In The Belly of the Beast

My daughter loves fashion.

She loves fashion magazines, but we don’t have any in the house, so she reads catalogs instead. She loves shopping for clothes. She loves looking at other people’s clothes. She loves “What Not To Wear” (which I do actually let her watch, heaven help me). She loves creating outfits out of her clothes and doing her hair. She loves makeup. She’d love high heels, if we let her wear them.

My daughter is gorgeous, and in an adult way, not a nine-year-old cute way. She has always had a waist and hips and a nicely shaped butt. Her face is still round but does have some cheekbone planes; she has a cute upturned nose, curly hair that is still manageable, large hazel eyes with long eyelashes and clear tanned skin. She likes fitted clothing, tight jeans, short skirts and the aforementioned high heels. She wiggles her butt at me and winks over her shoulder like a pin-up.

My daughter would love nothing more than being a cheerleader.

Daughters of feminists/love to wear pink and white short frilly dresses/and speak of successes with boys/It annoys/their mom

I want to scream. Or at least lecture – about the fashion industry, the male gaze, the early sexualization of children (who taught you that wink-0ver-the-shoulder thing?), the risk of eating disorders. I don’t want her sitting on the sidelines cheering for the boys who are playing the real game. I want her to keep the sense of joy she has now in her own body, not feel panicked and worthless if she gains weight or gets a pimple or (eventually) a lovely set of smile wrinkles around her eyes.

None of that would change her mind. She loves what she loves. She wants what she wants. I can speculate about the reasons for it (since I refuse to accept the idea that “girliness” is innate). I can – and do – say “no” to cheerleading, and to gymnastics*. I say “yes” to ballet and tap and jazz, taught by talented and well-trained college students in a program that has dancers with a variety of body types, including some actual fat girls en pointe. And I seethe.

My daughter knows me well. She knows I’m seething. A wise friend of mine said “you don’t want her to think you’re angry with her“. No, I don’t. I’m not actually angry with her – I’m angry with the patriarchy, with the deeply ingrained idea that her body exists for men to look at and not for her own enjoyment. I’m angry with the legion of people who have commented on her looks and never even asked about or considered her athletic skill or her intelligence or her tendency to whine when she’s tired.

I don’t want to spill that fury onto my daughter, so I vent in blog posts and imaginary letters-to-the editor. I talk to Eve (calmly, quietly) about Photoshop and airbrushing and the ways in which the images of women on magazine covers are altered. I tell her she’s gorgeous when she’s wearing dirty jeans and sneakers (which she happily wears to school and camp). I comment on the amount of care she takes with her appearance and how responsible she is – she washes and styles her own hair, folds and puts away her own clothes and packs for herself when we travel.

And I hope to hell some of it is sinking in.


* I don’t object to gymnastics in general, but our local gymnastics center is an anorexia breeding facility. I had three women in my primary care practice who were part of their elite program, all with life-threatening eating disorders. One will probably die of her disease within a year or so. My daughter attending birthday parties there as a toddler but will never go back, and they won’t get a dime of my money.

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60 Responses to In The Belly of the Beast

  1. Zippa says:

    I think you have to toe a fine line between insisting that all that appearance stuff is feeding a dangerous beast and accepting that maybe it’s just a source of joy for her. My sister (who is much younger than I) is this way, as well, and while it terrifies me, I also know that when she walks into school, she knows she’s doing EXACTLY what she wants and has a total “fuck off” attitude toward negative reactions from her peers that I really respect. On the other hand, she’s getting to the age where boys are going to be interested, and since she’s always been friends with boys, I think it’s going to throw her for a loop when she starts encountering the difficulties of those relationships come with puberty.

  2. Vidya says:

    A very relatable post. I had a similar moment when my 4 yr old daughter demanded nail polish and there was none at home. I had to buy “pink” nail polish. I have issues every time I take up a Disney story with its hypersexualized mermaids and other kid characters and having to make up Scientific Rapunzel and who parachutes her way out of the castle to Mimi the Science girl who loves to invent! All in the hope that tomorrow I may be the mom of a pink loving fashionista geek and those words can all coexist together happily in one individual!!

  3. Roxie says:

    I think this thread just won the record for derailment!

    Back on topic.

    “What Not To Wear” (despite its undeniable problems) actually helped me gain self confidence in my body & my look by stating the simple fact that just b/c clothing might not fit you off the rack does not mean your body is wrong. It seems like the idea that clothes should be made to fit you should be common sense! But my own self image not matching what I thought a woman my age should look like would literally have me crying in dressing rooms wondering why my body was so different, so deviant, & not normal.

    So to hear that message every week & to hear that I could find things that I liked and how some things might look on me and to see women who had the same battles be able to find things they liked really helped me. It was the ONLY place I was hearing that message. Not from my family, nor my university classes, nor the books, nor any where else on TV.

    That helped me just to enjoy clothes and enjoy them on my body.
    Now, years later I can see how fraught with problems the show really is.

    I enjoy fashion for its artistry & the ability to transform. The fashion industry, magazines–who drives it and WHY (majority)–those are things I do *not* enjoy.

  4. LeftieLeftist says:

    It seems some feminists like choice only when people choose what they (the feminists) think is right. So what if she likes makeup? Its her choice!

  5. K says:

    (And another Protein Wisdomite spends Friday night alone, drunkly. Oh, well.)

    I am not a parent, but if it helps any, Jay, your description of your daughter sounds a lot like myself at that age. And I outgrew it, for a whole bunch of reasons–moving out at 18 and realizing I had no budget for much that was fashionable, developing more interests that competed with poring over Vogue for my time, and maybe even the first glimmers of feminism. I do recall beginning to note the difference between “I like to look pretty because it’s fun for me,” and “I have to look pretty or be worthless,” and the more I felt that the fashion industry was pushing me towards the latter, the more I began to push back.

    Your daughter sounds like she has plenty of push-back and the support with which to feel safe doing it. Even if this does wind up being an enduring interest for her, at least she’ll be informed about it, good and bad, thanks to you.

  6. Ronnie says:

    I think you’re going a little overboard. I consider myself a huge feminist and was raised by a single social worker DV advocate mother who is probably the most feminist woman I know, and yet I was a cheerleader in HS. I also LOVE makeup, and dressing up. And really there are few things I like more than getting my hair done!

    I think one of the most positive aspects of the feminist movement is the freedom for people to be themselves and make their own choices free from adversity or criticism.

    I think your daughter knows she is beautiful inside and out, especially since you are reinforcing that positive feedback. But in my opinion, maybe she is dressing up, or dancing, or putting on makeup because it makes HER feel pretty about HERSELF, regardless if anyone is looking.

    I’m sick of feeling like you can’t be a feminist unless you’re wearing cargo pants and not shaving your arms because you refuse to be seen as a sexual object for men.

    I feel bad that your daughter might miss out on certain activities because of your fear. I think you are much better off equipping her with the feminist values you posses and let her make her own choices.

