Supporting our daughters as they define what femininity means to them

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Nicole Lauren
By: D. Sharon PruittCC BY 2.0
There are certain questions that enter my mind these days that I didn't necessarily think too much about until I became a mother. More specifically, until I had a daughter. One of those questions is how to teach my daughter femininity without the objectification of her sexuality. I feel these days there are two sides of the spectrum when it comes to parenting little girls: Androgyny and what I will just refer to as The Pink Side.

Most of us fall somewhere in between the two, but it is quite easy to slip the scale in one direction or the other. I know I tend to weigh more closely on the pink side of the spectrum (what can I say, it's my favorite color). However, I've begun to question if a household of pink baby gear might have a long-lasting effect on my daughter's development of her feminine identity.

I know it might sound a little melodramatic, but I fear limiting her scope of what it means to be a girl by suggesting that there needs to be a division of pink = girls, blue = boys in the first place.

Furthermore, I feel there is a fine line between fostering femininity and playing into society's expectations of what it means to be a little girl. It was simple for me growing up, I was a tomboy in a neighborhood full of boys and I didn't develop any interest in "typical girly-girl things" until later on in life.

There was a point in my childhood in which I was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In fact there was a pair of sneakers I wanted so bad because it had them on it. So one day a family friend bought them for me and I was soooooo excited. My mother, however, was not. I cried when she took them back and even as a child I never forgot what she told me: "These shoes are for boys!"

I didn't understand then but I do now. My mother wasn't trying to be cruel — she just knew that there are social norms, strong social norms, about how girls and boys are supposed to act and the things they are supposed to wear.

Maybe things weren't much different back then after all.

I guess what I'm getting at is that there seems to be so much pressure placed on little girls to adhere to this standard of loving makeup, playing with dolls and pretending to be their favorite Disney princess and I am starting to question if that direction doesn't just lead towards materialism and vanity. Marketing teams have discovered that if they can sell families one item for their son, they know parents will buy it in pink for their daughters.

I don't want to raise my daughter thinking that this is what it means to be a lady — that the prevailing pink culture is what defines femininity. I want her to know it's okay to get muddy, that it's alright to wear Mutant Ninja Turtle shoes if she wants because these things won't make her any less a girl.


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  1. Good article, I'm very much in a similar place. My daughter, now 6, has grown up in a very non-girly world. Her biological dad gave her a love of animals and the outdoors, and her step-dad and I are pretty die-hard geeks. In geek culture femininity is a different thing altogether, and doesn't usually involve princesses and make-up. My daughter loves spiderman, rapunzel, pokemon, princess dress-up and Dr. Who. She's pretty eclectic.

    It's funny because I grew up very girly. I loved barbies, baby dolls and make-up, and as an adult I prefer dresses, curly hair and lots of make up. How did I get such a wonderfully mixed daughter? Who knows. I hope my 6 week old daughter follows in her footsteps though, because I wish I'd grown up loving comics and star wars the way my daughter has!

  2. I read blogs on this topic all the time and I'm starting feel like I'm missing something.

    I'm still not a "girlie girl". I was the oldest in a military family and there was never time for me to worry about if a shirt was in style or is a color was "correct". I had siblings to help raise, parents to help generally and pets to look after. Not to mention helping with moving so often.

    You know what? I'm glad. I wouldn't have it any other way. I didn't waste time worrying if "jimmy" liked me or not cause I'd be leaving "jimmy" in a couple years anyway. My family liked me, the whole historian -tomboy set, just fine. As such the opinions of near strangers I would soon never see again couldn't mean less. The female combat pilots we met every other day didn't exactly give me a "June Cleaver" view of the female world either and I can't thank them enough for that.

    My family believed in making our own culture. If I ever have a family of my own I will do the same. I grew up being read the stories of DC comics, women in history, and the missions of the defenders (military and otherwise) who kept this world safe. I was reminded regularly that my grandmother was in WAC and weak women didn't exist in our family. I idealize still Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Green Arrow and Superman. Them taking on Barbie isn't even a fair fight, or a long one.

