Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween

In this book on the perils of modern girlhood, Melissa Atkins Wardy announces the goal of “redefining girly” so that girls can understand that “there are infinite ways to be a girl” and feel free to “choose their own paths,” and she sets out to provide “a tool kit of really practical, parenttested, and proven strategies and ideas from a mom in the trenches, help for parents to navigate through all this with their families and also practical things you can do right now to effect real change in the culture at large.” Unfortunately, the tips she offers could be shared in a blog post or pamphlet, and the padding she adds in order to create a book largely consists of preaching to the choir about the problem and frustratingly alluding to – but not engaging – theory and data, all in a fairly unorganized manner. Though Wardy serves up a few valuable suggestions (reproduced below), the reader also has to slog through questionably helpful biographical information and too many plugs for Wardy’s blog and online store. The end result is a disappointing read.

Those interested in engaging with these issues would be best off reading the summary of Wardy’s practical tips provided below in conjunction with buying or borrowing Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Make a donation to Wardy’s “Pigtail Pals” organization if you’d like to support her work, but skip purchasing Redefining Girly.

The problem

Throughout the book, Wardy fleshes out the problem: “early sexualization and binary gender marketing, age compression[, adult products and attitudes being pushed on younger and younger kids,] princess culture, ‘pinkification,’ and body image obsession.” Most folks who choose this book will already be familiar with this list (which also includes the dreadfully gendered doling out of stickers at the doctor’s office):

  • “[B]efore your baby is even born; the messages marketed to soon-to-be new baby boys and girls are very different. Girls will be told with no words at all to be pretty and delicate and stay close to home, while boys are urged to be masters of their universe and travel around their great big world. The girls’ colors are very soft and quiet; conversely, the boys’ colors are bold, bright, and strong.”
  • “As I walked through the toy aisles, these are the themes I noticed, and I do not exaggerate: Girls = baby dolls, baby care items, princesses (all Disney), sexy fashion dolls whose faces and bodies look like they have been surgically altered, beauty/makeup toys, play cooking and baking sets, animal care toys, and crafts. Boys = monsters, action or war figures, superheroes, rescue or action vehicles, building blocks and kits, sports and outdoor toys, guns and weapons, scientific experiment kits, and dinosaurs. There was nothing in the way of gender neutrality. If a boy was interested in cooking, he would have had to go into the ‘girl aisle’ and choose something dipped in pink.”
  • “[P]rincesses came in only one dainty variety and fairies came in tiny green dresses in poses reminiscent of the woman on the back of a semitruck’s mud flap.”
  • “The message a consumer got in the mainstream toy aisles was that the most adventurous thing a girl might be interested in was becoming a veterinarian.”
  • “[The toys declare and reinforce] stereotypes of what it means to be a boy (rough, rowdy, and into action) and what it means to be a girl (sweet, docile, and into “frivolous” pursuits). . . , [painting our girls and boys as] pink diva princess shopping hotties and tough violent slacker players[, respectively].”
  • “Pretty dresses and dainty shoes may inhibit your child from playing, moving, dancing, and interacting as she otherwise would. Are the boys in the family wearing outfits that require them to sit quietly and play nicely?”
  • Thanks to “the pornification of children’s Halloween costumes . . . [o]ur girls get the message that being sexy and sexually available is what society wants and expects from them, at ages when they are developmentally too young to understand it. These Halloween costumes also send the message to our boys that girls are just eye candy and sexual playthings.”
  • “When teachers reflexively categorize children by gender or inadvertently reinforce the differences between boys and girls instead of their commonalities—‘Boys, be quiet and sit down!’ or ‘Girls, let’s tiptoe like fairies to the drinking fountain’—these messages are absorbed by children in ways that affect how they view themselves and each other and that undermine their otherwise limitless imaginations and aspirations.”

The theory

Wardy throws out a few theoretical points but irritatingly fails to follow up in any detail or depth:

  • “While certain children may gravitate to specific interests and types of play, after working with children for more than twenty years and raising a son and a daughter, I remain unconvinced these interests are driven by their biological sex.”
  • “Infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time, as parents, teachers, peers—and the culture at large—unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes.”
  • “If these are the messages we accept for our infants, could this in some way alter the way we treat and parent the different sexes?”
  • “‘In self-objectification,’ the findings read, ‘girls internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.’ In other words, no, all little girls are not ‘naturally’ into fashion and makeup and ‘girly’ trappings as some would suggest; rather, we as a society are pushing them hard in that direction at increasingly younger ages.”
  • “When girls tie their body insecurity to their people-pleasing skills and bring those into sexual relationships, they put their own sexual and emotional health at risk.”

The suggestions

“So how do parents keep the Britney Effect at bay and preserve childhood just a little bit longer?” Wardy includes a few catchphrases that I’ve happily already adopted as well as activities I’d love to try. She recommends critically evaluating media with your kids (in other words, pointing out gendered messaging in commercials and TV programs or commenting on Barbie’s oddly shaped feet) and teaching them to tell stories in order to show how narratives can be (and are) shaped in different ways. Here are some of the more specific suggestions that I found either interesting or compelling:

