Raising Daughters: “Girly Things”

Yesterday, as soon as Bella got off the bus and started trudging across the road, I knew from the look on her face that something was wrong. Not seriously wrong but “oh hell, begin the whining in three, two, one…” wrong.

“Mommy,” she pleaded as if she’d already asked her question, “can you puh-lease get me a new backpack? Everyone makes fun of it.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“Jasmin*.”

“Just her?”

“Yes.”

“What does she say?”

“That it’s for boys.”

“And now you need a new one? Because of that?”

– she nods emphatically-

“No, you can’t get another bookbag, not until you start 1st grade. That’s how it goes. One new backpack per school year.”

“Well next time, can I pick out one for girls, that I like?”

“You don’t like the one you have now?”

“No.”

“Did you like it before Jasmin said it was for boys?”

– she nods, much less emphatically-

So then, I start my speech. It’s one I’ve given often: I’m sure that if I said “Isabella, give yourself the ‘there are very few things that can be classified as a boy thing or a girl thing’ talk” she could recite it in the mirror.

I hate that little girls are almost restricted to princess and housewife fantasies. I hate that “you wear pink and bat your lashes” is the message driven home much sooner than any “you can be anything in the world you want to be”. Is there something wrong with a little girl wanting to be a princess? Of course not. Goobalicious is prancing around with a plastic tiara on her head as I type.

Yet, there’s something to be said for breaking down gender barriers and destroying stereotypes, and I don’t think that can be done if every playtime is just tea parties with crowns on our heads. I think all things regarding equality – whether gender, racial, or otherwise – should be taught early. I don’t think we have to be a queer family for me to raise my girls with the same sensibilities and values regarding society-taught gender roles as my friend Polly and her wife instill in their children. That is, pretending they pretty much don’t exist.

Bella’s bookbag is in the shape of a turtle shell, and it has the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles printed on it. I picked it out for her in Chicago last year and when I brought it back her eyes lit up like you wouldn’t believe. She’s loved it ever since – and Bella will let you know if she doesn’t like something, so I’m sure of this. Now, someone has told her that her bookbag is for boys, and she doesn’t want it anymore.

All I want is for her to be able to be herself. To be able to like what she likes without anyone telling her that it’s not for her, and especially not because she’s a girl.

After I went through my speech I asked Bella “If Jasmin told you that you couldn’t like Iron Man anymore because only boys like superheroes, would you stop liking Iron Man? What about Spiderman? The Hulk? X-Men? Batman?!” Her eyes became larger and larger, head shaking from side to side after every suggestion. “Well, that’s how some people feel. Like you can only like Cinderella and Barbie Dolls. That you should only have a play kitchen, not a play tool bench. That you should have been Tinkerbell instead of The Joker last Halloween. The Little Mermaid instead of Iron Man the year before. I say that these people are nuts and you should be able to like what you like, regardless of whether you’re a girl or a boy. The Ninja Turtles were my favorite when I was little, and I didn’t let anyone make me feel bad about it. Neither should you. You tell Jasmin that if she doesn’t like your backpack, she doesn’t have to wear it. And next year, if you want a different backpack that you think is more “girly” {yes, I make finger quotations} that’ll be fine. I liked the purple one in The Gap last year anyway, but you didn’t.”

I’ll get her a “girlier” bookbag. Sure. I’ve been watching Modern Family. I’m trying to watch Gossip Girl (hoping it gets better and all my friends aren’t insane for liking it). I find myself paying very close attention to these portrayals of adolescent and teenage girls, and their interactions with their parents. I remember these conversations and fights and misunderstandings, and I realize that they are right around the corner, with both of my daughters. The Bella already has mood swings for God’s sake.

Soon, The Bella may lose interest in the things she loves now like comic book heroes and ninjas. I hope that never happens, or that if it does, it’s not because she’s losing herself but because she’s becoming herself. I get that she’s growing up and soon, regardless of what I’ve taught her, she may just want to be one of The Plastics. She may feel the need to conform, despite her own personal interests and values. Most of us do at one point or another, and because I want her to look back on her childhood and think of it as a wonderful time in her life, I’ll bite my tongue and allow her to make her own way most of the time. I only hope that there is a balance between the ideals regarding individuality, gender roles, and everything else I’ve taught her and her desire to be accepted by her peers.

I just want her to know: it’s alright to wear black instead of pink. You don’t have to be a cheerleader, you can be a softball player with that strong right arm you’ve got. You can subscribe to Fables rather than Seventeen. You can keep listening to The Smiths instead of Taylor Swift. Be more like Shoshanna than Cinderella. You being a girl doesn’t mean shit. Enjoy being a woman, but don’t you dare let yourself be placed in a box, unless it’s of your own making. That means don’t focus too much on what I envision you as either: even if you end up the prissiest little prima donna of them all, as long as it’s who you really want to be, I’ll be happy.

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