family, it’s preschooler programming, it’s you know, societal. It hits at three. Even very well-meaning and otherwise enlightened people would be apalled (I’m sure I would be) to see how much it creeps in.
    So, my advice gleaned from rearing two daughters, now ten and seven. 1) You can’t stop it, but you can subvert it. Whenever she expresses something that buys into the strict binary, ask her to explain it to you. Are all blues for boys? How about baby blue? or teal? Is purple for boys or girls? what about red?
    2) Don’t tell her she’s beautiful. Compliment her on what she does, not how she looks. After all, isn’t this what we want for our grown-up selves? 3) Going back to one, don’t tell her colors are for everyone, ask her questions until she figures it our for herself.

  5. As others have said, Mindy, it’s a good idea to talk to her about it. It’s amazing how much a three year old can comprehend about their world. I remember my daughter at a very young age responded well when I pointed out the unfairness of girl and boy expectations. Maybe you could talk about how it isn’t fair that so many people make girls and women feel bad about not being pretty enough but not boys. As her parent you would know best how to explain things to her but I always found that some version of the truth worked best with my daughter and at almost 19 she’s about as free of harmful femininity as any woman in a patriarchy could be.
    As you said it isn’t coming from her parents, it’s coming from a society that promotes this shit from the cradle onwards. You can’t get away from that but you can help her learn to interpret it and see through it.
    This youtube video highlights the way Disney acts as an agent of socialisation, not that it’s just coming from Disney, it’s everywhere, but this is a real eye-opener.

    There is also a post on my site somewhere about the harmful gender race and class messages in kid’s entertainment.

  6. Thanks for the advice everyone.

  7. I work with 4-5 year olds. We get all sorts of gender stuff and usually I use a similar strategy to kaethe, I ask, ‘but why?’ Sometimes they give me a rule as an answer, and then I think of exceptions to the rule. So, one discussion we often have is girls have long hair and boys have short hair, and I ask but why, and they’ll explain because girls always have long hair, and I’ll ask, ‘but what about …’s mum? She has short hair and she’s a girl?’ and then usually there’s a bit quiet as they digest this information. So maybe turn those ‘but why?’ questions around on your daughter.

  8. I think telling her you feel that that kind of thing is silly is really helpful reinforcement. If she prefers a pink bowl, fine, but you’re not going to rearrange your life around this stuff.
    Also, it used to be that blue was the girls’ color (because it was “soft” and “the Virgin Mary’s color”), and pink was the boys’ color (because it was “forceful” and a junior version of manly manly red). This was back in the days of your daughter’s grandparents’ grandparents, most likely, but it might still be a poser for her.

  9. My daughter loves pink and purple in things like toys (she couldn’t just have a DS, she had to have a pink DS), but oddly when it comes to clothes, she wants to wear jeans and usually bold coloured red/blue or black tops. She is very sporty and active and is generally not at all focussed on her looks. She is only 9, but I hope this augurs well for the future … although I am only too aware how quickly the terrible teens can hit.
    OTOH, I have a four year-old foster son who LOVES my daughter’s toys; whose favourite colour is pink, who dresses is pink fairy outfits and who loves nothing more than hanging with the girls. BUT: put a car anywhere near him and he reverts to a full-on stereotypical vroom, vroom speed racer boy. It’s hilarious to watch, particularly if he is playing with his cars WHILE wearing his fairy costume 🙂

  10. I’m the first child in a family of all daughters. When I was little my mum was horrified that I kept being given dolls for presents and she went out of her way to counterbalance “gendered” gifts. So when I got given a doll by my grandparents, mum would buy a tonka truck. Lego, blackboard & chalk and a tape player were among non-gendered toys I remember. We were never allowed barbie dolls.
    By the time my youngest sister was born 23 years later my mum said she went to all that effort to no avail. We were going to grow up exactly the way we were going to grow up and all she could present us with was options. So she didn’t bother steering my sister away from pink toys, fairy princess costumes etc, all of which the kid took to with enthusiasm. I guess it remains to be seen whether she’ll grow out of it or not.

  11. I don’t have kids but am very interested in this debate. Monica Dux wrote a piece about the dressing daughters in pink for The Age last year –
    She says:
    “So, here’s an idea: no matter how keen your daughter may be on her pretty princess outfit, pack it away and bring it out only for occasional play.
    “There may be a few tears, but you might also short-circuit a development path that leads to a grown woman who, deep down, still sees herself as all sugar and spice. And one thing’s for sure — you’ll have greater success controlling what your three-year-old wears than you will if you wait to fight an uphill battle with her as a teenager.”
    I am sure implementing your resolution to avoid pink outfits etc is much more difficult than it reads on paper.

  12. I have taken a slightly different approach to those mentioned here (although I don’t disagree with those). My daughter isn’t old enough for that, but at 20 months she already has opinions on needing a hat and shoes to leave the house. I can see it coming. So far it isn’t gender biased, so I’m ok.
    However, I have two older boys, and I adopted a policy of telling all my kids they were beautiful, all the time. Mostly when they are behaving themselves. I probably tell them they’re beautiful 10 times a day. I don’t know if that is enough to wash out the “beautiful when wearing a dress” message – time will tell.
    So I have taken the approach that feeling beautiful matters, but that it is associated with smiling, being clean, having cuddles, having fun, being silly, making people laugh, and getting your hair brushed, because I am not above using it for my own ends.
    In the vein of Mimbles, I also try to avoid commenting on clothes as a source of beauty. Not sure I am achieving that as well as I should, but if and when it becomes an issue, that in itself will be motivation to be more vigilant.

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