I Feel Pretty! (Witty and Wise, Too.)

Win's Pink Goggles

Win's Pink Goggles

I knew it would happen someday. Surely every parent must deal with a situation in which a child says something so dreadful that there is no appropriate response.  My daughter Winnie, at nineteen months old, uttered the words that I had particularly dreaded:

“I look PRETTY!!”

I froze, my mind already in denial, already telling itself that I had misunderstood her squeal.  But, no, the words were clear enough.  And, if there was any question, there she was, twirling around the living room, admiring the ruffles on her new dress.  The dress itself was a gift from a relative, and it was an adorably girly concoction of flounces and sparkles.  The kind of thing that I, her mother, would never have bought for her.

No sooner was the dress over her head than Win began a series of spins that would have made any prima ballerina proud.  “I LOOK PRETTY!!” she howled again.

I wondered, how should I respond? I considered something like, “Uh-huh” or “Yup,” but those seemed like empty responses that wouldn’t win me many points on the parenting scorecard in my mind.  What I needed was an enthusiastic response that showed her that pretty was not the point, that pretty is a label that limits and oppresses.  I wanted my daughter to see that being preoccupied with pretty was a slippery slope that would only lead to hours of primping and preening that would be better spent, you know, reading the Constitution or graduating from med school.  This was a teachable moment, and I had to grasp it.

So, I looked her square in her glowing, expectant little face.  I mustered all my maternal wisdom, and I said brightly, “You look… ready for adventure!”

Winnie faltered.  Clearly, she didn’t understand my response, and now we were both confused.  The truth is, on most days she is ready for adventure, dressed in tees, pants, and rugged little boots.  On this day, though, she didn’t look ready for anything more adventurous than high tea.  She looked, well, pretty.

I realized in that moment, that I have a pretty messed up relationship with “pretty.”  We modern gals want to be pretty, but we don’t want to seem as though we’re putting much thought into it.  We’d much rather be known for our smarts and our accomplishments (we’d rather by Elizabeth than Jane Bennet, but Elizabeth was no slouch in the looks department).  When we become mothers, it becomes a stickier situation.  I want my daughter to be attractive – because attractive matters, no matter how much I wish it wouldn’t – but I don’t want her to have to strive for it.  I want her to be who she is, and to be immune to influences that distract her from the important stuff, insisting that skinny jeans or new lip gloss will help her measure up to the other girls.  How can I stifle those influences when I fear that I myself am one, with the makeup-wearing example I set?  And, if she tends toward ruffles, how do I know whether that’s who she is or who she has become as a result of advertising and social pressure?

Even on blogs like Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode, parents debate whether to allow their daughters to play with pink toys.  Pink?! As if pink could make the difference between whether your daughter grows up to be a scientist or a cheerleader? A color doesn’t have that kind of power, but obviously pink signifies more than just a color.

Here are the facts as I know them.  My daughter loves books and trucks.  And she also has a keen eye for all things sparkly and ruffly.  I know that I want her to feel she is pretty, and to deeply know that pretty is not everything she is.  I want her to know that it’s OK to delight in ruffles, but that true prettiness comes from a big heart, laughter, wisdom, a bright mind.

It’s a minefield of girliness out there, and I know it won’t stop coming just because I wish it would.  How about you?  How do you feel about the pressure (or assumption) that girls love dresses and fairy wings?  Should we dissuade young girls from all things pink or feminine?  How can we celebrate all the things that women can rightly be and enjoy, including pink, while also working against society’s limiting concept of girlhood?

This evening, as I was making dinner, Win wrestled with a package that had arrived in the mail. She was determined to open it, and she tore and pulled until it began to give. She was grunting and straining, but she didn’t ask me for help. Then, as the package opened, she yelled, “I’m strong!” I was so glad to be able to agree, unequivocally, with that.

8 thoughts on “I Feel Pretty! (Witty and Wise, Too.)

  1. Chris

    I’m still anti-pink because it’s part of a widely-held, disempowering stereotype of what girls should be and how they should relate to the world. In my dream world, Win is kept safe from those stereotypes as much as possible, in the hopes that she develops a healthy independent self-image before she’s exposed society’s expectations.

