‘Not a single onesie in all of humankind had a little girl and an airplane on it’

After JCPenney’s  “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother had to do it for me,” shirt for girls incited a protest that went viral, Pigtail Pals, a site that creates clothing empowering to girls, put out a best-selling shirt that reads “Pretty’s got nothing to do with it.”

Now Reel Girl talks to Pigtail Pals’ awesome founder, Melissa Wardy:

Why did you create Pigtail Pals?

I created Pigtail Pals in honor of my daughter, Amelia, named after Amelia Earhart, when I was looking for a cute outfit for her as an infant and could find only pink and princess. Not a single onesie in all of humankind had a little girl and an airplane on it. I thought girls deserved more empowering and diverse messages than just sparkles and tiaras.

What are your best-sellers?

This fall the best sellers have been my “Pretty’s Got Nothing To Do With It” and “Full of Awesome” designs that I just released in September. Traditional favorites are the astronaut, pilot, carpenter, doctor, military, and scientist designs. And the entire Whimsy Bee line is a hit with its colorful and imaginative designs.

It’s smart of Pigtail Pals to be a for profit instead of a nonprofit! The more successful your company is, the more you can help girls. You call yourself a “mompreneur.” What is that? Who were you inspired by?

Exactly, I want to show other businesses that this is the message parents and girls want, and that a business can be successful doing this. I want to change the way the marketplace looks for young girls. And since Dora has gone the way of the ballerina princess, there is room for the smart and adventurous Pigtail Pals designs to take over. Pigtail Pals has, since the very beginning, made donations to organizations that support girls, and we will continue to do so as our success grows.

A mompreneur is a mother who sees a hole in the marketplace for children, and creates her own product to fill that void. At the time I created Pigtail Pals, there were no other apparel lines on the market that showed girls doing smart, daring, and adventurous things. There were a couple of lines that had empowering phrases, but my preschooler can’t read, so that didn’t mean anything to her. I wanted something in pictures that would really speak to little girls. Girl empowerment is something our daughters need to be raised with, not just something they are introduced to once they are finally old enough to be a Girl Scout or participate in some of the other national programs that only focus on older girls. My girl can’t wait, she needs these messages now.

What do you teach in your workshops? What kind of excercises do you do? Can you see the change before and after or is it more gradual? Do you find parents, teachers, or kids more willing or more resistant?

I teach media literacy in my workshops – a tangible way for parents to digest and parent through all the crap that is out there. I teach how to specifically deal with the highly inappropriate birthday gift, or mother-in-law that bestows makeup and tiny high heels with every visit, or the song that just played on the radio talking about casual or violent sex. Our culture is saturated with this stuff. I find most folks are eager to learn about this, and I see those light bulb moments flash across everyone’s face about 15mintues into every workshop.

The exercises I use are just common sense stuff. For example – I take a box of crayons, and dump it out, but it is full of only pink and purple crayons. I ask the parents, if they had purchased this as a school supply, would they find something wrong with it? Would they return it to the store? I ask them what is missing, and then I ask them to close their eyes and picture their daughter’s closet and toy box. I see little sheepish smiles creep across their face. And they get it – they get how incredibly limiting choices are for girls, and that they bought into it. There is nothing wrong with pink, or purple, but when a girl’s world is full of that and only that, we need to think about what messages that sends. Childhood should be a time full of vibrant, amazing color and learning experiences.

What are your future plans for the company?

In the near future, I’m going to release a line of tee designs that show boys and girls playing together, having great adventures. Also, I’m going to build out the new line of Full of Awesome products. That blog post was such a runaway hit, it is really inspiring to me.

Eventually I want to move into toys and room décor, and I would love to open really special retail spaces.

How do you protect your daughter’s imagination?

We tell stories all the time in the car while driving around town. We create some story to act out while we play outside. My home looks like a preschool with all of the art supplies and learning toys in this place. We take lots of family adventures to educational places like children’s museums and fairs and performances. We read and read and read.

Are there books, TV shows, clothing lines or products you recommend for girls?

There is a lot of good stuff out there, you just have to know where to find it. My daughter is 5 years old, so right now we are really into the Ramona and Judy Moody books. This winter we’re going to start reading the Little House on the Prairie series. Amelia has checked out every single whale and dolphin book our public library offers.  For TV, she loves Animal Planet, SciGirls (PBS), National Geographic, Diego, Wild Kratts (they have two female sci/tech assistants that rock the show), Word World, Peppa Pig, and Scooby Doo.

For other clothing lines, I really like Be A Girl Today (http://www.beagirlblog.com/) for awesome girls sports tees. And the Girl Scouts offer great tees, too.
For other products, a few other mompreneur small businesses I love to promote are Cutie Patutus for dress up clothes, Sophie & Lili for wonderful cloth dolls, and Go! Go! Sports Girls for sports-themed dolls. Every girl should have a doctor kit, a tool box, a wooden train, giant floor puzzles, and Legos by the bucket.

