When my two younger sisters visited me in New York recently, we took a springtime walk through Central Park. The four-year-old ran circles around me, but the six-year-old stopped every few minutes to pose—hand on hip, one foot out, head cocked—and demand, “Take my picture!” While the different ways they walked and acted could just be due to their two very different personalities, I also wondered how much of that look at me behavior is the result of two extra years of being told “you’re cute” by almost every single adult she came across.
In the 2011 article “How to Talk to Little Girls,” Lisa Bloom points out, astutely, that commenting on physical appearance is “our culture’s standard talking-to-little-girls icebreaker,” and we need to change that. “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything,” she says. And we do it primarily to young girls, not young boys (when’s the last time you complimented a little dude on his hair do?). Growing up, my grandmother would always initiate conversations with me by complimenting my lips: “Honey, movie stars get surgery for those kind of lips!” She meant well, but it came at the detriment of us talking about anything I actually did. My brother, on the other hand, was asked questions about school and sports.
In a recent op-ed for Time magazine, a new dad told the story of how he and his wife tried to downplay gender norms for their daughter by avoiding “all things pink and everything Disney.” But one day, they let her watch “Snow White,” he says, and it all went out the roof: she fell in love with princesses. “My daughter is a girly girl. Saying that is probably a feminist no-no,” the author laments. He didn’t force his daughter to dress or act a certain way because of her gender (good job!) and she turns out to like “pink and princesses and frilly, sparkly things.”
So what, exactly, is the problem here? Being “girly” shouldn’t be the only option for little girls, but expressing “girliness” also doesn’t lead to a lifetime ban from the good feminist club. I don’t know why this misconception persists, but maybe it has something to do with the way society treats traditional women’s interests. Former deputy White House Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco recently accepted a new job as a contributing editor at Marie Claire, a decision that was met with a surprising amount of criticism. In response, she wrote an amazing essay in the Washington Post titled, “Being informed and fashionable is natural for women” (which Mindy Kaling happens to agree with). She points out how women’s magazines are unjustly perceived as frivolous, “though men’s magazines don’t face any of the same scrutiny when they publish supposedly hard-hitting pieces adjacent to features on golf swings, pinstripes and bikini babes.” In a similar vein, Nigerian author and all-around feminist hero Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a piece titled, “Why can’t a smart woman love fashion?” for Elle about how she used to dress more casually than she wanted to because she sensed that in America, “Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance.” In both cases, seriously accomplished women felt that they could be either perceived as smart or into girly things, but not both.
So, welcome to the crazy conundrum of being a girl in 2014: you’ve been told your whole life by society that your appearance is an, if not the most, important characteristic about you. But if you want to be taken seriously, you have to reject all of this, and you can’t take an interest in extracurriculars like fashion (but nobody blinks an eye over smart men losing their minds over football). Why is it so all or none? Can’t we choose to be girly and also a million other things, like ambitious and feminist?
As Mastromonaco wrote, “If we really want to talk honestly about ‘having it all,’ we need to start by according a woman’s many interests outside the office with the same deference we do a man’s.” That could even start with changing the way we talk to little girls; by making a girl’s appearance not the only thing to ask her about, maybe we can raise women who don’t have to choose between being respected and being girly.
My mom saved all of my childhood dresses that I alternately loved and then refused to wear. If my daughter wants to wear them, fab. If she doesn’t, that’s fine too; it will make zero difference to me. I just hope that her grandmother asks her about whatever she’s interested in, whether that’s fashion or finance. And that her peers respect her interest in either. Or both.
Scarlet Neath is a freelance writer who lives in New York City and is originally from Houston, Texas (like Beyoncé). You can read more of her stuff here and find her on Twitter @scarjane.