Don’t Be Pretty – Be You

This post is part of The Write On Project
Topic: Communication

The blast of color and light causes her to let go of my hand as we walk through the glass doors that magically open when we near them. Inside the store there is more than her eyes can consume. Her pace slows then speeds up then slows again. Flowers and paints and pictures and puzzles and beads and balloons and glitter. Lemon darts forward, determined to see it all and calls for me to follow without turning around. Less than a minute in, she is sold.

I shepherd her off to the left with some difficulty, toward the aisle with art sets for kids. We need to get a present for one of what seems like a hundred birthday parties this month. When she notices the shelves and shelves of dolls one aisle over she drops any protest and accompanies me with enthusiasm. She becomes absorbed into the tiny world of little toy people and, with her still in sight, I step over to the paint section. Finding what I am looking for, I slowly trace my way back over to my daughter. And I watch her.

I watch her study the shiny boxes and pretty packaging. I watch her step from doll to doll and examine their clothes, their hair, their eyes, their skin. She sees every one, kneeling and standing to be present with each as she passes, though never really noticing any above her 3-foot high eye level. Occasionally, she tells me (or maybe herself) about a detail or an accessory she has noticed, but mostly she just looks. Her intention and focus are notable, if for no other reason than their intensity is out of character. And a little startling.

I step forward and kneel down with her after watching for a while. Now I want to see what she is seeing. Our house and our world these days are full of imagination and dolls. My daughters role-play thousands of scenarios with dozens of dolls that have found their way into our house one way or another. I think often about the messages that my wife and I send to them about life and relationships and their place in the world. I wonder how clearly we are being received and how we are being translated onto the stage of their creation. We actively lace our messages with strength and possibility. We model equality and self-determination. We preach individuality.

We try to communicate depth and difference, but we are not the only ones communicating with our daughters.

At her side in that pantheon of plastic, my eyes set on the box with which my little three year old girl is currently enthralled. It is a Hello Kitty doll, packaged in essential girly pink and adorned with a pretty bow and an apron. I immediately think of several things I find wrong with what my daughter is being sold, but hold my tongue, as I often do now. Too much judgment from dad, I know, leads to the opposite effects than are hoped for. Then Lemon points to the little girl in the corner of the box, the one modeling the joy of Hello Kitty ownership, and says “she’s pretty”.

Holy shit.

The first problem here is obvious – a child who could easily be Lemon’s five year old sister has been sexualized to sell a product to other kids the same age. Here is the image you should aspire to, little girl. This is who you should be. This is beauty, little girl, wrapped in lipstick and a string of pearls. Blonde and blue and red and smiling. Look at her, little girl, and see yourself like this. If you look like this and buy this product you can be this pretty, too. You’ve seen all of those grown up women who look like this get all the attention, haven’t you? On tv and movies and billboards and magazines? They look pretty, don’t they? You can be pretty, too, little girl, just like them, all painted and smiling. If you don’t you are weird and different and ugly. Do you want to be different, little girl?

Lemon stared at this 6 year old painted up like a woman. She presumably stored in her swirling head that this is the norm, the picture of happiness, the gold standard. This and Barbie and princesses and brides. And here is where the other problem appears, that deeper message beneath the one that tells little girls – and then women – that their inherent worth is directly tied to their aesthetic value. They are being told not just to be pretty, but that being pretty means they will be liked and that being liked is the most important thing.

Be pretty, little girl. Be happy, little girl. Be liked, little girl. Be acceptable, little girl. And shut the fuck up.

This is not to say that being likable is necessarily a bad thing. But, if little girls are taught that they must first be liked then they are cut off at the knees before they have a chance to decide which direction they want to run. It is limiting. It is possible to be nice (and, thus, likable) and still assert your individuality, but it is not possible to assert your individuality if you are only seeking to be likable.

