As the mother of a daughter, I knew there was a good chance I’d have to deal with those common tween requests for hair dye, heels and makeup one day. I still resent my parents for not letting me make those decisions when I was a teen, and figured I’d be more open-minded about my daughter Anna’s choices. I’m not one to shy away from sexuality or femininity—I like unusual clothes, and I sometimes also dress Anna in fairly wild, patterned outfits. However, I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to deal with requests for bikinis and hair chalk before my child even turned five! Fourteen, sure. But five?!
Of course, Anna’s requests don’t reflect a desire to be attractive or provocative—they’re largely influenced by what she sees around her; a bit of what I think of as “shiny object” syndrome. And I have to admit, my reactions to them are all over the map.
I wear red lipstick (or sometimes bright pink) and it’s not unusual for kids at my daughter’s school to ask me about it. Still, when Anna asks if she can try on makeup, I tell her she can wear face paint instead. I’ll draw a heart on her arm with eyeliner and colour it in with sparkly eye shadow, but I won’t let her put it on her face—even for pretend dress-up—because I think she’s too young to be preoccupied with changing her face.
This indecision even comes out in what I’ve allowed for her in terms of nail polish. For example, I’ll paint Anna’s nails blue and glittery, or a different colour of the rainbow on each finger, but I won’t let her have solid red nails. To me, it’s about the difference between playful expression, and what we’ve been ingrained to think is attractive or desirable in an adult woman.
This summer, she’s started asking for a bikini. She doesn’t quite understand the word, but keeps pointing out the girls who wear “bathing suits that look like bras and underwear.” She finds the idea of kids in “bras” novel, and asks if she can have one of these bathing suits. In general, she finds underwear (and nudity) hilarious, so this isn’t a surprising request. Of course, what she doesn’t understand yet is the sexualization of bodies to make them more appealing to others.
I told her she can have a bra, real or in bathing suit form, only when she’s older and actually needs one. I explained that, because little girls don’t have breasts, they don’t need garments to support their chest area. In fact, I’m more comfortable with my daughter in only swim trunks over a bikini top. As a compromise, I told her she could have a two-piece bathing suit if the upper half was a tank top style. For me, bikini tops don’t make sense on children. Likewise, I find halters on little girls odd—aren’t these meant to show off a woman’s back and feel sexy? I’m all for grown women showing skin and sex appeal in whatever form they choose. I’m fine with naked kids running around playing outside. But distorting the image of children’s bodies by making them appear more adult-like doesn’t sit right with me.
In the spring, a friend of Anna’s came to school with some of her hair coloured pink and, not surprisingly, Anna wanted pink hair too. My initial response was that she absolutely could not colour her hair. I recall being surprised at my own reaction; I was much older than Anna at the time, but hair colour was one of the more contentious arguments between me and my parents. But I reminded myself that there are some differences: hair chalk is temporary, and it was a product that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Anna’s hair is very light, as opposed to my own very dark hair, and wouldn’t need to be lightened beforehand. She’s not asking to be more blond or for highlights—in fact, candy-coloured hair is quite in line with what fellow Today’s Parent blogger Ian Mendes would call the “Punky Brewster” mismatched style I dress my daughter in already.
None of my responses and opinions on her requests are clear to me, but maybe it’s good practice for having a teen in the future? At the end of the day, I don’t put my kid in loud outfits or let her run around without a shirt on to make anyone uncomfortable, and I don’t believe moms who embrace red nails and halter tops are doing it to discomfort me. I just hope we’re all able to make decisions, especially for our younger kids, that work within our own personal comfort levels.
Right now, I’m letting the pink hair issue sit. I won’t bring it up again, but when it inevitably does come up, I’ll probably embrace it—if she wants a day of candy-coloured tresses, I’m going to let it happen. I’ll pick my battles. If you see me on Instagram with a green streak, you’ll know she’s won.
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.