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My Gripes with Gender Stereotypes

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Focus on Physical Beauty

My daughters are beautiful and I want them to know they are beautiful.  However, I am frustrated by people who feel the need to constantly comment on their physical beauty.  “You are so beautiful,” comments are nice to hear every once in a while, but it should not be the only thing one says to little girls.  They should hear that they are smart, fun, unique, adventurous, brave, and the list goes on, the more specific the comments the better.

Society’s fixation on female beauty infuriates me.  From fourth grade through college, I was uncomfortably aware of who was the most beautiful girl in my class.  Growing up, girls constantly hear how they rank in the spectrum of superficial beauty.  Throughout my life my physical attributes were compared to those of my sisters.  Strangers felt they could comment, “Your oldest daughter is so beautiful,” as my twin and I sat next to her.  We were labeled, the “pretty one”, the “smart one”, the “artist”.  I remember thinking “if only I was prettier, I’d have more friends … I’d be happier … life would be easier.”

I know I cannot protect my daughters from the superficiality of our world.  I want them to have healthy self esteem, so they never feel ugly in this world fixated on beauty.  But it irritates me that at two and four, adults constantly comment on their looks.  Adults don’t approach toddler boys and continuously comment on how pretty they are.  They may comment on it once, but it is not something daily repeated to little boys.  Beauty does not play a primary role in a boy’s narrative.  It should not be a part of a little girl’s either.  I hate that I have heard my three and a half year old daughter ask, “Am I beautiful?”, after hearing an adult make a pretty comment about her sister.  My daughters have a lifetime to worry about superficial beauty, they need not concern themselves with it now.

I am struck by my daughters’ beauty everyday. Sometimes I tell them they are beautiful and I hope my words stick within their brains, but I don’t want to focus on it.  Telling them they are beautiful every day is not going to make them have healthier self-esteem, instead it will teach them that the adults in their lives highly value physical beauty.  My daughters’ are so much more than their physical appearances and I wish adults focused less on little girls’ superficial beauty and more on their individuality.

As adults we need to think before we address young girls about their physical appearances.  Cute comments have become ingrained in our psyche, I fall prey to the superficial focus as well.   It’s important to thoughtfully consider our language and engage children in gender-neutral compliments.  The more specific the comments the better – “I love how much you like hyenas, it’s so cool that you’re not afraid of snakes, you run so fast, you climbed that wall so well, or you’re so brave on the slide” rather than “do you know how pretty you look today?… or “your outfit is beautiful.”

Toddler Boys are so Much Harder than Girls

Oh, how I can’t stand this comment.  Yes, typically boys are wild and rambunctious.  They like balls, trucks, and all things physical.  They aren’t sensitive.  They fall and pick themselves back up.  They are messy.  I admit that often gender stereotypes can be true, but who is to say they are always true?  Accordingly, who is to say one sex is harder than another?  (Who knows maybe I’ll have a boy and end up eating my words, but I don’t think so).

For those of you that continuously make this comment: (1) do you have both a boy and a girl?  (2) Is it easier to label it a gender difference rather than a personality difference, or a birth order difference?

My daughters are as different as night and day.  One is at times more reserved, a reader, an observer, more cerebral, sensitive, and the other is at times more physical, she’d sometimes rather throw a book than read it, wild, adventurous, a hitter, a kicker, and a biter.  I hate to even use these labels on either of them because they both change daily and at any given moment can be so different.  However, innately they were born with distinct personalities.  If my second was a boy then maybe I would write her physicality off as a gender difference, but she’s not, so I know there is a wide range of personalities and physical differences amongst both boys and girls.

One often hears, “he is pure boy”, alluding that he likes all the stereotypical boy things, as if other boys are not “pure” boy.  I assert that a boy can be “pure boy” and play dress-up or play with dolls.  My daughters are “pure girls”.  They sometimes play with dolls and princesses, but they often prefer to play with wild animals or dinosaurs.

Give Me a Kiss and I’ll Give You a Cookie

It is pretty obvious what is wrong with this comment when you see it typed in black and white.  But this statement is made over and over again to my daughters.  It is not always so blatant, but sometimes I even catch myself pressuring my daughters to give someone a hello hug when one or both clearly don’t want to.  Is pressure like this put on little boys too?  It shouldn’t be placed on boys or girls.

Teaching girls to ignore their feelings and succumb to the pressure to hug or kiss someone sets a bad precedent.  I want my girls to have boundaries.  I don’t want them to be people pleasers.  I want them to listen to their own feelings and respect them.  If they don’t feel like hugging or kissing someone then they shouldn’t have to do it.  They should not be rewarded for doling out physical affection and they should not be publicly embarrassed for wanting to maintain their own physical space.  My daughters need to learn that their feelings deserve respect and they shouldn’t make decisions based purely on an adult’s happiness. For instance, if a situation is uncomfortable then they should leave even if someone will be hurt or disappointed.  I may be jumping ahead of myself, but they need to know if they feel uncomfortable by someone’s touch, they can say no.  I want my girls to know they are valued for something other than their looks and their physical affection.