My greatest desire for my daughters is that they live a happy life. But I want that happiness to be a product of their choosing, not some affected, painted-on happiness meant to please someone else. Be happy, little girl, but be happy with yourself, for yourself. And let your voice be heard.

image credit: clker.com

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About Mitchell Brown

I am a stay at home dad with my two daughters who are a lot stronger than they look. When I'm not cooking, cleaning, dancing, reading, teaching, playing or protecting my eyes and groin, I am writing about this whole experience in all of its ridiculousness.
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10 Responses to Don’t Be Pretty – Be You

  1. Maggie Batt says:

    That same exact girl is on the packaging of my daughter’s sewing maching, but she is meant to look like a tween. Maybe she grew….she sews a mean bag though. Part of the “pretty” factor is doing things like grown ups. It’s also their way of setting themselves apart from the boys. Boys are rotten, made out of cotton, girls are dandy, made out of candy…. Alas, we are naturally drawn to things beautiful, but of course beauty really comes from within. My daughters’ learned this quickly when a “pretty” girls becomes nasty. No beauty in that!

    • It would be nice if they didn’t need to be in such a hurry to be grown ups – or told that they should be. Also, I find those rhymes about the differentiation of boys and girls interesting. Sugar and spice and everything acceptable. Frogs and snails and whatever the hell we want. Maybe I am reading too much into those – maybe not, but I think considering the messages that we give ALL of our kids is very important. Thanks for taking the time.

      • Maggie Batt says:

        Those rhymes are from my childhood. It’s horrible the marketing that’s thrown at little girls, especially Disney. I think they are just picking up on archetypes at this point and play acting them out to see what fits. So don’t fret if they want to pretend to rob a bank. 🙂

  2. Brother David says:

    Welcome, again, to the many, if not endless and ever changing challenges of parenthood. Thankfully I believe our children learn more from our example then from most other outside influences. I have also learned it will get worse, before it get’s better. I am thankful that it will get better. It’s all part of growing up; not only for them but for us as loving and concerned parents. Keep the faith brother father, and stay the course. Sharing these thoughts and concerns with others, and their Mother, is an excellent form of therapy, if you will. You are never alone with your concerns, especially you with this forum.

    Peace, Love and Happiness, not to mention success in your fatherhood.

  3. Thanks – nice to be here. I believe that they learn from us more, as well (though, that belief is mostly theoretical at this point). I will take every opportunity to seek therapy that I can.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Brother Father.

  4. jetts31 says:

    “My greatest desire for my daughters is that they live a happy life. But I want that happiness to be a product of their choosing, not some affected, painted-on happiness meant to please someone else. Be happy, little girl, but be happy with yourself, for yourself. And let your voice be heard.”

    So awesome. This paragraph says it all. Could not agree with you more.

  5. vicki sherbs says:

    Just wondering how many of you guys have spent much time dreaming of girls and women who are strong, brave, smart, self-actualized, but not very pretty? Don’t mean to be difficult, but I just hope there are lots of enlightened parents out there raising boys who can appriciate and cherish the qualities you are fostering in your daughters. That marketing works just as well on boys. I have contemplated a world in which advertising was illegal. All the amazing creativity wasted on advertising could surely be used to solve all of the world’s problems. Keep writing, Mitchell. I enjoy your posts

    • Honestly, quite a bit. Intelligence, confidence and humor go a long way. But, I see your point and it is a valid one. After all, we are wired to be drawn to ‘beautiful’ and the definition of beauty spans all cultures with regards to symmetry and size ratios in body and face. We can’t argue with biology, but we can with the messages sent to our girls (and boys). Attraction is what it is. It must be communicated to our children, though, that strength, courage, intelligence and self-actualization are invaluable in and of themselves. I don’t think you are being difficult at all, Vicki – I think you are expanding on the topic and I appreciate that. I know there are enlightened parents communicating these things to their daughters and their sons and that lays a solid foundation. My hope with this post was to continue to spread the discussion. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your thoughts. And thanks for reading.

  6. Erika Greelish says:

    Great post, Mitchell…I was listening to an interview on NPR with the author of a book titled Cinderella Ate My Daughter, written on precisely this theme, which sounded really interesting. On a related note, I find myself ranting periodically about the “Pretty Little Liars” commercials that ABC Family shows in between their “America’s Funniest Home Videos” clips. Very disturbing portrayal of teenage girls (and definitely not family-friendly, in my opinion). I’m relieved my daughter seems to be transitioning out of princess land and rejecting some of that girlie conditioning.

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