I’m not a girly girl, never have been. I grew up wedged between two sisters. I was the middle, uber-eccentric child. I never wanted to play ‘princess’ or had any desire to wear dresses, experiment with make-up, or play with dolls. Instead, I would strong-arm my sisters into playing ‘work,’ my best friend (I use this term loosely) in grade one was a boy named Michael, and my fashion accessory obsession at that age was a pair of boyish, navy-blue tap shoes- quite the opposite of pink with frills. Luckily, my parents never expected us to fit into any North Americanized, gender-defining context growing up. But even with a generic upbringing I felt and still feel the pressures of falling into a specific category. I constantly feel the expectation from society to check off all the boxes that illustrate a carbon copy of what the personification of an ideal female looks like: a nice, soft-spoken, modest, domestic ‘queen’ with a fit, curvy physique (but not too curvy and not too masculine) who isn’t overly ambitious, and not too assertive.
These ideological constructs are, arguably, evermore anchored down for females than they are for the opposite gender (in my opinion). Any variation from the idealized form is more widely accepted and celebrated for men than they are for women. For example, if you meet a man who is hyper-sensitive and in tune with his ’emotions’ than the average dude, most women will likely praise him for being attentive, self-aware, and empathetic. However, a woman who is bold, career-oriented, unwilling to marry or have kids at a young age, or wants to wear pantsuits everyday might commonly be considered less desirable, intimidating, unattractive or even unfeminine; which ultimately equates to being less than. Ashley Rous, a YouTuber I follow, recently nailed it on the head for me when she said that “girls hold little cultural capital.” When you start to think about our cultural strongholds, you begin to see the problematic value we place on things that men typically find interesting (aka society takes them as serious interests), while things that women tend to gravitate towards are labeled as rom-coms or chick-lit (aka society views it as ‘frivolous’).
This whole idea of gender conformity is never more obvious than when one is pregnant and ready to bring a child into the world- at least that was the case for me. Everything from bedroom décor and accessories, to toys and clothes, are hyper-simplified into two rigid categories: boy or girl. But these labels don’t only mean boy or girl, do they? No, each label is chock-full of preconceived notions, typecasts, and societal expectations lasting far longer than the infant stage of life. Will you raise the tough, strong, outspoken, sporty boy or will you nurture the sweet, polite, sensitive girly girl? Decision-making is squarely based around these two perpetual dichotomies: blue or pink, cars or dolls, dinosaurs or bunnies, dresses or overalls, etc.
While all this might seem innocuous at the outset, I wonder if it is just that ‘harmless’ pebble thrown into a murky body of water that will eventually become a tidal wave of stereotypes heaped upon our kids. The same ones we embattled as children ourselves- us girls who wanted to get dirty and play baseball, and the timid boys who preferred to read or play quiet games. It seems this is how the ferocious beast is fed; the cycle of gender conformity begins at birth and it never quite ends.
This all weighed heavily on me when my husband and I found out we were having a girl. I already had visions of how I wanted to raise my daughter with privilege but a different type of privilege: the ability to be whoever she wants to be without gender-defining characteristics (for as long as possible). At her young age, she lacks the ability to conceptualize the bigger world outside of her immediate self so I will take advantage of that narrow window of time and emulate the type of world I wish we lived in. While I can’t change all that is wrong with our society or what she will eventually be told by popular culture, I can at least mirror back to her what (I believe) self-love, contentment, and body acceptance should look like.
Trust me, I didn’t set out to dress my baby girl in blue overalls or shove a truck in her face. All I did was not play into this stereotype of #girlmom. I wanted to figure this all out on a neutral playing field. However, what I found most confounding were the reactions I would get from other moms of girls: You’re not going to put her in a dress? You don’t want her to wear pink? Don’t you want her to look sweet? How will people know she’s a girl? Don’t you want cute pictures?
One of my dear friends thought it was silly (bless her heart) when I said I didn’t want to project these super girly ideals upon her. And I get it, after all, we were looking at my two-month-old at the time. What harm can you actually do to the mental health of a two-month-old who doesn’t know their toe from their nose? But it was misinterpreted that I didn’t want her to be a girly girl when in fact I wanted her to be whatever type of girl she wants to be when she has the ability to decide: sporty, ginger, scary, baby, or posh (see, she already has great variety there)!
This transition into motherhood has shown me how engrained people are with gender beliefs. They assumed because I didn’t dress her in pink dresses 24/7 that I was purposely choosing to make her look a certain way. When in actuality, we dressed her in the practical clothes that were handed down to us (whether it was from the closet of my older nephew or the closet of my husband’s older niece). We just weren’t going out of our way to buy her pink bunny toques, pink bedsheets, pink onesies, pink tiaras, pink wallpaper for her room, etc. In my house, things like trucks, dolls, Legos, cars, and dinosaurs are not gender-specific toys.
The reality is there’s nothing wrong with being a girly girl or even the colour pink, it’s the negative ideas it represents and all the wonderful characteristics it excludes that I have an issue with. At the end of the day, if my daughter grows up loving dolls and dresses, her father and I will be proud of her. If she wakes up tomorrow only wanting to wear Superman capes fashioned from tea towels, her father and I will be proud of her (it would be weird but we would still love her). If she ends up loving football but cheering for the ‘wrong’ team, well, her father will be deeply sad and quietly disappointed but he’ll get over it. My only hope is that she will always have the courage to follow her heart and take the paths that bring her the most joy and satisfaction because that is all that matters.
*For all parents out there who choose to raise their children differently or according to their own beliefs, this post is not aimed at shaming anyone or questioning anyone’s child-rearing methods. This is just one person’s journey (mine). More importantly, let’s just teach our children to be accepting, empathetic, and kind. Thanks so much for reading.