Raising a little feminist and trying not to screw it up

Dec 01 2011 Published by under [Life Trajectories], Uncategorized

My daughter turns four years old in a few months. How time has flown. I have no idea how she became this little person so quickly, emerging from the murkiness of toddlerhood. It's like I looked up one day and had a little girl on my hands, and she is her own person.

With two parents who do not spend a lot of time or thought on fashion, she has somehow become a kid who is exceedingly aware of what she wears on a daily basis and that it makes a statement about her. It's as humorous at times to me as it is puzzling. Whereas we don't really encourage that attitude, we also haven't seen much of a reason to dissuade her either. For as long as I can remember she has been a princess loving, unicorn riding, glitter throwing maniac wrapped in pink and I have no clue where this came from.

But over thanksgiving she said something that has stuck with me and caused me to think a lot about the values kids get in their early years. My wife's family has a tradition of talking about what we are thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner. It's kind of a nice moment to put some things in perspective. The Wee One was happy to chime in at her turn and say that she was thankful for her family, which was cute. Everyone went around and we started the meal. Then the Wee One suddenly needed to add another thing she was thankful for. With great excitement she exclaimed "I'm thankful I'm beautiful!"

Okay, it's funny and cute once you get past the idea that we are raising a vain little princess, but she's 3 and whatever, right?

Well, it bugs me a bit and here's why - "being beautiful" was the first thing that sprang to her mind as she thought about the good qualities about herself*. Even if, for arguments sake, she is beautiful, it bothers me that she is making that part of her identity already. She didn't say that she was thankful for being smart, or good at puzzles, or happy all the time. Instead she placed value on her appearance and I can't shake the feeling that I'm failing her.

Now it is entirely possible that I'm over-reacting to an innocent comment, although her comment is hardly the first time she has equated beauty with worth. I will say that she does not lack self-confidence, which I am happy about, but I also want her to believe she is beautiful in lots of ways. But this was one of the first times that I really felt like outside influences were playing a role that went directly against how I would like her to see herself, and it was a bit jarring. I'm pitted against Disney and their damsel in distress princess pigeonhole and I all of a sudden I realized how much of that she has internalized already and it's creeping me the fuck out.

It'll be fine, she'll be fine and I certainly believe that we can instill in her the kinds of values we believe in. I guess I just didn't expect the Trojan Horse of the patriarchy to be sitting at the gates so soon. Now if I can just keep her out of JC Penny...

*Yes, she completely meant it in the physical sense.

19 responses so far

  • Alyssa says:

    Honestly, I don't think it's something to worry about at this point. Young children don't really "get" personality, intelligence, and such. They DO understand how they look. So, I can see how it would be the first thing to pop into her head about herself.

    If you really want to be proactive about it, perhaps when she says she's beautiful (which is AWESOME, by the way - as we all know how hard girls/women can be on themselves), you could add "Inside and out!", or "and you're smart and funny, too!".

  • Pascale says:

    Just wait for her "girl with the dragon tattoo" stage.

  • rs says:

    Relax. She will outgrow this phase. My daughter is 7 and now she hardly cares for any of the princess stuff (she was as obsess with them at 3 and something) and she is learning to put values in other qualities of hers and also she knows now that she need to learn a lot of things she doesn't know.

  • Ethan Rop says:

    Ours doesn't care about that Barbie/princess stuff anymore either. It might have something to do with being fed up with her deadbeat dad calling her "princess" but not ever bothering to treat her like one. She'll probably end up being a cutter. But I digress.

    Don't worry about it. Focus on complimenting her for the things that matter and it will all even out. (But yeah, we hate the Disney Drama Channel too.)

  • becca says:

    Look at it this way- one is *lucky* to be born into a good family, or to be beautiful. One works at being smart (at least it's good to think of it this way), and good at puzzles, and happy all the time. They are earned in a different way. So, while it is appropriate to be grateful that one was given the ability to do those things, they are not quite in the same category as a traditional thanksgiving "blessing". It's like saying "I'm thankful I worked my butt off to make this meal". It's possible she sensed the "luck" aspect of what we express gratitude for (maybe that's unlikely as an interpretation, but my kidlet is always surprising me with how much he understands even if he can't articulate it).

    I'd have a conversation with her about that, and about fairness, and probably bring up that people have actually done studies with *babies* and found that babies that are traditionally "cuter" get more attention... and then I'd ask her some pointed questions about fairness. I think by 3-4 they are already starting to "get" fairness enough to have the conversation?

    About the only other thing I can think of is to introduce her to e.g. children with birth defects that impact appearance and have her get to know them and talk about how they might stop seeming ugly once you know them and how you need to do your best to treat everyone with kindness.

  • Sxydocma1 says:

    "*Yes, she completely meant it in the physical sense."