    I just really hope for her sake that she doesn’t end up ostracized by her peers or resenting your choices later on down the road.

  7. KTreu says:

    Sounds like you’re doing a good job maneuvering the line so far! I was really getting into makeup when I was 12, and that year for christmas my mom gave me a big makeup set, but more importantly, 2 books about being a conscious consumer of the industry. The fashion one included information about fabric, fiber growth, marketing and brand structures (like that Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic are all the same); while the makeup one contained in-depth explanations about the different ingredients and what they do, what they’re made of, if they were harmful, and why or why not they’re important.

    I was fascinated and I used those books as references for years. She gave me the tools to be critical of the industries on my own without making me feel judged. At the time it made a really big impact on me that my mom was ok with me wanting to wear makeup, as long as I made informed decisions about it. I should go say thank you!

  8. Wayne Chocklett says:

    Oh boy. Reminds me of the 80’s TV show Family Ties where the liberal father (Michael Gross) shared his house with his Reaganite son, Michael Fox. You’re doing the right thing in your talks with her, and I think she’s so lucky to have your perspective. It’s a valiant effort but I don’t think denying her the fashion magazines will work — it’s all available on the internet. And the butt wiggle is what girls do these days — it’s a Molly Cyrus thing. Love’s the answer, and patience, and it helps to see her behavior from a fun-loving child’s point of view. Having said that there’s still a 50-50 chance she’ll grow up to be the publisher of Elle magazine, but that’s life!

  9. Amy says:

    I love fashion, I took some gymnastics, I was a cheerleader. Still a feminist. I think you have less to worry about (for your daughter, not for the world in general, of course) than it seems. It’s much more about learning by the examples you KNOW than the examples society bombards us with. I’m sure it’s sinking in. The fact that you even acknowledge the problems will go so much farther with her than we’d imagine. High five!

  10. Still learning says:

    Some fashion can be very radical, as can dance and cheerleading, depending on how it’s done. I think it’s a shame to dismiss potentially empowering political statements just because of the sexism with which they are so frequently associated. Why don’t you encourage your daughter to explore the political side of the things she loves, maybe pointing out some of the problems with these things while encouraging her to find new ways of twisting and recreating them to suit her?

  11. Jodie says:

    My daughter went through all that too. She was the quintessential girly girl. Now? She’s 24, rarely wears makeup, her style in clothing is plain, she wears flats, and she’s a feminist. Your daughter wants to explore this, and it’s fine within reason; but she will be more marked by the way you live your life and your attitudes than she will be by what may be a passing phase. If you keep her from it, though, she is far more likely to embrace it with even greater fervor.

  12. Jay says:

    Teach me to post right before I go to bed…Cara, thanks for deleting the ridiculous derail.

    Just to be clear: the issue I have with gymnastics is not with gymnastics per se but with the program available to us. And I don’t make fashion forbidden fruit – she picks out her own clothes within our limits (no writing on the butt, no exposed belly buttons) and when she enters middle school in two years, she can wear all the makeup she wants.

    We don’t have fashion magazines in the house because I don’t buy them; if she wanted to buy them with her own money, she could have them. I don’t forbid them.

    Ktreu, if you remember the names of those books, I would love to get them for Eve. That’s exactly the kind of balance I want to offer her. I don’t want to make any of this forbidden fruit, but I also want her understand the political issues and privilege she has, and she’s not going to listen to me if I try to just tell her. She has to figure it out for herself.

    Ronnie, I’m curious precisely how you suggest I “equip her with my feminist values”. The only way I know how to do this for a 9-year-old is to set limits when I need to and explain why. And I don’t think ostracism is in her future. At 9, she has more friends and better social skills than I had at any age in school. She listens to popular music and wears fashionable clothes.

    None of makes our choices in a vacuum. So sure, it’s her choice to wear makeup, but that choice is make in a society that rewards such choices with privilege. It’s a double-edged sort of privilege, since focusing on fashion also reinforces the trope that women aren’t “serious”. Which brings us right back to our favorite old game show, women can’t win.

    I want my daughter to love herself. I also want her to grow into – and help shape – a world in which women have real choices.

  13. Jha says:

    Echoing Roxie, What Not To Wear which was on the surface superficial as all get out, really drove in the idea that different clothes are for different body shapes. It takes a great deal of looking for those who don’t have conventional body shapes, but that’s not a reason to give up. Although it was usually external factors driving the intent for the makeover, by the end of the show, it’s clear that the whole dressing up, makeup, makeover, was pure self-indulgence, which can be a VERY good thing.

    So I don’t think it’s a bad thing your daughter likes fashion, makeup, and looking sassy. I’d be more worried if she was withdrawn and lacking the self-confidence to even BE sassy. I think it was great you avoided the gymnastics institution if you felt it would be a bad influence on her and still allow her to do other stuff.

    It may be more important to talk to her about the whys she does stuff than what she does. There’s nothing inherently wrong with loving fashion, being sexual (although yeah, nine?) and wanting to be a cheerleader. Those things don’t automatically mean she’s doomed to low self-confidence or lack of belief in her own talents. I’m sure we all recognize the need to be well-rounded persons, inside and out, and there will always be something you don’t like her doing. Hell, my dad’s usually supportive of what I do, and I credit him with being the feminist I am today, and even he doesn’t like some stuff I do.

    Ktreau – your mom sounds awesome! So great she didn’t feel you’d be overwhelmed with information at that age. I think we give kids way too little credit for how intelligent and critical they can be.

  14. What always shocks me when it comes to these discussions is that rarely is the fact that most mainstream cosmetics and beauty products are full of toxic chemicals ever mentioned. All of those products that women and girls slather all over our bodies and face just to look pretty are literally killing us, but somehow all we should be concerned about is whether or not we should honor a little girl’s or woman’s choice to wear cosmetics.

    This site gives an excellent breakdown of most mainstream beauty products and their risk factor. Just enter the product – or even just a brand – and you’ll get a rating of the risk and list of all the toxic ingredients. If you’re like me, you’ll notice that the majority of cosmetics listed rank at least a 5 on the danger scale (1 being harmless, 10 being the worst). The average ranking seems to be around a 7. Most hair dyes, for instance, seem to rank around an 8 or a 9.

  15. La Lubu says:

    I love this post. And Ktreu, I’d love to know the names of those books, too.

    My daughter is nine, and she’s also gorgeous. Her school picture at age eight makes her look like she’s at least fourteen, and whenever I show it, people gasp and give me warnings about “what I’m in for.” Fuck what I’m in for; I’m worried about what she’s in for, because I haven’t forgotten any of it from when I was her age.

    My girl isn’t so much into fashion (although she definitely has her preferences), and shit, I’d be happy if I could get her to comb her hair more often. But she does love iCarly, the Wizards of Waverly Place, and other tweener programs like that. She’s exploring various ways of being “cool”, and since she’s already gathered that those particular fashionista programs drive mama up the wall, that’s what she’s latched on to. (My endocrinologist explained it to me as “endocrinology in action” and said to expect the mouthiness to start pretty soon. Sigh.)

