In 2011, right around the time I transitioned from earning a Master’s degree to my Ph.D. program, Peggy Orenstein published Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Orenstein had made her career as a journalist by reporting on the issues that adolescent girls face and on her own infertility saga. Then, she had a daughter, Daisy. In the introduction to this book, she explains “Why I Hoped for a Boy.” If a book’s introductory chapter could have a click-baity title, this is a clear example of one. Quickly, Orenstein explains that when she found out she was having a girl, she was happy: “I suddenly realized I had wanted a girl—desperately, passionately—all along. I had just been afraid to admit it.” You see, her alleged hope for a son stemmed from fear that, because she was an expert on girlhood, she would be held to an impossible standard as a mother to a daughter.
When Julio and I set out to start a family, I hoped for a girl. Although I spent six years of my adult life studying girlhood—more within the history of childhood than within pop culture—I had the benefit of not being a best-selling author on the subject. Plus, no one listens to me anyway. Although I certainly face internal pressures, I did not worry about the unrealistic standard that Orenstein was afraid of. I just knew that so many of the most meaningful moments of my life came from my relationships with other women and I wanted a daughter to share that with, too. Don’t get me wrong, a boy would have been great—especially one raised with the wonderful man I’m married to—but the heart wants what the heart wants and mine wanted a daughter.
When we finally got pregnant, my heart felt pretty sure that I was having a girl. I had prayed for a daughter pretty fervently, though, so I had my doubts. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking? My best friend was also certain I was having a girl. I maintained a neutral ground as best I could, not dismissing my strong intuitive feeling, but not taking it as a medical fact, either. When we found out our baby was, in fact, a girl, it was not as exciting as I thought it might be, in part because my husband had to be video-called in from the parking lot because of COVID-19 restrictions, and in part because I already knew.
Back to Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Orenstein’s book focuses on how little girl culture became so relentlessly pink and princessy, and what the implications of that culture have for girls’ development and self-esteem. She found that, although girls do tend to outgrow the princess stage, the lasting effects of the girlie-girl culture can be detrimental to their body image, self-esteem, and achievement at school compared to their male peers. The hyper-focus on gender in marketing to children, however, is pervasive even beyond pink and princesses.
So much of it is foisted onto kids, too. She describes how her daughter switched from loving Thomas the Tank Engine to knowing all the Disney princesses shortly after going to preschool. After that, Orenstein started seeing the pink pressure everywhere. And she lives in Berkeley:
“The waitress at our breakfast joint would hand her her pancakes and say, ‘Here’s your princess pancakes.’ … A pharmacist offered a pink balloon. The final straw came at Daisy’s first dentist appointment. The dentist asked, ‘Would you like to get in my princess chair so I can sparkle your teeth?’ And I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, do you have a princess drill, too?'”
I think, perhaps, one of the best things we can do for the children around us and their parents is not to say prescriptive stuff like this to them. The assumption that all girls like pink and princesses teaches girls that they are supposed to like pink and princesses. We don’t make this same assumption with adults we don’t know. We pick up on cues about them or we ask questions. We don’t know what is going to stick to a kid and how, so don’t prescribe to them what they are supposed to like just because they are a girl. Or a boy. I’ve known boys who were really talented in the arts and were made to feel embarrassed about it because that’s not what boys are supposed to like. You might say that doesn’t happen anymore, but look at what happened last year when it was revealed that Prince George takes ballet class at school.
Once we told our family that we were having a girl, I was asked:
“Are you totally against pink?”
I am not. In fact, the nursery is pink. We painted it when we bought our house, thinking that it was going to be more of a neutral peach and it came out pale pink. I loved it, but my husband did not. Jokingly, Julio was relieved that we are having a girl because that means he doesn’t have to repaint the pink guest room as we turn it into a nursery. Some pink is fine. I just don’t want a ton of it. Really, that comes down to my taste because as far as I can tell, newborns are very sensible and don’t care what they’re wearing so long as it’s comfortable.
As I started shopping for our little buddy, however, I did notice that a lot seemed to have changed since Orenstein’s research. Sure, there was still a sea of pink to wade through and plenty of princess products, but from what I saw, the selection was more diverse than it was a decade ago. There were still some trends that made me gag, particularly sexualizing newborns with onesies that read things like, “Sorry, boys. Daddy says no dating” or “Sorry, ladies. I’m taken.” For the most part, my shopping for “research purposes” has unveiled a few trends that I think are really positive:
- Llamas are the new “it” animal for children. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good unicorn, but the llama products provide a ton of gender-neutral options. Plus, we are working on getting an actual llama.
- Dinosaurs are on-trend. Again, plenty of neutral options in addition to clothes for girls that have a fun print that is not stereotypically feminine.
- Brands like Primary have come along offering basics for kids that provide a capsule wardrobe vibe that is colorful without being gender-specific.
- There are plenty of neutral options that celebrate qualities such as being “Kind like Mommy” (this onesie is available in options that read Daddy, Grandma, and Grandpa).
Basically, if you want the hot pink princess culture, it’s still around, and I don’t think it’s productive to shame or discourage girls if they want it. BUT there are many, many other options around so it does not feel as prescriptive.
My Very Birds Eye View Goals
So, I have spent a lot of my adult life thinking about girlhood and culture. But, I know enough to know that even if I were to design what my research shows is the safest, healthiest way to raise a girl, well, I’d be an arrogant dumbass. 1) Children are individuals and 2) They do not live in a vacuum. So, although I do have some high-level ideas, I approach them fully aware that they may be harder than I could imagine to stick to. As far as I can tell from my studies and experiences, however, there are a few things that I might try in order to put some boundaries between my family and the steamroller of marketing to children. These, at least, are the hopes and goals Julio and I talk about.
Limit exposure to marketing. The influence of advertising on children is scary. I wonder how much of it will shift now that many kids are being born to millennial parents who don’t have cable. Nevertheless, we want to do what we can to limit what advertising comes into our home. Julio is really good at being skeptical about who makes money off of making him think he needs or wants something. I would be happy if our daughter learned that from him, because there will be plenty of people wanting to profit off her whims and insecurities.
Let her be the guide. Julio and I have been going for walks at lunchtime and he often turns the conversation toward wondering what our daughter will like. Will she play a sport? Go to camp? Like math? We talk a lot about doing our part to make sure that she has diverse experiences, but not forcing her to do some extracurricular just because. Before we even get there, I think that will apply to her taste in things like clothes. I enjoyed the book Bringing Up Bebe and one of the ideas it discusses is that French parents raise kids within a framework that is strict on some things and allows a lot of independence in the rest. For example, I choose your clothes when we leave the house, but you get to choose at home. If our girl likes princess dresses, then she can let us know. We’ll make sure she’s dressed for the weather, if you catch my drift.
Provide diverse examples. Fortunately, diversity in children’s media has improved, but it is still important to us to do everything we can to make sure our daughter is exposed to images and stories about people of different races, genders, and walks of life. The more she knows about the great achievements and silly fun had by other people, the more seems possible for her. Studies show exposure to diversity is really good for kids.
Don’t stress about the small stuff. Kids pick up on so much. I think that if I were morally opposed to pink (which, again, I’m not). I’d be virtually guaranteeing that it becomes her favorite color. The debate about girlie-girl culture is not really about pink or princesses. It’s about what our culture is teaching girls and boys they have to be, often in ways that are subtly harmful. There are many ways to help girls grow up to have a strong sense of self, and stressing about pink is not one of them.
Not groundbreaking, but it’s a place to start.