I read an article yesterday that set my teeth on edge. I tossed off something about it on Facebook and then it seemed to spiral into a bigger discussion than Facebook would handle. I promised my Facebook friends that I would explain myself here.
I went to a dinner party at a friend’s home last weekend, and met her five-year-old daughter for the first time.
Little Maya was all curly brown hair, doe-like dark eyes, and adorable in her shiny pink nightgown. I wanted to squeal, “Maya, you’re so cute! Look at you! Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing!”
But I didn’t. I squelched myself. As I always bite my tongue when I meet little girls, restraining myself from my first impulse, which is to tell them how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are.
She goes on to justify her refusal to address physical appearance with this little girl on the basis that acknowleding looks feeds into a cultural norm that girls need to do whatever is necessary to be pretty. I think she’s totally wrong.
The way you make women feel comfortable about how they look is to tell them as children that they are pretty. You don’t avoid the issue and pretend that it doesn’t exist. You don’t tell the world what a great person you are because you struck a blow against the sins of look-ism by grinding your teeth when the little girl reads a book about a little girl who wears pink
Purplicious was Maya’s pick and a new one to me, as Maya snuggled next to me on the sofa and proudly read aloud every word, about our heroine who loves pink but is tormented by a group of girls at school who only wear black. Alas, it was about girls and what they wore, and how their wardrobe choices defined their identities. But after Maya closed the final page, I steered the conversation to the deeper issues in the book: mean girls and peer pressure and not going along with the group.
In some ways she is right. Don’t focus on the colors, focus on the bad behavior of the mean girls. Focus on the attempt to shame the one girl into group conformity. But don’t expect a kids book to come up with a complicated non-lookist way to show that the one little girl was different from the group. It’s a kids book.
I understand the motivation. I’ve done sort of the same thing as this woman when playing with the children of my friends. Once in my early 20s, the 9 year old daughter of a friend asked me to play Barbie with her. We were waiting for something, she was bored, and it was suddenly Barbie time. I told her that I would play, but only if I was allowed to be Barbie. She didn’t like the rules, but if I have to play Barbie, it’s going to be on my terms. Her mom must have laughed herself silly at a 20 something paratrooper playing Barbie with her 9 year old.
I insisted that Barbie worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California. And I always said it that way, the full name and location. I went there to see the mock up Space Shuttle when I was in Junior High. Barbie was a Rocket Scientist. Oh, she was a HOT rocket scientist, but that was because she was Barbie, not because of anything I did or said. I think she worked on the Voyager program. For some reason, Ken was a dance instructor. I wasn’t playing Ken, so I didn’t get a vote in that.
I modeled good behavior, her PhD in a practical, useful field. I also modeled bad behavior. When Ken traded the dog for a cat without talking to Barbie first, Barbie threw a temper tantrum. It’s never too soon to learn the twin rules of relationships. First, don’t swap the dog for a cat without asking your partner, and second, just because it’s justified, doesn’t mean you can be a bitch about it. Trust me, she understood.
Despite all the “Messages” that were sent, she had fun. That’s because I let a child be a child. I didn’t beat it into her head, I just showed her Barbie being Barbie. Maybe it was a different Barbie than she knew, but she understood that when she got her Barbie back, she could rewrite her life story to be the Barbie she wanted her to be. If Heather grew up to be the Barbie who worked at JPL, great. If she grew up to be the Barbie who was a dance instructor, that’s fine too.
Here’s the problem. Children are not objects like Barbie dolls. We don’t get to “mold” or “shape” them. We get to show them some options, but in the end they will decide for themselves. While the author had some valid points, my biggest problem with it was her political attitude towards a child.
And tell the little girl that she’s pretty! Aren’t all little girls pretty? Heather certainly was. I’ll bet that she still is today. And if you disagree with me about that, even if others think you’re right, I’ll stab you in the eye.