Most parents feel an inevitable curiosity about the sex of their unborn child. I wasn’t supposed to care. I made sweeping statements like, “As long as it’s not a porcupine, I will be happy.” That was mostly true (I definitely didn’t want my baby to have quills), but I also really wanted a daughter. The night I gave birth, when I finally found out my baby was a girl, I was both ecstatic and terrified. My greatest fear was not just that my daughter would be treated as subordinate to men, but that she would actually think it is true that men are superior.
I did not want my daughter to be socialized by stereotypical notions of femininity. I thought I could prevent her from being indoctrinated and protect her from internalizing sexist beliefs by obliterating feminine projections from her world. So I embarked upon a quest to “de-genderize” my daughter. She wore only green and brown baby clothes, and her nursery was an unassuming beige. She played with trucks, Legos and math-oriented puzzles. I cut her hair into a mullet and only dressed her in pants. I taught her to jump from high elevations and considered a fencing class until I realized that a two-year-old is too young to hold a sword.
I was well on my way to raising the ultimate gender-neutral child when something entirely unexpected happened. My daughter turned three and started expressing her own views. In doing so, she made her interests extremely clear, and they completely contradicted my expectations.
My daughter would only wear dresses and insisted that everything be pink: pink tights, pink sparkly shoes, pink toothbrush. Even her four-wheeler was pink. Her days revolved around playing with dolls, and she especially adored the dolls with domestic accessories, like a kitchen set. She loved painting her nails, wanted to wear eye shadow and lipstick (even though her mother barely wears ChapStick) and would only wear a bikini to the beach. In essence, my daughter was a girly girl who made Mattel proud and Revlon drool. Despite my sincere efforts to cultivate her less feminine traits, she had other plans, and grandmothers to spoil her. I couldn’t see that her interest in all things girly wasn’t a handicap.
At first I was devastated and felt I had failed her. I feared that my daughter enjoying her femininity could only be a sign that Disney had taken over her mind. In reality, my effort to shield her from having a formulaic girl identity actually propagated the sexism I thought I was avoiding.
The answer isn’t avoiding femininity or masculinity, but appreciating and honoring the spectrum of ways in which these traits can manifest, without ranking or assigning them to a specific gender. What makes pink “girly” and blue “boyish” beyond the assumptions we inflict on these helpless colors? The problem lies in the fact that our culture assigns universal personality traits to gender. Are men really strong for being aggressive and women weak for being emotional? Expressing your feelings is in fact very brave.
By helping girls understand the far-reaching influence of sexism, we can actively combat its effects. We keep sexism alive when we pass on societal expectations and pressure to the next generation. Part of a misogynistic culture is belittling all things quintessentially female. Tragically, I was perpetuating this idea. I was attempting to dull my daughter’s femininity, and my own, so as not to be judged for it. On this parenting journey, I’ve learned that the greatest advantage I can nurture for my daughter is to create space for the organic development of her innate interests, pink tutus and all.