    How do you know this and be sure? For a small child, being beautiful could be a combination of attributes that sums to a feeling of well-being and happiness that to them means beauty.

    My daughter is about to turn five, and she too is a unicorn riding princess. We haven't let any Disney into our home so we are somewhat suprised at this. However, I have never asked her what she thinks makes a person beautiful. I think I will ask her this evening. Interesting post.

  • Lab Rockstar says:

    I'm still a unicorn-riding princess and I tell Hot Tottie that he's beautiful every day. I say embrace the glitter, no matter what's in your pants.

    A 4 year-old can't tell the difference between what is beautiful and what is not. They like Bratz, for god's sake. The important thing is that she feels beautiful. We should all feel beautiful, all the time. Let her have that before puberty crushes it out of her.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My hope is not to disabuse her of the idea that she is beautiful, not at all. I'm more interested in separating the physical sense of beauty from the concept of being beautiful. My impression, based on what she has said in the last year and the types on interpretation she brings to particular situations, is that her concept of beauty is closely aligned with the Disney model. In no way do I think I can't change that or that she is locked into some mindset at this early stage, merely that it is easy to forget the need to be a constant counter balance to so much in our society.

  • neuromusic says:

    "Where did this come from?" you ask?

    Everywhere. The first time a new grown-up sees her, they probably say, "Wow, that's a pretty dress!" And if that is the most important thing for others to notice about her, then she is probably placing a higher value on her "prettiness" than if they were always saying, "Wow, look how strong you are!"

    Lisa Bloom has a nice article in HuffPo on the topic, titled "How to talk to little girls"
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html

  • neuromusic says:

    My point with that is also not to be so hard on yourself... you aren't failing her. You are not the only influence on her perceptions of herself. By trying to raise a little feminist, you are trying to raise a social radical and there are well established society mechanisms to prevent that, even for three-year-olds.

    Most of the feminists I know are such strong individuals because they have had to make the choice for themselves to reject the repressive standards of the societal game that they played when they were younger. Had they not been exposed and dealt with the internal tension between their expectations of themselves and society's expectations of their gender, they probably would not have the insight that the have now.

  • Katharine says:

    Teach her to tell society to stfu and to quit caring about it. Maybe expose her to some people who do this. Take her to the local Occupy protest maybe.

  • The first thing adults say to little girls is almost always some sort of compliment on their appearance. This social attention is positively correlated with degree to which they conform to the princess archetype. Observe a room of pre-schoolers and their parents; the girl in the fairy princess costume is going to get the most positive adult attention. Your kid isn't dumb and she's working the system. It's just that this particular system effectively links a girl's value to her appearance and the number and type of her possessions. I really hate it when I see the effects of this kind of gendering on my own kids. And so young!

    It is sometimes difficult, but when speaking with a fairy-princess costumed child my subversive approach has been to never comment on their clothing.

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    I totally identify with your angst... I realized lately that my most frequent comment to my 4-month daughter is "You're a beauty"... I'm trying to shift to "Who's daddy's little smarty-pants"...

  • I guess I just didn't expect the Trojan Horse of the patriarchy to be sitting at the gates so soon.

    Dude, it's not "at the gates"; it's *everywhere*. Patriarchy it's like the air we breathe.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I guess I was naively hoping for a grace period.

  • Namnezia says:

    I agree with some of the above commenter, it is probably a phase. My daughter was all princess-y and shit when she was 4 and into dressing up and things like that. Now that she's seven she never even thinks about it, in fact she announced that pink was no longer her favorite colors and that she wasn't into princesses anymore (but mermaids are still kinda cool). You know, let her be herself and set a good example of the person you'd like her to be. That's about all you can do.

  • JPop says:

    May I suggest my little pony: friendship is magic as a good feminist counterbalancing influence to disney princessitude? No joke - they are damn cool.

  • I was going to be point to the how to talk to a girl post as well. And as you've probably noticed, I have alot of angst about this as well.....

  • Phosphorelated says:

    If it helps at all, I am a grad student raised in a household without TV, in which my dad did the cooking, caring for sick kids, etc., and my mom made most of the money. (Also my married parents have different last names, which these days is seen as totally normal, but was not nearly so common in 1984 when I was born and they gave their first kid, me, a girl, her mom's last name.)

    Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is, no matter how many toy trucks you give your little girl, she may love being a princess. I went through a phase around age 4 or 5 during which my favorite activity was staring into the bathroom mirror admiring my beautiful blue eyes and my cute as a button nose.

    By age 7 I was a total tomboy. I didn't care at all about clothes or appearance in middle school or high school or college, and now in grad school I'm starting to worry that someday I may be required to have a wardrobe that does not consist entirely of jeans, t-shirts, work boots and hoodies. Gulp.

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