    It seems like such a fine line to walk, and I blame the advertising industry and the overmarketing of women and our sexuality to sell every. damn. thing. It poisons the well for just feeling good and looking good in one’s own body—like that simple pleasure has been stolen from us, in a way that it hasn’t been from men (yet). Like a gilded cage has been placed around every action or every image that makes one feel beautiful, comfortable in one’s own skin. Every exploration of appearance already shot to hell in the same old “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

  16. Jay says:

    people gasp and give me warnings about “what I’m in for.” Fuck what I’m in for; I’m worried about what she’s in for, because I haven’t forgotten any of it from when I was her age.

    Yes, La Lubu, that is it precisely. PRECISELY. There’s so much in that comment that pisses me off – what I’M in for? It’s her life, and it’s her life that will be constricted by that gilded cage. And that’s what makes me cry: not that her life is out of my control, but that her life will be limited and her spirit and joy crushed by the perfect storm of capitalism and patriarchy.

  17. Jay says:

    Jha, I’m really curious if you have a kid, and if your kid can answer those “why” questions. Mine can’t. Or won’t, but I’m leaning toward “can’t”. I’ve tried asking all sorts of questions about what forms her taste, and why she likes certain kinds of clothes, and she just says “I don’t know. I just like this”.

    I don’t want to tell her why I think she likes something, and so I feel pretty stuck in that area. Best I can do is voice my own “whys” and try to not to sit in judgment of her taste.

  18. Medea says:

    I think one of the most positive aspects of the feminist movement is the freedom for people to be themselves and make their own choices free from adversity or criticism.

    Freedom from criticism is not the point of feminism. If your choices harm other women–and I’m not saying these ones do–they are not feminist. Didn’t Plain(s)feminist do a long post on this recently? How being a feminist mother means thinking about the impact you have on the people around the world? If you love wearing perfumes, and your favorite perfume (say Chanel no 5) is made by cutting up huge swathes of rainforest in order to get to a particular plant, then criticism of your decision should not be blown off with “But I love it, and it makes me feel good, and I’m not doing it for a man, so back off!”

    This is only distantly related to the post, but I see this defense all the time, and I think it’s problematic.

  19. Jay says:

    Medea, that’s a good point, and I don’t think it’s all that tangential, either. It’s closely connected to what I said upstream about not making choices in a vacuum. And it circles me around to one I hadn’t gotten to: Wayne’s note about “that’s just what girls do these days”.

    First of all, Wayne, I’m the mom of a nine-year-old, so I know it’s Miley Cyrus, not Molly. And, more importantly, feminism has taught me to ask “why”? Why is that “what girls do these days”? It probably is related to Miley Cyrus, and the tweener shows that drive La Lubu up the wall, and all that seems to me to be teaching even very young girls that their value lies in their ability to titillate men. Feh.

  20. debbie says:

    I have found Cosmetics Cop a very good resource – Paula Begoun writes “Don’t go the Cosmetics Counter Without Me” which has honest reviews about various beauty products, breaking down what actually works vs. ridiculous claims. I don’t think the book is being published anymore, but she’s continued her reviews on her own site:

    I should note that she’s still problematic. She has her own line of skin care products and cosmetics and she makes skin lightening products, anti-wrinkle stuff, and all the rest of the bullshit that reinforces that girls and women are never good enough as we are. Her products are also pricey. But her site and book is a good resource, and she does not hold back on products that contain potentially harmful ingredients (ranging from stuff that will just irritate your skin to carcinogens).

  21. “(ranging from stuff that will just irritate your skin to carcinogens).”

    Yes, we might be giving ourselves cancer with our foundation, eye makeup, lipstick, and all our pretty scented lotions…but, hey, at least we’ll be pretty until our hair falls out from the chemo and we can’t move without vomiting up until the point where we DIE.

    That’s what’s important! Being pretty and sassy. That and the fact that I, a woman, chose to use those products and that is, oh, so feminist!

  22. La Lubu says:

    I think it’s also worth mentioning what bothers me the most about those shows. From what I’ve seen, it’s not super-sexualized; the girls flirt, yeah, but it’s not over the top (meaning: anything different from the flirting that goes on in real life when young people are awakening to their sexuality). It’s the damn classism and marketing of tons and tons of crapola that bugs the ever-loving shit outta me. And that goes beyond kids’ shows.

    What bothers me the most about the (human oriented) shows she likes (because she mostly watches Animal Planet. She wants to be a wildlife biologist or zookeeper when she grows up)—is the conspicuous consumption. Especially considering how out of place it is with the characters on the show. There is no way in hell that the characters, with what the parents do for a living, could possibly afford the lifestyle being displayed save for winning the lottery.

    Then again, I do see some positive messages on the shows that temper the negative for me. The “Wizards of Waverly Place” features a dark-haired girl (Selena Gomez) as the beauty, which is not typical, and I think it’s good for my daughter to see that one doesn’t have to be a tall, blue-eyed blonde with Northern European features to be beautiful. It’s also very clear in the show when she’s being self-centered, shallow, or lazy, and that is presented as not the way to be (it always trips her up). That particular show thrives on a collection of characters drawn as different-than-the-norm (families of wizards, vampires, the nerdy best friend, dorky older brother, etc.)—“average” folks fade to the background and difference is on full display, seen as something to be celebrated rather than hidden away.

    Those parts are clear to my daughter, and I think is a large part of the appeal (that is her favorite tweener show by far). But what isn’t clear to her, but is crystal-clear to me is the way in which the writers and actors of the show have to move within a system that is limiting. A funny story about how a family of wizards makes it through the workaday world of running a diner and getting through school and still being wizards… strictured by the marketing “need” to show a loft apartment with all the trimmings, and wardrobes that definitely wouldn’t fit in a loft apartment above a diner.

    That’s the rub. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with fashion, or “girly” activities, or anything of the sort. It’s that the poison creeps in—as with the gymnastics school in Jay’s area that isn’t about being strong and graceful and athletic and enjoying the feel of one’s body in motion, but is instead about starvation and fitting an image and having this one activity truncate the rest of one’s life in a harmful manner.

    I’d like my daughter to be able to walk down the street and just enjoy the feel of the air on her skin as she walks and breathes and enjoys the day. And if she wants to do so in a particular set of clothes that she thinks flatter her in shape and color, hey—that’s ok too (I wear clothes that I think flatter me in shape and color too—mine just don’t happen to be all that “girly”). But dammit, it isn’t going to be that way, and especially not when she grows breasts (which, if she takes after her mother, is going to happen this year. By the time I was eleven, I wore a full C-cup, and you better goddamn believe that changed the way both other children and adults saw me. Not just creepy old men, either.).

