My six-year-old daughter Sally wears dresses, well, basically, all the time. If she’s not wearing dresses, she’s wearing skirts. I can’t think of the last time I saw her in shorts, and she swore off pants last year. Too uncomfortable, she said. When it’s cold, she wears leggings under her dresses. Dresses, dresses, always dresses. This is weird to me. I grew up in a conservative evangelical homeschool culture that valued female domesticity. When I was 13, I swore off pants. I believed women were supposed to look different from men—they were supposed to look feminine, and that meant skirts. It wasn’t until halfway through college that I put on another pair of pants.
It’s not that I never wear dresses today. I have a varied wardrobe, and I like sundresses in the summer, or leggings and long shirts in the winter. But when it comes to little girls, I suppose I tend to think that girly girls wear skirts and tomboys wear pants. Sally is very much a tomboy, so I feel like she should be wearing pants, and forgoing skirts. It’s not that I think she should be required to dress one way or another—I just find it odd, on some level, that she can be as fascinated with science and computers as she is and yet want to wear girly dresses day in and day out.
No one gave Sally that memo. Just like no one told that Sally computers are for boys or that girls aren’t good at computers, no one told Sally that only girly girls wear skirts. I’ve seen Sally take people by surprise with the contrast, wearing flowered dresses with ruffles as she chatters on about clogged arteries, or ghosts, or strangulation, or the chemistry of the human brain. (I promise, she’s not as morbid as she sounds, and one day she’ll cure cancer or solve global climate change, I swear.)
I was chatting with a friend one day, and for some reason our favorite colors came up. “Mine’s purple,” I said. “I know that’s stereotypical, but I’m reclaiming it,” I added. “How very third wave,” she said with a smile. And it is very third wave—but it’s also conscious. I recently experimented with growing out the hair on my legs, reasoning that that’s the way my body looks naturally, and people would just have to get used to it. Except for one problem: I hated it. I eventually shaved it all back off, telling myself that sometimes “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” has currency, and yet I still felt slightly guilty. Was I selling out?
With Sally it’s different. She’s still largely unconscious of the weight of cultural expectations, so for the time being she isn’t influenced by them one way or the other. Oh sure, she likes princess stories, sometimes plays with barbies, and was obsessed with Elsa last year (who wasn’t?), but she also climbs trees, sets off rockets, goes bird watching, and can explain what greenhouse gases are and how they work. In other words, she doesn’t think it’s odd that she wears pink dresses while sliding down the fire pole at the playground.
All of this came to mind recently when reading an article by developer Sara Chipps titled “Papas, Please Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Princesses.”
I’ve spent the past year talking to a LOT of parents and their kids for Jewelbots.
Scratch that, I’ve spent the last year talking to lots of parents and their daughters.
Because of my network, many of these parents happen to be developers or have technology adjacent roles. The ones that have daughters in our demo always light up when we tell them what we are doing. You can see the recognition in their face when they realize the role of an open source project centered around friendship in their daughter’s lives. It’s been exciting and affirming talking to them.
Every so often, on a rare occasion, when having a conversation with a parent, they say something like this:
“My daughter is really into making and building, I’m happy she’s not into super girly stuff.” or “I try to keep my daughter interested in science and technology, I don’t expose her to anything girly.”
This always left me with a funny feeling, and I chalked it up to the fact that parents were telling me that they wouldn’t expose their daughter to our products, which would leave anyone bummed. However, the other day it dawned on me why these sentiments left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
the opposite of science isn’t girl
the opposite of build isn’t girl
the opposite of make isn’t girl
I really appreciated Sara’s post. It helped me sort through some things I’ve been chewing on for a while now. For example, when I saw this Goldiblox commercial last year, I was slightly conflicted.
There’s a lot of pink . . . but then there’s nothing wrong with pink. Right?
In many ways my issue with Lego Friends has been more about the assumption that the regular sets are for boys than anything else. (Well, that and the news van that’s actually a beauty parlor.) Several months ago my kids watched Lego Friends on Netflix. The girls in the episode worked to win a school prize by finding a way to keep dolphins from getting stuck in local fishing nets. Yes, they also jammed to music and agonized over the outfits to wear for a special occasion . . . but those things aren’t wrong. Right?
When we treat girly things as subpar or to be avoided, we communicate to our daughters and the other girls in our lives that the feminine is less valuable. This is a problem. At the moment, for example, Sally doesn’t see anything wrong with her obsession with Ever After High—and she shouldn’t. The result is that she honestly and truly picks the things she likes—and that sometimes means wearing ruffled dresses while preparing a study of soil acidity.
As Sara noted in her article,
By saying “forgo girly things for things that will get you interested in engineering” we’re saying “if you want to be girly, you cannot also be a technology creator, an inventor, and a world changer”. We’re teaching girls to change who they are in order to effect change as an adult.
We need to be careful to make sure we’re teaching our daughters “and” rather than “or.” Pushing girls away from “boy” things is a problem, yes—a big problem—but pushing girls away from “girl” things is also a problem. We need to make sure we are not giving our daughters the message that things that are pink, or ruffly, or jeweled are somehow inferior. If we do, they might get the idea that if they like those things, they’re inferior too.
Here’s to my tomboy and her pink dresses!