A Girl’s Actions Speak Louder Than Her Dresses

The problem isn’t pink princess dresses. The problem is not showing young girls other options.

I recently attended a birthday party for my friend’s 5-year-old son. Before my wife and I could remove our coats, my nearly 4-year-old daughter made a beeline to the woman painting all the girls’ nails. And, before I could even decide how I felt about her nails being painted, there she was, glowing, happy, with her purple nails. For the record, boys were offered temporary tattoos.

The party consisted of different games and dancing and all the children (and parents) had a lot of fun. Yet it was hard for me to ignore how, during certain games, boys were instructed to “show us your muscles” and girls were told to “strike a pose.”

Then came costume time. The boys had their choice of every fantastic superhero you could ever want. A few chose Batman. Some chose Superman or Spiderman. One even chose Robin. Every single girl was a princess.

As a devoutly feminist dad, I spend a great deal of mental energy concerned about my daughters’ appearances and resisting princess culture. I worry that they will be enveloped in pink, will refuse to wear anything other than dresses, and will become overly obsessed with their hair, all to the detriment of other potential interests. I worry about these things because I fear that all of this will cause them to be limited versions of themselves rather than being wholly human.

As Charles M. Blow put it, in order for girls and boys and men and women to be “fully free,” “we have to see our girls and boys as more than skirts and pants, damsels and squires, child-bearers and breadwinners. We must see them as—and encourage them to express themselves as—fully realized beings.”

And, this is about more than just the equality of the sexes. As Blow articulates, “it’s about freedom—freedom of expression, freedom of self-determination, and freedom of fluidity.”

I recognize, of course, that there is more than a bit of irony in the fact that I am spending so much time worrying about my daughters’ appearance—exactly what I don’t want them to do. Perhaps it is in part because I am a man (one who has never been drawn to the traditionally feminine) that I do not fully comprehend or respect a passion for the feminine. Maybe I need to allow for the possibility that my daughters, particularly my nearly 4-year-old, are genuinely drawn to dresses and jewelry and nail polish for their own reasons. And, especially as my daughters grow older, I will have to respect their agency to decide how to appear and what their interests are.

I would prefer that girls were shown a variety of aspirational characters—superheroes, doctors, astronauts. I am worried about what impact limited choices will have on what they learn about what roles they can play or how big they can dream.

But I have also learned that not all princesses are created equal. Brave’s Merida is a princess who comes to the rescue, rides horses, is an expert markswoman with a bow and arrow, and is knowledgeable about tradition and challenges it. And Frozen’s Anna and Elsa teach us the value of loving and protecting our family, and that princesses can save the day on their own.

However, given the extreme gendering of toys, the pinkification of anything associated with girls, and the endless march of princess culture, it is impossible to determine what is being imposed or forced on my daughter and what she has really come to appreciate on her own. The same could be said for any of us in this society who learn gender conformity from an early age. Indeed, one is not born with an affinity for dresses or the color pink.

The question remains: Why I am demanding perfection from my daughters when life is a long learning process? Even those of us who are well versed in gender constructs and sexism have internalized the sexism that is pervasive in our culture. Do our internal inconsistencies mean our efforts are meaningless? Am I not still a feminist because I like rap music or wear gender conforming clothing?

In other words, can my daughters grow up to be feminists, good people, and valuable contributors to society if they wear makeup or dresses? The answer is obviously yes.

While I do not want my daughters to be limited by a focus on their appearance (both their focus and others), or by the fantasies they are offered, it is also true that, just as many women before them have, they can stand up for themselves and other women and strive to fulfill their dreams, all while wearing a dress.

At my friend’s party, after the pizza and cupcakes, came the main event: a piñata filled with candy and a chance for each child to knock it down. Many of the children were unable to impact it. A number completely missed on their swings with the bat. Some of the most muscled Batmen and Supermen failed to swing the bat forcefully. And then, to my delight, the piñata was absolutely demolished by a vicious swing from the most determined little girl I have ever encountered. This girl was serious, powerful, and competitive. She swung her bat with confidence and strength. And, she was wearing a princess dress.

Ariel Chesler is an attorney and writer in New York. He lives with his wife, two daughters, and one cat.

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