  23. Ozymandias says:

    I agree with a lot of the commentors above. You’ve got to separate the idea of “looking pretty because looking pretty is fun” and “looking pretty because otherwise I am a worthless failure and I should go throw up my lunch.”

    Personally I think it would be a lot less problematic if there was also an unrealistic unattainable beauty ideal for guys. Everyone should be able to wear makeup and nail polish and flattering clothing and flirt and be sexual.

  24. shah8 says:

    Given my behavior to my mom on topics like this, I’d say it’s a complete crapshoot what happens. All you can do is be there for the kid and hope that she grows out of it. There’s nothing you really can do to penetrate the intense self-centeredness of kids (and you wouldn’t want Roddy and Toddy, anyways).

    Children are a lotto, and sometimes you have to work pretty hard just to get lucky.

  25. preying mantis says:

    “since I refuse to accept the idea that “girliness” is innate”

    I don’t know if I can really agree with that all the way. I mean, society has taken this group of traits–basically anything that has to do with a desire to decorate oneself–that most people have to at least some degree, labeled them “girly,” delineated “acceptable” ways to express it, and then tried to shove females into that box and males out of it. Just because girls and women are pressured to play it up (and woe betide the boys and men who want to paint their nails, style their hair, or wear jewelry) doesn’t automatically mean that there aren’t those among us who would take it all the way to bowerbird levels if they could.

    The best avenue is probably the one you’re taking: try to decouple her urges from the toxic messages that so often come bundled with socially-approved ways to express them, encourage a well-rounded idea of self, and keep her away from things that are actually physically limiting or damaging. Telling her that her urges are degrading because they’re coded as feminine would probably just inspire guilt and might make for more internalized misogyny.

    “I have issues every time I take up a Disney story with its hypersexualized mermaids and other kid characters and having to make up Scientific Rapunzel and who parachutes her way out of the castle to Mimi the Science girl who loves to invent!”

    You could mine Girl Genius for illustrations.

  26. amandaw says:

    For what it’s worth: try not to compliment her only when she’s not prettied up. She is pretty no matter what she wears, right? Children hear these messages; you are trying to counteract everything society tells her, but when you only compliment her in certain circumstances, all she hears is “So I still have to look/perform a certain way to gain approval” — rather than “I am whole and worthy, regardless of what I wear/say/do.” Tell her she’s beautiful sometimes even when she’s wearing feminine stuff. Because she still is, isn’t she?

    Other than that, I sympathize entirely; I imagine I’ll be in your shoes someday. And complimenting her on her responsibility is a great way to emphasize something other than prettiness, even when she is performing prettiness. It’s a hard line to walk, and inevitable you will slip, because that’s what humans do. But she will know she has a mother who loves her and supports her, and that’s so important.

  27. amandaw says:

    There isn’t anything inherently wrong with fashion, or “girly” activities, or anything of the sort. It’s that the poison creeps in—as with the gymnastics school in Jay’s area that isn’t about being strong and graceful and athletic and enjoying the feel of one’s body in motion, but is instead about starvation and fitting an image and having this one activity truncate the rest of one’s life in a harmful manner.

    This is exactly the distinction that needs to be made.

  28. I have an 8-year-old daughter. Her wearing make-up, high-heels, and overly “girly” clothing is barely an issue for one simple reason: she isn’t allowed to have or wear any of those things. There also isn’t a single fashion magazine in my home, nor has there been since before she was born. “What not to wear” has never been aired in my living room and likely never will. As her parent, it is my job to ensure that she has access to the things that she needs, but not necessarily access to all the things that she wants. It is my job to do what I can as a parent to help mold her as a person who will hopefully make more healthy choices in life as opposed to self-destructive ones.

    She still likes to dress up in “feminine” clothing. She still wants to wear make-up. She still thinks it’s fun to try on high heels. We are currently have issues over her wanting to pierce her ears. She has a friend who has pierced ears. Apparently this little girl has tons of pierced earrings. I, personally, am adamantly against piercing little girl’s ears. If grown women want to pierce their ears, fine. But I refuse to accept it as normal to pierce the ears of children. I actually think that in some cases – such as piercing infants ears – that it should be considered child abuse.

    I take full responsibility for the fact that part of the reason she wants to do these things is because she has seen her mommy do them. She doesn’t see mommy do them often, thankfully. I can only hope that the fact that she also sees mommy going around with hairy legs, no make-up, and baggy jeans that she will be just as influenced as she has been when she’s seen mommy doing silly things like walking around on heels that could break her ankles, cause permanent back and arch injuries, dying her hair with toxic chemicals that can cause cancer and permanent damage to the nervous system, and slathering her face with make-up that could very well lead to breast cancer.

  29. chava says:

    My sympathies. It sounds like you’re doing the best you can in the fact of a whole lot of forces beyond your control. There’s nothing wrong with the urge to be “girly,” but there IS something wrong with the slew of media messages trying to tell children HOW to be “girly.”

    I think amandaw and preying mantis hit it on the head, don’t have much to add to their advice.

  30. Jay says:

    Amandaw, I do compliment her when she’s dressed up. I tend to do that without really thinking about it, and so I make an effort to also compliment her when she’s not dressed up, and to focus on the process. Eve likes to accessorize, and I try to notice and comment on the way she puts things together – the little necklace hanging from the belt loop of her jeans, or the charm she’s threaded through her shoelace, or the headband that is the perfect match for the Tshirt. There’s real skill being built there, and a good eye for color and shape and proportion. I’m trying to build an appreciation for that work to counter my knee-jerk “fashion is shallow and misogynistic” reaction.

    Preying mantis, your point about the desire for ornamentation is well-taken. I do think that some people are innately drawn to sparkly and pretty and decorated. I just don’t think it’s innate to all girls or only to girls, which I realize was also what you were saying, and the constant barrage of messages to the contrary makes me tired and sometimes prone to over simplification of my own in response.

    La Lubu, I totally hear you about the classism and consumerism. My daughter hasn’t watched “Wizards of Waverly Place”. She likes “Zach and Cody”, in which the “randy boy, ditzy girl, brainiac Asian” stereotypes are on full display. Shudder.

    I watched “Friends” once or twice when it was first on and couldn’t help but contrast the unrealistic way in which they lived with older TV shows, especially “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy”, also set in NYC apartments.

  31. Nicki says:

    “since I refuse to accept the idea that “girliness” is innate”

    I disagree with you on this one. I think femininity (or “girliness”) can be innate. I know that people don’t operate in a vacuum, but some people are more feminine than others and if she is showing strong tendencies towards this, then it probably does just feel right to her. If she was showing strong masculine characteristics, would you be reacting the same? If she was a boy and enjoyed fitted, feminine clothes, would you react the same? Yes, our society pressures women and girls to be hyper sexual and feminine, but it’s possible that it really is just her personality coming out. I think as long as you do a good job educating her about feminism etc (which it sounds like you’re doing very well), she should be fine. Femininity is not necessarily bad and I think it would be detrimental for her to grow up feeling that her “girliness”, and girliness in general, is scorned by her parent.

