When a nurse told my almost-3-year-old that she was a pretty princess, I cringed.
It’s not that I’m anti-princess. My older daughter loved wearing a tiara. She was obsessed with all things princess. It was so bad she begged to wear a pair of long blue gloves from a Cinderella costume in her school pictures one year. I let her because I deeply believe in letting kids find and have their own interests.
And I believe in this whether or not those interests match our society’s gender expectations.
This is probably because I remember not being a typical girl. My parents let me freely explore my interests, and as I result I knew that I loved climbing trees, collecting bugs, and — like many kids growing up in the late ’80s — I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I often stayed outside with my friends all day riding bikes. I was what many would refer to as a tomboy.
But I also liked some of the pink, pretty, so-called “girl” things. I played with dolls, played dress-up and had a killer My Little Pony collection. I might’ve worn a TMNT shirt, but I was also rockin’ a tiara. In my childhood there were no girls’ toys, or boys’ toys, there were just toys. And I was free to choose any of them.
And that’s how it should be. Kids are individuals, not stereotypes. Not all little girls think roughhousing is too rough or that catching bugs is yucky, and not all little boys shy away from playing with dolls or My Little Pony. Their interests don’t always fit into neat little pink and blue boxes.
My 3-year-old loves construction trucks, train, cars and all other vehicles, just as much as — if not more than — she loves flowers, butterflies and playing with her dolls. Her interests aren’t limited to the girls’ aisle in a department store.
But we live in a society where her “boyish” interests will be discouraged, while all things girly will be encouraged, and I fear that the person she really is will shrink.
In my youth, there were always people reminding me that the rest of the world expected me to only like feminine things. They’d tell me that my climbing wasn’t ladylike, only take out the girls’ stickers after a shot or call me a princess, just like that nurse. I just wanted someone to show me all the stickers and let me pick whichever one I wanted, or to ask me if I liked princesses before assuming calling me one would be a compliment. But instead, most people assumed they knew me based on the sex typed in my chart, or the color of clothing I was wearing, or the length of my hair.
And to a kid, those assumptions are often read as prescriptions. They’re trying to figure out where they fit in the world; if you keep handing them dolls, they are going to think they’re supposed to like dolls. But what if they don’t? Or what if they also like other things but no one ever sees that? What do you think that does to them?
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But adults start making assumptions about what a kid will like based on their assigned gender before the child is even born. We live in a society with gender-reveal parties and gender-themed nurseries. Everything from clothing to car seats is sorted according to gender. And while I could place the blame squarely on marketing departments, the truth is, many parents tell their kids who they are going to be before they even take their first breath. That’s why people freaked out when Target announced at the end of last year that it would no longer label its toy aisles according to gender.
I didn’t want force my now-3-year-old into a tiara. I wanted to give her choices. So I bought her a variety of things. As an infant, she wore all the colors of the rainbow. She had skirts as well as pants. I wanted her to know from the very beginning that she could wear or play with anything.
But it didn’t take long for me to notice that strangers would make completely different comments about my baby, depending on whether or not she was wearing feminine attire. If she wore pink, she was sweet. If she wore blue, she was tough. When her presentation was ambiguous, the first thing they’d do is ask “boy or girl?” It seemed like they didn’t know what to say unless they thought they knew what was printed on her birth certificate.
I realize that no matter how hard I try, I can’t completely shield her from other people’s gender expectations. People are going to call her a princess. It’s probably going to happen a lot.
But am I wrong for wishing it wouldn’t? Is it horrible to wish society would just grow up — before my daughter does — and ditch all these outdated views about sex and gender, so she can grow up and be who she really is? Which, according to her, will not be a princess, by the way. Please stop calling her one.