We need to teach our children to trust themselves starting at an early age.  I want my girls to know that I (as well as the other important adults in their lives) respect their feelings, and hopefully this respect can build the foundation for mutual (parent/child) respect in the future and their own healthy self respect.

You’re Pregnant Again????  I Hope It’s a Boy!!!!

For all of my readers that don’t know, we are pregnant again.  I am due for a New Year’s baby this time around and we will find out the sex in August.  We truly are excited to have either a boy or a girl, what’s important is a healthy baby.

It bothers me when people tell us that they hope it will be a boy.  It seems that people act as if giving birth to a boy is winning the gender lottery.  When I was pregnant for the second time with a second girl, some people were truly disappointed to hear we would have another girl.  Or they’d say, well maybe the third will be a boy.  It hearkens back to medieval times as if girls are second-class babies and everyone secretly wishes for a boy.

Of course we would love to experience a boy, but we would also love to have another girl.  All we want is a healthy and happy family.

Little Girl Underpants

Now that my youngest will be potty training soon, we are looking for underpants that will get her excited to ditch the diapers and use the potty.  The problem is the only underpants sold for girls are fairies, princesses, hello kitty, Dora, etc.  My girls like princesses and pink, but my youngest loves Diego the animal rescuer (Dora’s cousin), wild animals, dinosaurs, and the lost boys from Peter Pan.  None of these options are available for little girl underpants.  They are not all available for little boys, but the boy options are more fun, i.e. Diego, Lion King, Monsters Inc., Spider Man, etc.  My oldest didn’t love the girl options either, so I ended up buying her a set of boy underpants.  I didn’t think this is a problem, but sometimes I worry what their preschool teachers will think if I send my daughters to school in underpants that are clearly made for boys (i.e. the open flap in the front).  I know we must not be the only ones in the world with this problem, so why do clothing manufacturers genderize toddlers’ underpants?

Another issue with toddler underpants, once the sizes get out of the toddler range, it seems that the preschool and above sizes are all bikini styles.  Why should four and five year olds be wearing bikini cut underpants? Little boys get to jump up to boxers, which provide more coverage and more comfort while little girls’ underpants get skimpier once they hit elementary school, there is something seriously wrong with this scenario.

To conclude, I like princesses, fairies, and the color pink, but there should be more fun options for girls.  We don’t need to pigeon hole our children into gender stereotypes at two and four years old.  It’s all about creating more options.

Speaking of which, after writing this post I saw this video on the Huffington Post. Goldiblox was created by a woman disappointed in the under representation of women in engineering professions, so she created engineering toys for little girls.  She too was frustrated by the lack of toy options for little girls i.e. barbie dolls, dress up, etc.

What do you think about gender stereotypes?  Am I being overly sensitive?  Do you think there is too much focus on girls’ physical beauty, clothes, etc.?

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16 thoughts on “My Gripes with Gender Stereotypes

  1. Oh, Justine. I love reading your blog and I think you always hit the nail on the head. The gender stereotype issue is incredibly important and ever so present in the daily life of our family. I have boys… two boys. Very different boys. One who loves sports and everything physical. He also loves history, maps, and adventures. I have another one who loves music, dance, costumes, ninjas, and dresses. He likes pretty hair pieces and lipstick. When we go to target we look for a dress and a ninja sword. Imagine the surprise of one woman who was buying clothes for her granddaughter when my then three year old boy screeched in delight at finding the perfect multi-colored tutu. She actually, turned to me and said “you are not going to buy that for him are you”? I said, “how can I not, look how happy he is”! Off we marched with sword and tutu in hand.

    I do not know who my boys are going to be when they grow up, but I want them to be honored for who they are innately and not who society expects them to be. I want them to have a sense of what interests them now, rather than discover that they really like certain things and have to up-end their lives at 50 years old to achieve them.

    Thank you for writing about something I have to navigate everyday.

    • Thank you Andrea, I appreciate your comment. I think it may be even harder for boys whose interests diverge from the traditional stereotypes. I was writing this from the perspective of raising girls, but your comment makes me think about these stereotypes from the male side as well. You are a great mom, encouraging your kids to honor their individuality.

  2. TO THE READERS- Embarrassing to notice a grammatical mistake in the first sentence after I’ve published the post and everyone has received it by email. Hopefully, no one judges me too harshly.

  3. Right on, Justine! I’m on the same page with every one of your comments, especially how important it is for girls not to feel pressured to give people hugs and kisses. Thank you for this whole post!