  32. Bushfire says:

    When I was little I would only wear pink and purple and I played Barbies constantly until I was 13. I even read Sweet Valley High. Then I grew into a feminist. I think your daughter will be just fine.

  33. preying mantis says:

    “and the constant barrage of messages to the contrary makes me tired and sometimes prone to over simplification of my own in response.”

    I can certainly understand that. Sometimes it seems like there’s no path that’s easier than all the rest, as far as raising children goes. Even if your kid turns out to like things that are completely gender-stereotypical and society-approved, there’s a ton of cultural sludge that gets shoveled into that that you’re going to have a hard time neutralizing because it’s packaged with things they like and get rewarded for liking.

  34. Natalia says:

    Former cheerleader, former model, former consulting editor on a fashion magazine here (all pretty brief experiences, but very educational) – and with those disclaimers out of the way…

    I think children get knocked around no matter what, girls especially. Beauty can be a curse, and not having enough of it can also be a curse. It’s like the no-win situation we encounter later, when we’re sluts if we do have sex, but prudes if we do not. The deck is largely stacked against us.

    I have this attitude with my little brother – when I try to convince him of certain things, and then realize, OK, I can’t, he needs to learn from experience. This doesn’t mean that I won’t snatch him back from the ledge, of course. It just means that certain subjects, perhaps, cannot be intellectualized or explained in context, they must be felt in your own skin.

    I’ve always been the ugly duckling in a family of beautiful women, and oddly enough, my brief modeling stint actually toughened me up in regards to my inferiority complex. Once you see the seams of the industry, you can develop a sense of humour about looks in general and how ephemeral that entire side of existence is. Of course, I was older than your daughter is now, Jay, but not by much.

    Your daughter sounds like she has a good friend in you. She might grow out of the pink thing, or she might not. I never did. Hey, I look good in pink. But the bottom line is, you sound like a really cool mom who cares deeply about her kid, and no matter how you may surprise each other, she is loved. And that is a rare and precious thing, that cuts through everything. I think the chances of your very much beloved child feeling panicked or worthless about pimples or an extra pound of weight are pretty slim. But I’m an optimist like that. ;)

  35. faye says:

    Bushfire and I are possibly twins :D I wanted to be a ballerina. I had Barbies (despite them being banned in my household — my parents eventually gave in after I got them as gifts anyway), I designed clothes for them, I wrote long dramas with them as my cast. I got the “1996 Olympics” Barbie and named her Dominique after Dawes and Moceanu and watched every gymnastics event that summer with my eyes glued to the TV.

    I insisted that my dresses twirl when I spin. I still like it when they do. I still model for the camera. I also bitch about the patriarchy.

    Close your eyes, take a breath and look at your daughter smiling when she winks and dances and designs. I know you remember how painful and awkward childhood can be. You want to cherish those smiles no matter where they come from.

  36. Tinfoil says:

    I admit, I don’t have a daughter, but my experience with similar issues is that when you agonize over certain behaviors, you’re really only reinforcing the idea that said behavior deserves time spent agonizing over it. Instead of worrying whether or not your child should watch What Not To Wear, sign up for an evening painting class. Read a book or write a story together. Complete a science experiment – there are dozens of websites detailing simple chemistry/astronomy/electronics experiments that children can do that are also fairly inexpensive. Rather than opening your daughters mind to the politics behind why she should not wear makeup or shorts with letters on the butt, open her mind to what fascinating things she could be doing instead.

  37. amandaw says:

    Why “rather than”? Do we not have the time and capacity to do both …?

  38. La Lubu says:

    shah8: I googled “Roddy and Toddy” and something came up about Gaye Adegbalola and Roddy Barnes on Hot Toddy Music; sounds like something I need to hear! (love Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women!) Beyond that, I don’t get the reference.

    My daughter and I haven’t battled over clothes or other appearance-related topics, but that’s mostly because she shares my tastes (so far). What that means is: she likes comfort, she likes clothes she can get dirty in, she likes bright colors and prints, prefers denim for her bottom half, and prefers close-fitting clothes to baggy clothes. (baggy clothes get snagged in trees, bicycle chains, etc. It’s also hard to achieve “baggy” without sleeves and pantlegs several inches too long—a real drag in more ways than one, and very prone to getting filthy)

    So. We get a partial feminist “pass”–thumbs up for the jeans and sneakers, thumbs down for the spaghetti strap tank tops and earrings. There’s just no winning that game. When I was my daughter’s age, there wasn’t any of what I’ve heard called on teh Internet…”Jr. Miss Slut” clothing, but that didn’t stop me from being called one, even before I obviously developed. My problem? I liked “boy’s activities” too much (fishing, skateboarding, any sport/game that involved a ball, climbing, comic books, kung fu movies, rock-n-roll, you name it), so that pretty much sealed my sluttitude. I know as sure as the sun rises in the east my daughter isn’t going to escape that fate, either. It’s not our behavior or appearance that gives us the “slut” tag, or the “ditzy” tag, or any other gendered slur—it’s our bodies.

    To Faith from F.N.: Y’know, I don’t read fashion magazines either. (anymore. I did when I was a teenager and trying to find my way around a world where I was expected to look in a way that…I couldn’t, not really. It’s counterintuitive, but those magazines actually gave me more support for my natural appearance than the “real world” did, given that my “real world” as a teenager consisted of an oppressive Illinois backwater that had no Italian/Sicilian population—which is actually unusual for Illinois, given the patterns of immigration…..anyway, it’s not an exaggeration to say that a part of how I came to appreciate my appearance came from an admittedly toxic “beauty” industry, because in the race to garner more bucks, that industry was willing to say I had the makings of beauty, while the limited world around me was only willing to admit to my total, irrevocable, inherent ugliness.)

    …ahem. Where was I? Oh yeah—it’s more complicated than that. Case in point: I am one of the charter subscribers to what is now “Women’s Health”. It used to be “Women’s Sports and Fitness”, and the idea behind the original conception of the magazine was to provide training tips for both beginning and serious amateur athletes as well as women’s sports news. Sounded right up my alley, as at the time I was furious for the snotty, sexist way women were treated in Mountain Bike magazine (enough to cancel my subscription). Well, over time this magazine has morphed into a semi-fashion magazine. Enough to cancel my subscription? Not yet. It’s still good enough for me, and I like that if my daughter picks it up, she can see that women are involved in all types of sports, and the muscles aren’t only for men.

    But wherever she goes and whatever she chooses to do, she’s still going to occupy this body marked “female”, and be treated thusly. Changing clothes hasn’t changed any minds.

  39. Lauren says:

    This is kind of a derail, but here goes: I played with Barbies until I was 13, I loved wearing dresses to church, I loved makeup (still do), and I’m still a feminist.