    When I got married I didn't change my name or go all giggly about taffeta and lace. And I assure you my genitalia is in tact. I am female. I got a loving, supportive husband with whom I spend countless hours talking about the same things I loved as a kid. Comic books, history and anything else nerdy or geeky I can get my mits on. Firefly forever!

    Girls have as much right to define for themselves who they want to be. I didn't choose barbie, but my sister did and she loves the thing to this day. The important thing is to be yourself. No one else is going to do that for you.

    And for the record Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rock. Now I want sneakers with them on them, full grown adult or not.

  3. I think, to me, the most important thing is choice. Allowing our young girls to look at a pair of Barbie shoes and a pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shoes and say, "That one." And I think that even though a girl may end up surrounded by pink for various reasons, I'm not sure it will push her one way or the other. Femininity is part of feminism, and that means accepting our daughters at any point in the spectrum. Same with our boys – offer choices and accept what comes.

    I know personally, my mother was an extreme tomboy and she rejected anything girly or feminine for herself and for me. I wasn't allowed to wear dresses, makeup, anything like that. As a result, I ended up sneaking off and getting these things for myself. Even though my mom would tease me for it (I know now she did it because her own femininity terrified her and so she thought I was better off being stripped of mine), I still did it, because I enjoyed it. And in the end, I'm pretty much down the middle now. I like girly things, but I'm most comfortable in jeans. I forget to put on makeup much of the time, but when I do, I love it. Things like that.

    I think the best thing you can do is to have the attitude that Mom likes pink, but Daughter can like any color she wants. And that Mom likes pink simply because she likes it. 🙂

    • Amen! My mom was a complete tomboy and still is- no makeup, short short hair, and the only dress she wore in her life was her wedding dress (and I'm pretty sure she popped out of that asap). However, she did a great job of letting my choose how "feminine" I wanted to be, which resulted in wearing lots of dresses and skirts, but playing with my dinosaurs and being constantly covered in mud/dirt/you name it. Her only boundaries were that she would not buy us anything Barbie related (which as an adult, I totally get now), and that we weren't allowed to wear makeup until we were in high school (which I may have flaunted by applying makeup once I got to school and taking it off before I left-if I had put it on at home, I'm sure my mother could have lovingly told me that I resembled a clown). I have a toddler son now who loves to play with his trains and tucks, but also loves to prance around with Mama's pretty scarves and purses…and I let him do his thing 🙂

    • Absolutely – giving your child space to choose his or her preferences is the key I reckon. As a child I desperately wanted to do ballet, but my Dad refused to let any of his girls "prance around in pink". When I finally got to choose the colour of my bedroom, I chose bright pink! Even though I like the colour and wanted to wear it as a child, I don't like how some shops only stock pink and purple for girls. It reduces their freedom to choose if clothing in other colours isn't available.
      Another thing bugs me about the princesses and fairies products: they're essentially make-believe creatures. While "boys" clothes and toys feature practical things (cars, diggers, trains, even space rockets) girls are encouraged to aspire to something they're never ever going to be. I think the OP is right that this could lead towards materialism and vanity in later life as girls seek to embody the only aspect of princesses and fairies they can: being pretty.

    • I agree!! Girls should have the TMNT or Barbie choice! Absolutely! And I know this blog is about girls, but boys should have that choice as well. As long as the pink/blue divide continues there will be those on either side of it who wish they were on the other. I think we all need to commit to making sure that the pink/blue thing is eradicated for all kids who want to experiment with life in their own way.

