For a mom, trying to resist passing on what is traditionally but uselessly feminine while raising a daughter is a field loaded with land mines. Even with careful forethought to changing things up for future generations of women, history, nature and nurture combine to make words come out of a mother’s mouth she didn’t even know were in her and set her up for perpetuating the same patterns with which she was brought up.
Personally, I was never a big fan of pink, lace, or ruffles. It’s not that they don’t have their places in many a wardrobe. It’s just that my mother knew whenever someone bought me clothes that included any or all of those features, they would stay permanently on hangers or neatly folded in drawers. Having grown up with two brothers who wore no-nonsense solids, stripes and masculine plaids, pink seemed like a weak color, as did yellow, baby blue, and lavender. In reality, according to Smithsonian.com, the whole gender-color thing took a while to brainwash us, but it eventually did grab hold at one point. Lace reminded me of what my immigrant grandmothers placed on the arms of silk sofas. And ruffles? It’s as if someone mistakenly forgot to straighten out the fabric as it churned through the sewing machine.
Subsequently, I somehow knew if I ever had a daughter, I would not subject her to any of these recognized feminine accoutrements, either. Back in the days before a simple ultrasound revealed the sex of the baby, I was determined to avoid a certain decor in a nursery/bedroom, making it as gender neutral as I possibly could. Even if I had been convinced I was having a girl, primary colors would rule. Her walls were blue, decorated with hobby horses in red and green. And even when she received books containing tales of rescued females, they got shoved to her bookcase recesses in favor of the irreverent prose of Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, in which Abigail dies from not getting a pony. In other words, I tried hard not to “over-girl” my daughter in almost everything aspect of her life.
The ironic thing is, even with all that forethought, I look back now and can see where I tripped up, permitting inane female stereotyping to get a foothold. I recall Halloween most of all, when there were girls’ and boys’ costumes in separate sections of the whatever store. Back in baby boomerhood, girls were supposed to be fairies, princesses, nurses, or crumb-dropping Gretels. Boys were devils, Indian chiefs, soldiers, or comic book heroes. I really hated the choice of costumes. By the time the '80s came along and I was a mom, the choices weren't that much more exciting, except you could dress up like a paper clip and carry a pet rock if you wanted to.
Most of the time a costume was a no-brainer, since I actually tried to ignore Halloween (I still do) and never made a big deal of it. My daughter usually preferred dressing like a bum, complete with a smudged face and ripped tee. Not a stereotype that is politically correct any more, but sexless nonetheless. One Halloween, however, I gave in and dressed her as a bride. A BRIDE.
Now I ask you: Do boys dream of walking down a flowered-strewn aisle to the altar? Would mothers go around dressing them up in little tuxes like grooms? Would they throw waistcoats and leggings on them to make them look like little princes? Chances are good the answer would be negative. It is here that I make my case. How can we expect girls to think of themselves as Wonder Woman, Madame Curie, or the amazing female mathematicians depicted in the movie Hidden Figures when we don’t do anything different than our mothers did? Now that I look back at it, I’d rather my daughter had gone from door to door in her soccer uniform than hold a wand or wedding bouquet in her hand.
Even though things may have changed a bit in this regard, it seems many moms unwittingly encourage their daughters to fantasize using helpless feminine stereotypes even when all their girls may be interested in at Halloween time is the candy. I’m not saying we need to dress our girls in Spider-Man costumes, even though that wouldn’t be a bad idea. But I’d rather they used a costume like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird — where the only part of her we could see were her legs sticking out the bottom of a large papier mache HAM — than cubbyhole them into roles that make girls feel less than could-be leaders or heroines.
Of course, girls will grow to have their own tastes no matter what mothers do. Now that she is a fully grown, accomplished young woman, it’s not as if my daughter has shied away from feminine dressing, including wearing pink, lace and ruffles. But she wears them with a sense feminine power instead of having been spoon-fed them from a young age, and that suits me just fine.
I hope the days are behind us where girls are ridiculed for being tomboys or razzed for being “bossy” but I’m afraid it still persists in many parts of the U.S. Assertive, intelligent women are often talked over or accused of talking too much, and girls who openly dream of being leaders in worlds dominated by men can still be dismissed. I just think mothers should think long and hard about repeating what their own mothers did in terms of their daughters’ recognizing with certain roles in life, even if it’s fluff stuff. It drives me nuts even when I watch TV shows like HGTV’s Fixer Upper, where a large Texas family has the kids occasionally pitch in on rehabbing homes. Just as it would have been in my generation, the father takes the boys on field trips to woodworking and metal shops while the mom has her girls doing decorating and gardening. Who is to say those girls wouldn’t want to swing a sledge hammer or raise lumber or the boys might want to be home stagers and landscape designers?
I’m afraid this all starts with us moms. No one will stop you from sharing the stories of distressed maidens you grew up with or telling your daughter pursuing cheerleading is a career choice that will stand the test of time. All I know is that you probably won’t be helping change things up for future generations of girls by doing it.