    In retrospect, what made a big difference in my proto-feminism was participation in sports. I didn’t do gymnastics, I did the sweaty, dirty “boy” sports like softball and basketball. I hate the *wink wink nod nod* jokes associated with girls’ team sports, precisely because what make them so influential to their participants is what threatens patriarchal norms. That’s where I learned that my body can perform functions that are not decorative. That’s how I learned to interact with and make friends with young women of all stripes. That’s how I learned to channel aggression and competition in a healthy, goal-oriented way. And to sound “you go girl!” cheesy, that’s also how I learned that girls could do anything boys could, including kicking some ass.

    (It’s also when I began to notice some of the inequities related to girls’ sports, like how drab our field was compared to the boys’ multimillion dollar sports complex, and how the only people who showed up at our games were our parents, while the whole goddamned city showed up to see the guys play.)

  40. Natalia says:

    Rather than opening your daughters mind to the politics behind why she should not wear makeup or shorts with letters on the butt, open her mind to what fascinating things she could be doing instead.

    Hahahahahaha, I’m reading this and sitting here and wearing shorts with letters on the butt. Very fetching ones too.

    I think get what you’re saying, because I think that kids often rebel against abstract ideas. At least, my brother always does, and I did too.

  41. Natalia says:

    Changing clothes hasn’t changed any minds.

    I think that’s really, really, really true.

    And hey, the girls (and boy) I met through a couple of fashion gigs were some of the toughest, most sincere and most memorable people that I have come across in my life. I only keep in touch with one these days, but it makes me glad to know that they’re out there.

  42. TeriSaw says:

    Growing up I loved wearing pink, reading teen magazines and wearing make-up. I also liked Transformers, Legos and other “non-girlie” things (societies designation, not mine). Yes I did grow into a feminist but it was a very painful process fraught with insecurity and multiple negative experiences. In retrospect I wish I was not exposed to fashion magazines at such a young age. Ms. magazine was also in the house and my mother tried to counsel me about media messages but, you know what, reading and seeing such things proved to be too pervasive and ultimately detrimental.

    I connected with Faith from F.N. regarding her take on the issue. I too often hear about parents who are loath to deny their children anything, especially out of fear of making it seem more appealing, but sometimes you have to be the bad guy for your daughter’s sake.

  43. Stephanie says:

    My 7 year old gives me some of these problems already. She’s not into tween shows yet, but her friends are and she takes some heat for not liking the right shows. I like that as a hopeful early lesson in not having to like everything her friends like while they’re still being relatively gentle about it.

    On the other hand, she worries about her weight already. No cause for it, but I think I caught a part of the problem with my mother-in-law who insists that my daughter is not slim (utterly untrue and beside the point anyhow). I’ve been working with her on understanding that fit matters more than being the right weight or slim enough or having a flat enough tummy (that one was her particular concern). I don’t always know if that’s the right goal, but I hope it will be better for her than worrying about her weight directly.

    She’s into all the princess stuff which can drive me batty but I’m trusting it’s not permanent.

  44. Malta says:

    #39 La LuBu: I think “Roddy and Toddy” is a reference to Rod and Tod Flanders on the Simpsons. They’re frightening well-behaved and do exactly what their parents tell them, all the time, with no interests or personality of their own.

    Anyway, back to the post, I know it’s a little off-the-wall, but one area you could encourage your daughter to explore (perhaps when she’s a little older) is image editing. I really enjoyed playing with editing software as a teen and the experience brought home to me the ease with which we can edit photos. It’s one thing to know it’s possible, and another to see just how easy it is. There’s also an interesting overlap between photoshopping and makeup, in that you see how a lot of editing has the same purpose as makeup–touching up face areas is just like using foundation. It’s almost a deconstruction of makeup by showing how it works.

    There are fun, free editors like GIMP (I’m not sure why they chose the ableist name–I hope it was unintentional) available that could be a great way for your daughter to explore her passion for elements of design. Best of luck to you in raising a feminist daughter.

  45. Manju says:

    You should start dressing just like her while wiggling your butt and winking over your shoulder…basically do all the things she does that you find objectionable.

    If that doesn’t result iin her changing her ways, nothing will.

  46. William says:

    I too often hear about parents who are loath to deny their children anything, especially out of fear of making it seem more appealing, but sometimes you have to be the bad guy for your daughter’s sake.

    Which, from just about any developmental psychology perspective you care to look from, is why children from repressive and oppressive families of origin turn out so wonderfully healthy and well rounded, with astoundingly low rates of destructive rebellion when they eventually begin to individuate. After all, as long as it’s for their own good who are they to argue? Carl Jung/Alice Miller/Sigmund Freud/Anna Freud/Carl Rogers/Michel Foucault be damned, sometimes you just gotta be tough.


    Telling anyone (child or not) that something is forbidden just makes them curious and resentful. Teaching them why something is, to your mind, a bad idea allows them to make an informed choice with which you might or might not agree. Sure, parents are guardians, but too often we forget that the relationship between a parent and a child is, at the most fundamental level, a relationship between a powerful person who physically and emotionally dominates someone smaller and weaker than themselves.

  47. Simon(e) says:

    “I’d like my daughter to be able to walk down the street and just enjoy the feel of the air on her skin as she walks and breathes and enjoys the day.”…”But dammit, it isn’t going to be that way, and especially not when she grows breasts.”

    Ok, I’ve grown breasts, and just today I was enjoying the air on my face, as a matter of fact. (I never thought I would come up with that sentence in my life). And I’m a daughter.

    Slightly more relevant: I started wearing makeup in high school, and just recently stopped wearing any at all, as a sophomore in college. (Except for performances, etc.) Long story short, whenever we talk about things being classic “girly” or heaven forbid, “slutty,” it’s just more labels that categorize in a neat little box one aspect of a girl’s identity. I stopped wearing makeup to challenge myself to see if I could see pictures/reflections of my own natural face and be happy with it. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be seen as girly or that I wanted to be taken seriously. I want the world to take me at face-value, as it were. I am going to quote Bob Gluck here, who said, “Personality is a collaboration between you and the world.” Another way of saying identity is a life-long process. Oh hoorah. So maybe magazines, models, and Mode are a part of it. But hey, “you” is a pretty big part of the equation.
    My point is,

    I’ll never know, actually NO ONE will ever know if my daily question of “Am I pretty?” is a result of mass media or a natural human question, because we won’t be able to separate the two.
    What I DO know is that every day, I arrive at the same answer: yes. Here’s the kicker: if I tried to rate my own facial appearance, I would say it’s maybe average. Nothing special. But, the difference is that I would say I am beautiful, which is something completely different from being pretty. (And no, I don’t just mean I have a great personality. I mean I am so beautiful).

    I come to you this day, sans makeup, a bit insecure but loving life, to tell you that there is hope. My parents let me know they loved me every single day, and let me tell you, that’s beauty.

    So, to Jay and everyone else, congratulations, because you love your children. And one day, maybe when they’re nine, or nineteen, they’ll discover that they love their own smile with or without lip gloss.