  4. It is hard to combat for sure. I have a 2 year old boy and I have to go out of my way to get him things that are not so gender specific. I find the less expensive things are the more girl pink/boy blue focused. I'm a Target, thrift store or Goodwill shopper, but when at Target I feel bombarded with the lacy, ruffly pink vs. the blue, grey, brown sport gear. There was once an end cap of pajamas that was all pink and kittens and cupcakes or Blue, grey, brown dogs, trucks and dinosaurs playing with every kind of sport ball you can imagine. Like a dinosaur in a monster truck carrying a football or something. Not kidding. But if you can afford to shop at places like Janie and Jack or Crew Cuts, you can get the cutest boy clothes in pink or purple (probably good girl things too, but I've never looked). That is what I look for when thrift shopping. I got him a light blue sweater with a pink and purple butterfly on it and he LOVES it. I had to commission a shirt to be made by my friends mom so he could have a button down with butterflies on it. I want him to have the stuff he likes, but I also don't want to dress him in ruffles and lace. There is no in between. He wanted pink pj's with glow in the dark skeleton bones on it, so I got them for him but I had to take a stitch ripper to it to remove the lacy bits and bows that were all along the edges. I wish there were more in between. A lot of people say my little guy is a boy's boy because he loves sports and playing with soccer balls, footballs, hockey, baseball, etc, plus dinosaurs, and anything with wheels and when I got him a stroller and shopping cart I joked that he plays demolition stroller and insisted on sending it down stairs and off furniture (with baby doll on board) or he is just as likely to take his basketball for a stroller ride around the block as his doll. But this kid plays with makeup just as often and has told me he prefers his "lipstick dark" (actual quote) and always loves a purse or wearing high heels. So who is to say. I think other adults are the ones who police this stuff the most, so if we all can work on not enforcing the pink and blue so much, I think the kids will figure out what they like on their own.

    • I agree. I have a 1-year-old boy and finding things on a budget that aren't strictly segregated by boy/girl is difficult. It's out there, but typically is more expensive. Right now toys are pretty easy for us, just a lot of brightly colored wood toys, stuffed animals, balls and tons of books. It's the clothes that I have a hard time with. My son has so many clothes that are green and orange because that's what's out there that is gender neutral. I'd love to buy him a purple shirt or something, but the ruffles and glitter are a turn off in general. Additionally, I'd buy him blue and brown stuff, but I hate all the sports and trucks and stuff. So he gets green with monkeys and frogs because apparently someone decided that monkeys and frogs are gender neutral.

    • It sounds like you need to get in the "baby loop", perhaps? My partner and I are on a very tight budget and we're expecting our first child in a month. So many people have told us how expensive babies are, and so far we're finding that isnt' the case at all. But we're lucky enough to have quite a few friends who had their own babies a year or two ago, and thanks to that fluke of timing we're getting all the hand-me downs we could possibly need (in the clothes and cloth diaper departments). We've been able to find most of the remaining gear we need second-hand on kijiji for either free or very cheap. If you don't have friends who are a bit ahead of you on the baby track and can pass on their hand-me-downs, consider organizing a baby-stuff (or kid stuff) swap in your neighborhood. The great thing about hand-me-downs (besides that they're FREE!) is how random they are….most of our stuff is geared towards "boys" because we got it from my sister in law who has a little boy. However, about 1/3 of it is neutral in colour and design, and some of it is "girly". We don't actually know the sex of our baby, but whatever that turns out to be, the child will be wearing hand-me-downs, and if this results in gender confusion of the adults who meet our baby, so be it. Also, in the toy department, so many of the most gender-neutral (and creative/ open-ended) toys are free: cardboard boxes (especially the big refrigerator ones), sand, sticks and rocks, water, grass and leaves, string, crayons and paper… the list goes on!

  5. I grew up with a (girl) cousin six month apart, and for Christmas we always got the same thing, her gift in pink, mine in purple. I have no idea who decided that, but I learned to associate purple with my things (this is purple, it must be mine!). At thirteen we both decided we liked blue the best, that year for Christmas we got a bunch of makeup (that neither of us asked for).

