There is an excellent letter from Kasey Edwards to Santa posted on the blog Role/ Reboot. Here’s how it begins:
What I want for Christmas is for people to stop objectifying my daughter.
But after I took my 4-year-old daughter Violet to visit you last week, it seems that even YOU can’t deliver on this particular request.
You may recall that we walked into your little house for the family photo and you remarked on every item of clothing Violet was wearing—including her socks.
And then you told her she was the most beautiful and best-dressed person in the shopping center.
Couldn’t you have just stopped there? Hell no! You kept going and suggested that she takes up modeling when she grows up.
I wrote a post about this topic 2 years ago, when my youngest daughter started preschool.
I know making small talk with a two year old is hard. Toddlers can be shy, are easily distracted, and might even burst into tears if you say the wrong thing. It’s not easy to break the ice. But please: if you meet a little girl on the street, in a store, on the playground, try to think of something, anything to say rather than commenting on her hair, dress, shoes, eyes etc.
My two year old just started preschool, and by the time I’ve kissed her good bye and left her in the classroom, she’s gotten about 10 compliments on her appearance. Of course, she’s adorable. All little kids are. But remember, their little brains are getting wired up. Kids love attention, to be smiled at, and to connect– these are exactly the kinds of interactions that make their brains grow. When they learn, this young, that so many responses are based on how they look, it affects them for life.
For alternative ice breakers try “Hi, you seem happy today! What’s going on? (or sad or angry)” or “Is that your kitty? (or bunny, dog) What’s her name?” Talk about the weather, seriously. Ask if they come here often. If you must say something to a little girl about how she looks, balance it out with other topics that have nothing to do with her appearance (meaning don’t talk about how she looks unless this is going to be a long interaction.)
When people tell your daughter how pretty she is, don’t repeat the compliment to her (as in “She loves this dress. It’s her favorite.”) Don’t make her say thank you. Gently deflect the topic. No matter what other people say, you’re the parent whose opinion matters most to her at this age. Do tell your daughters they are beautiful “on the inside and the outside.” It’s something that should be said by you and that she feels confident about. It’s the proportion of looks based comments, the constant repetition of them, and how they form the basis for social interaction that’s damaging.
In her letter to Santa, Edwards also gives some suggestions about how to break the ice when talking to a little girl besides focusing on her appearance, though, obviously, these are geared towards Santa.
- Where have you been today? or Where are you going today?
- How old are you?
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
- What’s your favorite book/toy/sport/animal/food/song?
- Do you know any Christmas carols?
- Check out your surroundings and remark on something such as a flowering plant, a truck, a picture on the wall, Christmas decorations, even the weather.
- Or just imagine what you would say to her if she were boy.
I love the last one. Thinking that way really helps to become aware of our sexist conditioning. I get how challenging this is. Yesterday, my two older daughters dressed my younger one, and she went out into the world looking like this.
I tried my best to get the monster-flower off her head, but had to give up because my struggle was getting counter-productive. I was giving her appearance too much attention. But I knew it was unlikely this kid would go out in the world and no one would comment on that thing, which was, by the way, a Christmas present. That’s its whole purpose, right? It’s going to feel almost rude to an adult to ignore it.
But that’s what I’m asking you to do. Ignore it. But don’t ignore her. Talk about something else. Ask her how her day is going or what she’s on her way to do or if she had a good sleep last night.
In Melissa Wardy’s great new book Redefining Girly, Rosalind Wiseman offers these suggestions:
So compliment her on something she’s specifically doing that you think is great. Ask friends for their support because you’ll be raising your girls together. To strangers, I’d say: “Thanks, but you know what is the coolest thing about her? She draws animals incredibly well!” Yes, the other person may think you’re strange for saying something so random but your daughter will hear you complimenting something she specifically does, bringing attention to a skill you admire. She’ll know that the most important people in her life value her for more than her appearance.
This is messy stuff and you don’t have to fight every single battle that comes your way. If you’re too tired to have these conversations on a particular day, don’t sweat it. You’ll always have another day. Be proud of taking this one on. I see way too many girls whose parents haven’t provided this guidance and support and truly believe their self value is based on looking like the “perfect girl.”
From the moment they are born, girl babies get attention for how they look. They are dressed like dolls and turned into objects by their own parents, a practice reinforced by our powerfully sexist culture. For too many women, how we look is the source of our identity and power or lack there of. When is it going to stop? Why not start with you? Make a different kind of small talk with the next little girl you see. It’s a small but powerful step to change the world.
Update: I’m getting lots of comments where people are saying style and fashion are about free choice and autonomy. When a little kid conforms to certain choices– poofy dresses, giant hairpieces– and receives positive attention from strangers, teachers, doctors, where is her free choice?
The gender marketing aimed at kids today is so aggressive, there isn’t really free choice anymore. For example, If you ask her, almost every little girl will tell you that pink is her favorite color, but it wasn’t always that way. Pink wasn’t even a “girl” color until the last century. Before that, it was a “boy” color, a pastel version of red which symbolized courage. Blue used to be a girl color because it was the color of the Virgin Mary, and that’s why early Disney heroines like Cinderella and Alice were shown in blue.
Below, I’m posting a video of my daughter talking about getting bullied at preschool for wearing “boy shoes.” If a 4 year old girl gets compliments and positive affirmation for wearing a flower on her head but she gets mocked, ostracized, or ignored for wearing “Star Wars” shoes, what is she going to choose? Where is her free choice?
It’s only going to come when we all stop focusing so much attention on what she looks like.
One solution I tried that worked pretty well when my daughter was two was to have my her pick out 4 favorite dresses and wear them repeatedly. She was pleased b/c she loved the dresses, but at least the preschool parents, teachers, and peers stopped commenting on the same old, same old. I blogged about that here. My daughter has done pretty well holding on to autonomy so far, but I find, every year she gets older, it becomes harder to protect her imagination.