    I hope this was relevant/helpful.

  48. Ronnie says:

    I didn’t realize your daughter was only 9, and I hoped that what I tried to say in my post was that I think it sounds like you are doing a wonderful job telling your daughter she is beautiful no matter what and that her self worth has nothing to do with what she wears or looks like. I think by equipping her with that self esteem, she is much more ahead of the game in terms of not getting sucked into all that body image bullshit.

    My other point (and this has nothing to do with parenting) was just that I really feel like its unfair for there to be this sort of feminist dress code and if you happen to dress more provacatively or more in fashion or girly, or whatever, then you’re less than a feminist.

    And looking back on my post, my rough generalization of what I think feminism is was ill-worded.

    But hey, I’m only 21, and I don’t have kids, and I’ve really only gathered what the meaning of different feminist movements are through my own research and life experiences.

    I really do wish you all the best and mean no offense. I just wish all kids grew up the way I did which was with the ability to dress however I wanted and participate in whatever organized activity I wanted to regardless of whether my mom thought they were “feminist enough.”

  49. Natalia says:

    Ronnie, I got the fashion thing from the other angle – and that angle was religion. My parents were never the types to say “Jesus hates your shorts!” but the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox church did help bring that atmosphere about, and also, in North Carolina, I once had an older woman demonstratively tell her daughter that “Satan loves women in short skirts” or something at the store (guess what I was wearing at the time?). And spending most of the year in Jordan and now trying to get a rest from the conservatism there, it can be a big struggle to maintain your identity when even the most innocent (or so you think) piece of your wardrobe, can take on a dirty meaning for someone else.

    So I actually react pretty vehemently whenever a fellow feminist begins to critique my fashion choices, because, it’s like, “I get that enough from the other folks, THANK YOU AND GOOD DAY.”

    But I do agree that when you’re 9 years old, you can start growing up too fast, and fashion does play a role in that. I’ll never forget the day I was in a bar in London, and this little girl was walking back from the bathroom, very cute little girl, just a little bit of baby fat on her frame, no more than 10 years old, and she was wiggling her butt in these extremely tight pants that said something like “baby” on the butt and trying to walk in this hip-swinging way, like an adult woman, and all I could think was, “oh dear.” I’m sure her parents thought it was really cute for her dress up like that, and that there was no harm in it, just the equivalent of a little girl playing with her mom’s make-up. But there is that other side to it, and it is darker.

  50. La Lubu says:

    Malta: thanks! I have only a passing familiarity with the Simpsons; I know Bart’s the smartass, Lisa plays the sax, Marge has the beehive, and Homer isn’t too bright. And that’s about it.

    Simon(e): I’m really glad you’ve never experienced street harassment. I hope it will be that way for my daughter too, but considering the neighborhood we live in, I seriously doubt it. I first experienced men driving up to me while I was walking down the street and asking me for blow jobs when I was eleven, and in no way, shape or form could I have passed for older than twelve. Now, it’s possible there could have been some ethnic/racial ugliness in that, given that with my dark hair and olive tone I was often taken as nonwhite (and I thought about that at the time too, as a kid), but I know damn well it had everything to do with becoming a woman, because I didn’t have that experience before physically developing. What bothered me more than the creeps themselves, were the reactions of witnesses—like I was the problem, not the creeps. It definitely gave me the feeling of “you’re in this alone, kid. No one is one your side.”

    I notice a difference in the way young men and young women perceive their bodies that is directly related to the way our bodies are perceived by others. Young men have a freedom that young women don’t because their bodies aren’t typed as necessarily sexual (women being the sex class), nor are their bodies typed as “dirty.” A good part of the issue surrounding “too girly” or form-fitting clothing is about how visible the female form is—how much the clothing emphasizes difference from the male form, and the effect that has on the perception of the woman. Those are issues men don’t have to negotiate their way around; they can just be.

    I mean, I see the difference in the way male and female children are carrying themselves in the upper grades of my daughter’s grade school. It happens that early. My daughter just entered the fourth grade. She’s already getting policed about her both her body and her (lack of) girliness. What. The Fuck.

    But yeah, I still go out and enjoy the feel of the sun on my skin too. But for some strange reason, I can’t do that without packing a weapon, know what I mean? And growing eyes in the back of my head? And being mindful that if I were to be assaulted, the first thing the cops would say is “what were you doing out here (running, walking, working in my own backyard, whatever) alone?”

  51. Jay says:

    Malta, thanks for the suggestion about image editing. That’s a great idea, and something we can all learn together – I’m fascinated by it but have never tried it, and I know it would also appeal to Eve’s dad. Very cool.

    My concern about my daughter’s clothing and activities is not to make sure she is “feminist enough”. I’m concerned about her health and safety. Cheerleading in and of itself may not be the End of the World as We Know It, but in this community, at this age, it teaches girls lessons that I think are dangerous. She’s nine years old. I will let her wear makeup when she’s 12. Is that really all that stifling?

    I don’t think there’s a feminist dress code. I do think there’s a patriarchy, and a kyriarchy, and as La Lubu points out, that takes a toll on our bodies and our spirits. I’m doing what I can now to help Eve manage that when it comes her way.

  52. Jackie says:

    I understand how your feeling. It’s difficult when your child embraces, that which your against. Are you sure it’s not a form of rebellion, teenagers tend to rebel against their parents to test their ground. Not that this is news, but that could really be what’s behind this.

    As far as being a cheerleader, most cheerleaders now see themselves as athletes and are insulted by the notion that people would see them only as sexual objects. So it’s not the same environment that cheerleading had in the past.

    I remember a episode of 7th Heaven where the daughter wanted to wear a revealing outfit to a concert. The mother explained to her that the problem wasn’t with her and what she was wearing, it was that you can’t control how other people will perceive dressing that way. That in a perfect world a woman could wear whatever she wants, but we’re not there yet. That feminism is helping us get towards that world, and a world where if a woman dressed revealing, it wouldn’t be assumed that she’s doing it just to be sexual.

    The feminism part wasn’t in the show, but it really affected me as a high schooler who was getting a lot of greif for dressing Goth. That there wasn’t anything wrong with me, it’s just that other people can’t handle difference. Also women in high school can be very insecure, and will use language that is demeaning to other women they feel is threatening their turf. That’s why you get language like slut thrown about, regarding women in high school who dress revealing. It’s that the girl who says it is threatened by that person’s security with themselves, because they don’t have it themselves. From a girl, who formerly called girls sluts herself, myself.

  53. Jha says:

    Jay: You’d be right if you guessed I didn’t have a kid. I’ve never met any child who could answer the “why I like this” questions either – but to be honest, I’m usually more horrified when I meet kids who just … don’t ask “why” in the first place. Or parents who never questioned their kids ‘why’ either.

    I’m just harking back to my own childhood when I would ask ‘why do people do this’ and no one took me seriously enough to give me some form of an answer. It was frustrating because I wasn’t given the language I needed to express myself. You don’t appear to be one of those adult types I grew up with. I think your daughter’s in good hands there.