    • Thanks, sometimes I feel like I am completely out in left field with respect to this stuff, so it is NICE to hear someone feels similarly. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Thanks for sharing this article. I read it a few months ago. I agree, we all fall prey to the gender stereotypes, but it is important to be aware of them and think about their impact on our children. It constantly amazes me how perceptive little people are and how important it is to model behavior and values that we want them to embrace. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. As a fourth grade teacher, I’ve had years with a boy heavy class and years with a girl dominated class. There’s a lot of literature about supporting the innate learning styles of both and it is undoubtably true that boys and girls are different. But I’ve had boys who like “girl” things and vice versa and a big part of a kiddo showing what they truly like (even if its not gender typical) is their confidence that whatever they like and whoever they want to be is ok. That’s gotta be because of parenting and role models at home!. My 12 year old nephew decided on a hot pink cast last year when he broke his arm because “I just like pink!” His parents didn’t bat an eyelash at his choice. Justine– I’m so glad that you are raising girls to be honest to who they are….I’m going to have to make sure I don’t let Weston become smothered with the pressure of being tough and athletic and “pure boy” unless that is what he truly likes.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. As a teacher you get to see a large sample of children and how gender plays a role in learning, social development, etc. There are definite gender differences, but you are right the most important is to try to be accepting, loving, and nurturing of our children whoever they are and whatever they want to wear, do, or be. Thanks again.

  5. Thank you so much for writing! Just today my daughter received two comments about her being so skinny and pretty, I asked the commenter’s to refrain from commenting on appearance (thanks to what you wrote, i was validated and had the courage to request this). The idea that physical beauty and size is already starting to play a part in her life is terrifying. Living in Southern California it seems we are plagued pre-teen girls into adulthood obsessing with appearance and size (myself included). We were at a 10 year old birthday party recently and the mother stated that her daughters friends barley ate because they were already worried about weight gain ( I was shocked, and wanted to move). I don’t remember worrying about weight until I was in my late 20ty’s. Reading your piece i realized that my daughter is going to be effected sooner then later and i need to try and work on myself as well as an example for her… somehow clean up my bad habits, and comments about self image since it is all soaking into her…
    Ok, I also have to admit “Give Me a Kiss and I’ll Give You a Cookie” Was me I made this mistake never even thinking about it. When my daughter was 2 1/2 for about 3 months I would bribe her with sweets to give hugs. I realized that it wasn’t a good idea and stopped but sometimes catch my self forcing her to hug people — I really enjoyed reading what you wrote about all subjects they all hit home in one way or another. Thank you again and I apologize for my messy comment, I deleted my first one by accident and now writing when I should be sleeping.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. You touched on an important point that I should have included in the post. The way mothers discuss their own appearances has a profound effect on the way our children grow up perceiving their own body images. If they overhear us talking about superficial qualities then they may grow up assuming that (1) superficial appearance is paramount, (2) Mom thinks she is unattractive/fat, so I must be so as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment.

  6. Justine, wow, you and I both have the same issues with having girls. And you are so right that people comment constantly on their beauty. Especially the older one which I can tell has an effect on all three girls. One thing I like to say to people is K is a great reader or A really knows how to play soccer because it takes the emphasis off their looks but rather on what they can do. You want to know something, my girls all want to be like their dad, which I think is a good sign that they are not yet stuck in gender roles.

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece, as they all are! 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, I often feel like people may think I’m a little hypersensitive about this, so it makes me feel better that you share some of my same feelings. There are soooo many physical comparisons made between sisters, which was very hard for me as a twin. It also makes me highly sensitive to these comments made to my daughters. Raising girls I just want to protect them from these comparisons, and deflect the fixation on physical beauty as long as possible. I love your responses to people’s comments, I will try to remember that for the future. Thanks for reading.

  7. About boys being harder than girls. I think for the most part, with most boys that it is true. At least from ages 1 to about 4 then I think that boys get easier and girls start to get harder. I have 7 kids, 4 boys and 3 girls; so I think I can fairly say this. Boys tend to play rougher, climb more, destroy more, get into more. Of course not all boys. Of my four boys one of them has always been fairly calm and much more of an observer than a conqueror. I have found that after age three or four girls get harder because there is more attitude and drama. Not to mention trying to find girls clothes that look like girls clothes vs. adults clothes and clothes that fit little girls whose body type isn’t tall and skinny. (That is a major rant of mine. Not all girls are built the same and please tell me why I should want to dress my child in vagina length shorts and a midriff shirt at any age?)

    • Thanks for your comment. You have the experience, so perhaps boys are more difficult as toddlers. I think my problem is with everyone’s desire to compare their situations, i.e. “my job is harder than yours.” Parenting young children is difficult whether they are boys or girls, you work at home or at an office, or you breastfeed or bottle feed. It is not a contest who has it the worst. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. Great post. I agree with you, as a mother of 2 girlies. ANd congrats on your pregnancy! I had not thought about the kiss me for a cookie. Nate and I have been working on not giving compliments on appearance. ie. your so pretty. But for actions – that was brave, that was thoughful, how creative. I also have to remind my mom not to make so many comments about how she is fat (she is not!) around the girls. Teenage girls will be a challenge.
    xo

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