When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I decided not to tell anyone we were having a girl. I cringed at the prospect of being inundated with pink frilly gifts. Inevitably, as soon as she was born, the onslaught of adorable dresses and dolls began. I tried to explain to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends about our decision to resist gender stereotypes when it came to clothes and toys. But outside our immediate social circle and demographic, the message mostly fell on deaf ears. “What’s wrong with pink?” my mother-in-law demanded, incredulous. “You liked girly things,” my dad offered.
Can you actually raise a baby free from gender? When you’re trying to raise your kids outside the constraints of gender stereotypes, your greatest obstacles are often the people closest to you. From the moment you announce a pregnancy, friends and family want to know the sex of the baby—but what does it really matter? Kids themselves aren’t aware of their gender until age two or three. Never mind that they can end up identifying with a gender different from the one they were born with and that could take several more years to crystallize.
Thanks to a precedent set last year, Canadian parents can now choose to omit their baby’s gender from the birth certificate. Unfortunately, the friends and family members of those progressive parents who chose to do so might not be so open-minded. Dolls for girls and trucks for boys remains the default mentality. Challenging the status quo takes determination.
After dinner with both sets of grandparents one night, the issue of gender stereotypes came up organically, evolving from a conversation about the many high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct. I believe societal norms surrounding gender both embolden offenders and make victims feel they can’t come forward, and I argued that those very norms can be traced to messages transmitted to kids from an early age.
“You’re confusing two separate issues,” I was told.
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
I cited statistics about the correlation between stereotypical “boy toys,” like building blocks and puzzles, with stronger math skills. I pointed out the cutesy slogans on girls’ clothes (“Fashion princess!”) versus the empowering messages on boys’ clothes (“Hero!”), as well as how girls’ shorts are cut right below the buttocks while boys’ shorts go down to the knee.
Mostly, I tried to convey that my husband and I were making a conscious effort to correct some of the messages society is already sending our daughter about what’s expected of her. Adults constantly call her “Princess”: shorthand for pretty, sweet, needing to be dolled up, and, potentially, saved.
At just four years old, she doesn’t grasp all the nuances of the word. But she is capable of perceiving that pink clothes and dolls suggest that certain things are for girls and others for boys. And if colours and toys are assigned by gender, maybe other things—haircuts, hobbies, and favorite school subjects—should be, too.
As our daughter matures, we want her to be equipped with the tools to reject the messages society sends her about the appropriate behaviour and temperament for a girl. “Come on,” my family members gently chided. “You turned out OK!”
But did I? Parenting a girl has made me acutely aware of the inequality women experience in everyday life, as well as how early it started for me.
From a young age I was raised to be a polite “little lady.” Did that make me overly passive and accommodating? As a teen I was admonished for wearing revealing clothing. Did it teach me to blame myself for unwanted sexual attention?
As an adult, I continued to edit myself for others’ benefit, and I still struggle to overcome the temptation to say nothing when I’m talked over in a professional setting—especially when it’s by a man.
Yes, I turned out OK. But, like many women, I’m coming to terms with the many instances throughout my life that weren’t OK.
In this #MeToo era, it’s no secret that inequality among the sexes persists. If there’s one thing I want to teach my daughter, it’s that such inequality is unacceptable.
And I believe that lesson starts with the earliest choices she’s capable of making: what to wear, what to play with. I tell her she’s strong and smart as much as other adults tell her she’s pretty. I read her books about women and girls who are leaders and adventurers. I encourage her to play with boys. I celebrate her love of puzzles, blocks, and outer space—and remind those who regularly buy her gifts that she loves these things.
Victories at this early age are small, even debatable. Does the fact that my daughter picked out a black bike over a pink one with streamers for her fourth birthday mean anything? Perhaps not. But I’ll count as a triumph the time I heard her on the playground instructing a boy who tried to tell her otherwise, “A girl can be the chief!”
As for certain members of our family, they still don’t see the big deal with frilly dresses and toys from the pink aisle. But they’ve been presented with an alternative viewpoint and that always has some impact.
I expressed my convictions and stood my ground, which is something I’m still not very good at. But it’s precisely the example I want to set for my daughter.