  • “We always say, ‘Colors are for everyone’ at our house.”
  • “‘All of the toys in our house are for all of the kids.’”
  • “Whenever the kids repeat a stereotype, I try to find the positive in their words and work from there.”
  • “Your everyday, small moments are what she will remember and emulate for years to come. . . . My mom used to take my brother and me to a fast food restaurant after school sometimes. She loved ordering french fries, but if they were too cold, she’d ask the fry cook to reheat them. I thought this was humiliating. I begged my mother to stop ‘being rude’ and accept the fries as is. She reminded me she was paying for the fries and had a right to enjoy them hot. Years later, as an adult, I got a plate of lukewarm fries. Without thinking, I asked for them to be reheated. I knew, in that moment, that my mother had given me the personal authority to ask for what I needed—something I watched so many of my female friends struggle with.”
  • “To strangers [who compliment a girl’s appearance], I’d say, ‘Thanks, but you know what’s the coolest thing about her? She draws animals incredibly well!’”
  • “By showing your daughter that our bodies are instruments, not ornaments, life takes on a different meaning. . . . Build confidence and appreciation in her for the things her body can do, rather than what it looks like.”
  • “Start framing a positive body image for her in her very earliest years, when she is just discovering her body. Talk about her smart mind, strong arms and legs, healthy tummy, and warm smile, and talk about what she can do with all those amazing parts of her body.”
  • “Take a preemptive strike and explain to your child that should she receive gifts that your family has deemed inappropriate, she can exchange or donate them. The importance of the day is having fun with friends, not getting stuff.”
  • “Every once in a while, as we’re sharing a snack or coloring, I’ll ask Amelia some questions about how school is going, and then throw in a hypothetical, like ‘Hey, Smalls, what would you say if someone teased you about your whale shirt / tennis shoes / mismatched socks?’ This gives her the opportunity to practice some comebacks like, ‘That’s too bad you don’t like my shirt. It’s my total fave.’ Or ‘Everyone has different styles, it’s what makes us full of awesome!’ Even a simple ‘OK, thanks anyway’ seems to dissipate the ire without Amelia having to be mean back or involve the teacher.”
  • “Prepping your girl with some one-liners can help her slide through a situation if it arises: ‘Colors are for everyone. . . .’ ‘They aren’t boy shoes, they are kid shoes. . . .’ ‘I’m just fine with the things I like.’ ‘You don’t need to tease me just because I am different from you.’”
  • “Boys and girls need opportunities to play together, alongside one another, and in friendly competition.”
  • “One of the ways parents can get their daughters to think critically about marketing and to feel comfortable rejecting ‘what everyone else’ is wearing or doing is to help her develop a personal brand.”
  • ‘I Am …’ Silhouette Have your daughter lie down on the sidewalk or a large piece of butcher paper and trace her body’s outline with chalk or crayons. Fill her silhouette by having her write or help her to write words that reflect who she is: her character, her likes and interests, her talents and strengths. Doodle around the words, or if using paper add color by adding glitter, yarn hair, or even photographs of her being full of awesome. This would make a great decoration for the back of her bedroom door.”
  • ‘My Dreams’ Vision Board Find foam board or a blank canvas at an art supply store. Start by working out on paper what dreams and goals your daughter would like to put on here, and how she would like to organize them (in a big collage, right now dreams / forever dreams, or this school year / this summer / a year from now, etc.). Gather all the materials she will need to assemble it, put on some good music, and have some healthy snacks nearby. Make a board of your own! Find a special spot in her room where she will be able to see her vision board on a daily basis, and check back in with her from time to time on how she is approaching and achieving her goals.”
  • ‘Beauty Comes from the Family Tree’ Collage Make copies of family photos going back as many generations as you can find. Create a tree out of card stock or foam board, then assemble a tree of beauty that has been passed down between the generations. Label each picture with the woman’s name and something special about her. Talk about where her dark hair or long fingers come from, and how her genes and her confidence are what make her beautiful. For girls who are adopted, switch out genetic traits for actions that made these women beautiful, and by your daughter’s photo put plans she has to be beautiful through actions just like the women in her forever family.”
  • ‘I Am Full of Awesome’ Digital Photo Book Take photos of your girl doing full-of-awesome active, brave, artistic, funny things and create a digital photo book. Write captions that describe her feelings while she was doing whatever is shown in the photo and why she is proud of herself. Surprise her with a couple of photos with captions from her siblings or grandparents or best friend.”

After listing all these, it should also be mentioned that not all Wardy’s suggestions resonated with me. For example, her advice about dealing with family members who do “not back you up or intentionally undermine[] your efforts to give your daughter a healthy girlhood,” seemed both impractical (“We certainly appreciate Angelina’s birthday gift. Thank you for celebrating with us. Maybe we’ll take the Barbie out of the box in a bit, but right now Angelina is really content building with her blocks and dominoes. Lina really does build some of the best skyscrapers around.”) and ineffective (“[I]f speaking up will cause holy war with your mother-in-law, realize that family is more important that any imported plastic junk that will be forgotten in a matter of months.”). I also wasn’t a huge fan of her chapter on public advocacy (i.e., how to complain to store managers and companies about gendered messaging effectively).

Other interesting tidbits

Finally, here’s a random list of things Wardy (or one of her contributors) wrote that I did not want to forget for one reason or another:

  • “Pink is not the enemy, girly is not the enemy; lack of choice is the enemy.”
  • “Of course, it is kind of tricky to explain why something is so inappropriate when a kid this age shouldn’t even be thinking about the inappropriate aspects of the inappropriate gift.”
  • “When we purchase [sexy Halloween costumes], we become a part of the system that feeds off turning young girls’ bodies into sex objects. That system is full of marketers and pimps alike; the flesh of our daughters is their currency.”
  • “Sexy is great; sexualization is unhealthy.”
  • “One negative comment can undo a thousand compliments.”
  • “Why create and sell one baby item when you can sell the same family both a girl version and a boy version of that item?”
  • “Have you noticed that there is hardly any focus on boys being princes or acting in a princely, gallant manner? In fact, they are told and encouraged to be rowdy, loud, sporty, mischievous, messy monsters.”
  • “Any time we ask someone to challenge the stereotypes they project, it can feel awkward because we are asking them to push their comfortable thought boundaries and, frankly, we are telling them they are doing or saying something wrong. . . . You want to convey how important these concerns are without coming off as judgmental or belittling . . . .”
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