Do You Want to Be Pretty?

My daughter will turn 3 years old soon, and she has lots of opinions. Opinions about what book we should read next, or whether she should eat another green bean, or whether it's time for tickles or snuggles or chasing her across the room or "by myself!" time. Certain things, though, she could care less about--like what clothes we put on her in the morning. Getting dressed is just a hurdle to get through so she can get back to play time.

I worry, though. It feels like a matter of time. Several of my most feminist friends are as dedicated to helping their girls to choose their own gender expression as we are, and they've succumbed to it. The tiaras, the tutus, the sparkles, the elaborate headbands and bows.

There's nothing wrong with femininity. There's something wrong with the fact that it's the default choice for little girls. And that if you're a little girl amongst other little girls in American culture, you're weird if you're not into it.

We haven't been able to stop it. The relentless onslaught of princess culture finds its way to our girl through the most well-meaning channels. Her grandmother, her babysitter, her daycare teachers. Without thinking they call her "princess", gift her baby dolls and plastic makeup kits, ask her if she wants to try on their earrings, suggest that she play dress-up, pick out the pink toys for playtime.

We counter-program like it's our job. I believe that it is. We put her in clothes that are not from the girls section [1]. We secretly donate the plastic lipsticks and hand-me-down frills. We encourage her when she pulls barrettes out of her hair and declares she doesn't like them. We buy toys that come in primary colors, with little boys smiling on the box. We stopped watching Thomas the Tank Engine because 90% of the characters are male. We encourage her love of Doc McStuffins, one of the only kid shows we've found that features a smart, capable girl who is the main character and protagonist. [2]

Still, it feels like it's coming. Our housemate, a bright, energetic 4-year-old girl, loves to play dress-up with her collection of princess dresses. She pulls our girl into it whenever they're in her room. I hold my breath, and hold my tongue. If my daughter wants to wear a princess dress, she shall wear a princess dress--as long as she's not pressured into it. As long as she knows it's not her job. [3]

During one of these sessions, my daughter was more interested in the dragon costume hiding at the bottom of the dress drawer than the dresses themselves.

"Do you want to be pretty?" the 4-year-old asked.

"Nope," my daughter said, without hesitation.

Nope. I think about that nope. I celebrate that nope. I will recall that nope when it turns into a yep, or a maybe, or a question about what pretty is.

I don't love the premise of the question, a question boys don't have to answer. But in the face of our culture's defaults, it is a question I hope my daughter has strong, varying opinions about.

Do you want to be pretty?

Nope, I don't feel like it.

Only if I get to decide what pretty is.

Yes, that sounds like fun.

Yes, and I want to be a leader, or a builder, or an athlete, or a scientist, or a teacher, or a doctor, too.

[1] The boys' clothes section is often just as bad as the girls. To avoid buying shirts that say things like "Daddy's little football star", we try to buy gender-neutral stuff, which is harder to find and often more expensive.

[2] Even with a stay-at-home Dad character, a Mom who is a physician, and Geena Davis of Thelma and Louise fame voicing a toy princess who tells a toy knight that she can do everything he can do, Doc McStuffins' stethoscope is still pink.

[3] Thanks to Caitlyn Siehl for her poem, It's Not Your Job