  54. evil_fizz says:

    In retrospect, what made a big difference in my proto-feminism was participation in sports.

    I had this experience too. I played soccer for 9 years and even though I wasn’t particularly good, it was great having a reason to run around. Also, when I saw my softball league next to my brother’s Little League, it was hard not to get bristly about gender disparities. They had a snack bar, for crying out loud. We had to ask local schools nicely to use their fields.

    With respect to cheerleading, it was one of the very few things that my mother actually banned outright. Her take was that if I wanted to play a sport, that was great. If I wanted to be a spectator, that was cool too and she would take me to games, but no cheerleading. My daughter’s only 2 months old, but I think I’ll probably take the same tack.

  55. Caitlin says:

    Jay, while it seems like 9 is a pretty scary age to be watching your daughter go through this it might be better to get it over with at this age. My little ister was about that age when she was really into body glitter and cheerleading,,,,,,she’s now 17 and more into dying her hair black and begging to get her nose pierced. Our parents were far more uptight about raising me in a PC way. I’d beg for barbie dream houses and babydoll changing tables for christmas and I’d get a tool kit and workshop table. So I hit my girlie period freshman year of college and they were incredibly freaked out. I went to art school so my outfits were kind of verging on cartoonish. I went from wearing green corduroys to spandex pink mini skirts and white high heeled cowboy boots. I remember my dad trying to give me a talk about what my eyeliner might mean to other people. I lost about 30 lbs and became a master flirt. Now all that is over, well aside from the eyeliner…..i’m back to combat boots and jeans now. I really think that the common sense and self respect they instilled helped me come back to a middle ground. However if I’d been able to experiment a little when I was younger it might have helped me not go so overboard. I ended up turning friends into mothers in an effort to learn about “how to be a girl”….and their tactics of eatting disorders and competitiveness made for bad role models. I’d say just be there for your daughter and pick your battles….maybe encourage sports over ballet but still let her wear makeup?

  56. Lynnsey says:

    As someone who has what many consider to be pretty strong feminist leanings AND a former cheerleader and coach for many years since, I’m hoping that your view of cheerleading is, like you view of gymnastics, colored by your own local experience.

    In many places, cheerleading is much more than “cheering for the boys who are playing the real game.” These girls (and boys in many cases) are dedicated athletes who perform in their own right as well as support the various other teams, members of which are often good friends. They often work just as hard, if not harder, than many “real” sports and learn valuable skills such as teamwork and leadership abilities in addition to the physical activity they are engaging in. I, myself, was painfully shy up to middle school and owe a great deal of my confidence to my experience.

    I realize, too, that there are cheerleaders out there who don’t promote a positive image of women, but the majority I have met are strong, healthy, smart, confident young people who I would be proud to have my children look up to.

    I also have to agree with others in the concern that, yet again, we are cherrypicking the kind of feminist it’s okay to be.

  57. heidirose says:

    It’s funny that you associate an “early risk of eating disorders” with cheerleading and not dance [if that’s what you mean to be doing – rereading that, I’m not 100% clear], given the well-known prevalence of eating disorders in the latter. (On a personal level, I hold my years of ballet at least partially responsible for my own ED.) I cheered for five years, and in my experience, cheerleaders are praised for being muscular. It was a running joke that the new girls’ thighs always doubled in size after the first year, and my squad included a number of bigger girls. The reality is nothing like “Bring It On” (where the cheerleaders were encouraged not to eat) – any serious cheerleader will tell you that.

    Anyway, I know that’s not the main point of the post! I just wanted to jump in and defend cheerleading, as well as chime in with the former-cheerleader-still-a-feminist thing. Depending on your squad, it can be just as much of a “sport” as anything else (especially competitive cheerleading), with the added benefit of teaching you a whole lot about standing up to disrespect from sexist pigs, including the sexist pigs in authority who make you practice in the cafeteria with the squished-up french fries from lunch and won’t put your hard-earned national trophies in the same case as the other sports teams’.

    Sorry I can’t offer child-raising advice, other than if she really wants to go for cheerleading, I say go for it and just watch out for signs that it’s going badly. Thanks for your post!

  58. Jay says:

    It’s really not clear to me how my struggle to raise my daughter in a way that aligns with my values has anything to do with “what kind of feminist we’re allowed to be”. I don’t think there’s anything in my post that prescribes what anyone else is supposed to be doing. This is about me, my family and my community.

    Cheerleading does indeed have its own competitive heirarchy now, and it requires a great deal of strength and training. Around here, it also involves a great deal of emphasis on appearance, specifically on an ultra-feminine sparkly kind of appearance. I just don’t see that in soccer or softball or basketball. At least some of the competition is judging girls on their appearance. That’s not OK with me. This may be a local phenomenon, and I respect and accept that others have had different experiences. I would ask for the same respect of mine.

    I have never seen cheerleaders cheering for the girl’s team. Again, that may happen somewhere, but it doesn’t happen here. So it is, in my experience, girls cheering for boys, and it’s the boys who get their names in the paper and their pictures on the walls of the school. The kids know what really counts.

    My daughter is at risk for an eating disorder even if she never sets foot in a gym or a ballet studio. I didn’t say anything about cheerleading. I am well aware of the risks associated with dance, and chose her program accordingly. We have more choice of dance programs than gymnastics centers.

  59. Salome says:

    I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think I owe a lot to the fact that I continued watching Nickelodeon & Cartoon Network cartoons into middle school and never watched the “kid-sitcoms” on The Disney Channel. However, this was largely my own choice and nothing my parents forced on me.

    As someone who is not too far removed from high school (age 19), my advice would be that you can’t set too many rules, or else you’re just setting up a lot of this stuff as forbidden fruit which as a teenager/adult she’ll be oh-too-eager to sample. Banning cheerleading might be pushing it. In some ways, you kind of have to let her learn lessons as her own. Preteens and teenagers (and I know she’s not there yet, but she will be very soon) will rebel against whatever their parents discourage, and you have to make sure you aren’t pushing her toward it by attempting to push her away.

    I had a feminist mom and stepdad, and while they definitely tried to steer us away from certain things, there was very little that they outright “banned” for the reason of being anti-feminist. A lot of things (like dating or make-up) were not allowed at certain ages but became o.k. as I got older. It’s good to model feminism, but I’ve found that it’s something you have to come to on your own. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but only started actively getting involved in the feminist community and studying feminist thought right around my first year in college, when I first became aware of the dearth of feminist resources out there and how much it would augment my life as a young, independent woman in a society that didn’t always agree with who I wanted to be. I’d say that though I used the label in middle school & high school, my behavior and ideas weren’t always the most feminist – which I think is typical. At that age, it’s hard not to become too wrapped-up in what boys think (assuming you’re hetero), and it wasn’t like I was getting the best advice from our patriarchal society (and I tended to ignore my mom’s).

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