On my blog Reel Girl, which is all about  imagining gender equality in the fantasy world, people sometimes complain that issues I care about don’t matter because the characters I write about are imaginary. Or that I am limiting imagination by imposing PC dogma on artists. How do you respond to comments like that?

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” –Marie Wilson, the White House Project. Sexualization is an enormous problem, most specifically in the media. The stats on the representation of girls in the media in a non-sexualized manner are so miniscule, I would argue this isn’t ‘PC dogma’, it is a matter of civil rights. Girls get a seat at the table.

In the past year or so, various sites and movements have cropped up to help defend girls from sexist media or at the very least, educate parents about the negative influences out there, so ubiquitous they are ironically invisible. There was Peggy Orenstein’s best seller  Cinderella Ate My Daughter, The Geena Davis Institute has been doing studies and releasing statistics about the lack of girl characters in animation, author Lyn Mikel Brown and other founded SPARK and advocated for more girl balloons in the Macy Day Parade. And its great news that parents and advocates got so upset about the JCPenney T shirt and got it off the shelves. At the same time, Disney announced its not doing anymore princess movies which translates to even fewer movies starring girls since girls are mostly only allowed to star if they are princesses. Disney also announced this year that is shifting its tween programming to boy based animated cartoons. Do you see the media and more awareness about the media going in a positive or negative direction? Are there other sites or movements that you know of that support girls and girl media?

I think parents and girls need to be very aware that the media is a long ways off from them content that is fair to girls. Like I said, there is good stuff out there, but in reality it is few and far between. Disney is the very last place I would look for positive girl media. As parents become more aware and more savvy, they will start to demand products and media that reflect that. So Pixar is making “Brave”, and that is tremendous, and that will only fill our appetite for so long. They will need to give us more if they want us to keep consuming.

You mentioned SPARK Summit and the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media. I love the work they do. I also really admire my colleagues Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth, Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker of Operation Transformation, and New Moon Girls is doing awesome work right now with their Girl Caught program. Other favorites are Princess Free Zone and Hardy Girls Healthy Women. In the UK I love Pink Stinks, and over in Australia Collective Shout and the Butterfly Effect do amazing work.

One under-reported issue is that when girls go missing in kids films, and the toys, clothing, and other products based on and derived from those films, both genders learn that girls are less important than boys. This is a problem with sites and orgs that focus on girls, in some ways, that continue this polarized segregation. Parents are a huge force here– they should be reading their kids stories about girls, taking them to movies with strong girl parts (if they can find any) and encouraging cross gender friendships. What do you think about this issue? Are there sites, movements, blogs that you know of or like that help educate boys also?

I have a three year old son, so this is an equally important issue for me. My colleague Crystal Smith of Achilles Effect (and author of a great book with same name) is awesome. The work of Jackson Katz is like no other when it comes to boys and media. The blog The Mamafesto writes about her son and his adventures through boyhood.

My work focuses on girls, because the crush for them with sexism and sexualization is immense, and it comes at them as soon as they are born. I don’t necessarily think it is easier for boys, but it is different. I think we need to get back to some common sense childhood. Let’s allow our kids the space to play and explore without limitations based on gender. Pigtail Pals also offers a line for young boys called Curious Crickets, meant to honor the creativity and wonder in boyhood.

Both of my children enjoy and thrive in cross gender friendships. These are crucial for the socialization with the opposite sex in their tween/teen years and beyond. We try to find positive media that equally respects boys and girls. My kids will see my husband wash dishes and fold laundry, and they will see me wrestle with the dogs and use tools and run my business. It is all about balance.

5 thoughts on “‘Not a single onesie in all of humankind had a little girl and an airplane on it’

  1. My daughter is four and 1/2 and she’s sick of having strangers tell her she’s cute/pretty. She likes dressing up – she was a “beautiful autumn faerie” for Halloween – but in regular life, she’s over it. She refuses to wear pigtails because she doesn’t want to hear about it.
    I’m always polite in these situations. She is a cutie. It’s true. The people who walk up to us are not trying to be rude. Still, approaching a little girl and her Daddy to comment on the girl’s cuteness kinda seems like approaching a married couple to tell the husband the wife has a nice body – grossly inappropriate. Occasionally, she gets comments on her intelligence, good manners, wit &c, but obviously only when she’s had an opportunity to display those qualities.
    Unfortunately, she’s going to have strangers commenting on her appearance for a long time. I’m trying to teach her to brush it off as meaningless – politely, if possible – and to focus on her other, less obvious, attributes.
    Thanks

  2. Hi, Margot. I post at SF Gate under “Tigereyes.” My husband and I are both martial arts experts. I posted a reply to this column today and several people voted me thumbs down and asked if I was straight. I laughed. My husband yelled, “WHAT?! What a bunch of (obscene word for wimps).” Nothing quite beats the mewling of old-school sexists being tossed in the historical dustbin. :-)

    • Chef Lee Panache,

      Thank you for commenting. The SFGate commenters crack me up! When they’re so aggressively obnoxious, launching personal attacks instead of taking on the argument, they often, inadvertently prove my point.

      Thanks for visiting Reel Girl

      Margot

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