This post is part of The Write On Project
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”.
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