  2. shannon Post author

    I agree that I want to keep Win safe from stereotypes, but not necessarily about being anti-pink. What if the things that bring her happiness happen to also be girly? Or, aside from any of that, I wouldn’t want to communicate to any of our children, girl or boy, a message that could be interpreted as anti-girl.

  3. Justin

    Ach, shades of Reviving Ophelia (http://www.amazon.com/Reviving-Ophelia-Adolescent-Ballantine-Readers/dp/0345392825) setting in already? Although I gotta say I have a niece who often dresses in pink but is the first one to dart out the back door to look for slugs in our compost pile and shriek “ewww, gross” while simultaneously picking up said slugs with bare hands. Perhaps pretty and independent, rugged, and self-confident are not mutually exclusive. You’re probably walking a fine line though and like many things in life you’re probably not going to know the right response until many years after the fact.

  4. shannon Post author

    Justin, thanks for the comment. I actually haven’t read R.O., but I’ve heard lots about it. I’m waiting ’til I get my free copy as part of the middle-school girls’ parent welcome guide (just kidding).

    The weird thing is, kids don’t know (or at least could never articulate) about any of the baggage that the color pink has for many of us. For me, it’s purely symbolic. It has to do with the assumptions that we (society) make about what girls will like or be or want or do. I think that dressing a girl in pink probably has zero bearing on her personal development if you also encourage her to pick up the slugs in the back garden, because the latter is in no danger of falling under the category of typical girls’ activities.

    but, yes, I’ll have many years when Win is an adult to thoroughly rethink all my decisions and wonder just which ones were responsible for screwing her up.

  5. Scott Quasius

    Shannon, as the father of a now eight year old girl who loves to wear pink, purple too, I have to say the more important thing than what color she wears is you. How you treat her, care for her, show your own strengths to her, are far more valuable. Children are a reflection of their surroundings. Encourage to love and be loved, to embrace life in good and bad times, and be the woman that you want her to become. Remember, she’s watching you all the time and more so than not she’ll follow yours, and her fathers behaviors. Be the role model, and don’t be afraid to say”I look pretty too”.

  6. shannon Post author

    Scott, thank you for your response. I appreciate the perspective you have, my friend, as someone who has been in the game quite a lot longer than I.

  7. Angie

    Hi Shannon – I worked with Chris for a couple of years, and saw his link here on Facebook. Anyway, this totally strikes a chord. I am now a mother of two little girls, and my husband and I are also as smart-girl/strong-girl supportive as possible. We don’t exactly live the lives of gender stereotypes. But somehow or another, our 2 1/2 year old is as girly a girl as they come: she loves dollies and babies and she love love loves pink. But she also loves games and books and blocks and balls. She’s got a lot of pink toys at this point because she loves pink. But her football is green and blue, and there isn’t a pink piece in Candy Land so she uses the red one. I don’t know where this uber-girly behavior comes from – it certainly wasn’t from me – but since she loves to wear pink, and put her crayons in a pink box, and use a pink napkin and placemat, and buy me pink carnations every weekend… we support her in it. Better that she’s dressing herself, putting her toys away, learning table manners and practicing generosity. If it means an overabundance of pink in our house, so long as she throws a spiral in a couple of years we’ll happily live with it for now.

    Anyway, enjoy your writing – thanks – hope you don’t mind me stopping by and leaving a comment!

    Take care – sounds like all is wonderful with you, which is great to hear!

  8. shannon Post author

    Hi Angie – Great to hear from you! Thanks for checking out the blog. I’m glad to hear that you relate. Isn’t it odd, the way that kids pick up on gender stereotypes, even when we try so hard not to push them? Although, maybe they’re not picking up on any stereotypes but, rather, just expressing what they genuinely enjoy. I’m still scratching my head over that one, and probably always will be since there’s no way to know for sure.

    Anyway, I agree with you one hundred percent that a child’s preferred color means much less than the qualities and traits the child develops. How can we parents ensure that pink isn’t just the tip of some girly, giggly, gossipy, afraid-to-get-dirty, only-interested-in-clothes mountain?

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