At almost four years of age, Bean is developing a keen sense of how to determine which are socially appropriate expressions of gender. She already has a clear idea of some fashion ‘rules’, and she is beginning to notice differences in bodies and style of dress with astute regularity. I have no doubt that much of this socialisation into appearance-based judgement is coming from daycare, with its school-yard-like hiearchy systems and proto-cliques.
Bean has been bullied over her hairstyle. She loves to express herself through her clothing choices but I know that very often she considers whether her friends would approve of an outfit before venturing out in it.
All of these things are no doubt familiar to other parents and I am not the first or last feminist mother to wish that there was a picture book version of The Beauty Myth distributed to every small child. Although it hurts me that bullying behaviours focused on looks are hitting my daughter so young, I am also conscious of the need for perspective. I don’t want to squash her enjoyment of clothes or criticise her desire to ‘dress up’ or think about colour combinations or choose, sometimes, to be frivolous. My own explorations of fashion and style were laughed at and squashed and this didn’t have the intended effect; I didn’t learn that clothing doesn’t matter. I learned that it really does matter, but that only ‘pretty’ girls get to fully partake.
Is it possible that fear of ‘pinkification’ could also backfire on girls?
Lately I’ve noticed a lot of commentary promoting the idea that girls must strive for goals more worthy than prettiness; that instead of aiming for a celebrity look or a certain body weight, girls should be focusing on meaningful aims like career achievement and wholesome personality attributes. It’s well meaning and often exactly right.
But I fear there’s an underlying failure of understanding in some of this commentary.
Celebrity culture, weight consciousness, ‘sexy’ fashions, beauty ideals — these all impact upon young people. We know this — many of us revile this, and yearn for better role models and more diverse options, particularly for girls (although it is clear that all genders suffer from pressure to attain some superficial standard of acceptability).
But I simply do not believe that conventionally attractive is all that girls want to be.
Bean wants to be pretty — she wants to fit in, she wants praise for how she looks. But she doesn’t state ‘pretty’ as an ambition. She wants to drive a fire truck. She wants to be a doctor. She wants to be a mother.
I am frustrated by platitudes urging girls (or rather, urging mothers with daughters) to aim beyond pretty mainly because I don’t think pretty is actually viewed as a viable lifestyle choice. It’s viewed as a prerequisite for, or an easy route to, where girls actually want to go.
The fantasy of being thin (so beautifully explained in Screw Inner Beauty) is a familiar concept around the fatosphere. At its core, the fantasy of being thin is about denying the possiblities (and limitations) of the present reality in favour of (often literally) buying the rhetoric around what weight loss can bring. It’s the idea that if only something magical happened, all those other things could be possible. For those caught in the thrall of the fantasy of being thin, it’s not so much about the weight loss as it is about the new job, the new relationship, the overseas holiday, the devoted lover/s, the fabulous wardrobe, the one-day-I-will-be-worthy-of-all-this achievement. Very few people want to lose weight because they believe that a smaller dress size will, in itself, make them happy. They want what has been co-opted to sell them the diet shakes in the first place; they want their dreams.
The push to be pretty is not so different.
Girls are lead to believe that pretty finishes first. That attractiveness will help them gain popularity. That success comes with a bright smile and a fashionable haircut and definitely without acne or wonky teeth or stretchmarks or ill-fitting hand-me-down clothes.
Beauty is, perhaps, its own reward. I wouldn’t know.
But I do know that young people are not so vacuous and shallow. They don’t often have the extreme gullibility actually required to discount goals like career and family in favour of the pursuit of prettiness. Rather, they know, perhaps instinctively, perhaps because the teasing starts as soon as their peers are verbal, that what they actually desire may be easier to grasp if they can master the feat of being aesthetically pleasing whilst doing it.
I agree with Pigtail Pals that we need to show girls that they can be scientists, gymnasts, doctors, builders, writers. I agree with the amazing John Darnielle that Lego does girls a disservice when it regurgitates marketing hype about what girls want instead of catering to their needs as individual children unfettered by rigid gender roles.
It’s important to advocate for a rejection of the limitations of ‘pink’ and ‘pretty’ without patronising young people.
Like the fantasy of being thin, the desire to be pretty is backed by a multi-billion dollar industry and untold numbers of daily encounters with people who’ve swallowed the social pressures whole and made them their own mission to prescribe. Girls who desire a piece of the pretty pie aren’t misguided, inherently frivolous or lacking in ambition. They want to do stuff; it’s just they’ve internalised the message that they must look good doing it for it to count for anything.
And that is why the right to be ugly — the right to do and be without being gazed upon and always found wanting — is worth defending.