    My immediate family were really hands-off in regards to my choices. That year where I insisted I would only wear blue, green, black, or white? fine. When I decided independently at 8 I was a vegetarian? fine. When I told my mom at 4 that I was fully dressed without pants/skirt/bottoms of any kind and that "it was my body and my choice"? …not so fine (she told me that while that was true, it was her choice to take me anywhere and she wouldn't take someone not wearing either pants or a skirt outside).

    • "When I told my mom at 4 that I was fully dressed without pants/skirt/bottoms of any kind and that "it was my body and my choice"? …not so fine (she told me that while that was true, it was her choice to take me anywhere and she wouldn't take someone not wearing either pants or a skirt outside)."

      Bahahaha! I love this anecdote! Thanks for making me laugh. 😀

    • Hehe. My mom also pushed the whole "your body your choice you have the right to say no" thing on me (which obviously is good), but it also backfired for her when I one told her that I didn't want to clean my room because it was "MY BODY, MY CHOICE!". Hahaha.

  6. An earlier poster nailed it by saying the real issue is choice. I don't think forcing androgyny on a kid is any "better" for him/her than forcing hardcore gender stereotypes is… it's all about letting the kid choose. Don't ban the Ninja Turtle shoes for your daughter, but don't force her to wear them if she'd rather have Barbie shoes, either.

    My mom tried to pound "girl" stuff into me as an adolescent… mostly trying to get me to wear more makeup so I would "look pretty," etc., etc. Ironically, it mostly just made me ornery and not want to wear much makeup… so sometimes strictly enforcing one of the extremes totally backfires anyway. 😉

  7. My parents both grew up with really segregated genders but thankfully they gave me some room to figure things out. I had toy trucks and lego and Barbies and costumes. I lived in overalls when I was younger but my mum also wanted me to wear girly clothes and has since made it clear that I should be wearing makeup and a bra if I want to leave the house. I got to play at the farm, being an only child, so I spent time playing with tools and being dad's little helper when building things as well as being mum's little helper when baking. I've negotiated a space for myself where I can like what I like because I like it. My husband is totally on board with that and can spot things that are outside my comfort zone and reminds me of that fact when I occasionally look longingly at something that part of me thinks I should like. My dude now wears braids in his hair out of convenience and his hair is far longer than mine. My dad, surprisingly enough, actually demonstrated going outside gender expectations to me more than my mum. He seems like a real man's man, but he also took me to romantic comedies voluntarily.

    I definitely agree that it's important to give kids space to make choices. Providing a mix of options seems better to me than forcing androgyny or gender conformity. I'll happily dress my kid in stuff I find cute and try to balance the tea set with transformers, and see what my kid likes.

  8. As a mom to a very "boy-ish" 5-year-old girl, I totally agree that you've got to let kids make their own clothing choices. Never did I imagine I'd have a daughter who wants to wear exclusively boy clothes, loves Stars Wars and superheroes (and, yes, the Turtles), and insists on having her hair cut short like a boy. Yes, I do worry about teasing. And yes, to be quite honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with her being mistaken for a boy all the time. But I just do my best to prepare her for what may come her way, keep my opinion to myself, and let her make her own choices.

    • I understand how the possibility of teasing can be a concern to parents of gender non-conforming kids, and I also think your approach sounds very balanced and supportive. It's worth keeping in mind that it doesn't matter how your kid acts/ dresses/ is, there's always a chance of some "difference" triggering teasing from other kids. When I was growing up I (mostly) conformed to gender roles, I wasn't a visible minority, I had no physical characteristics that set me apart, but I got teased like mad because of being the "new kid". I suspect that the best thing we can do to raise emotionally healthy kids is to help them learn resilience, empathy, and respect (for self and others). That way, if they get teased for being different, they'll have a good range of tools to deal with it constructively.

  9. It was really funny to be at my sister's wedding recently amongst people who hadn't seen me in years. They all kept commenting how surprising it was to see me all grown up and covered in sketchy black tattoos, with my hair cropped short etc etc because I was such a girly girly little princess growing up. I was really surprised because I was never that into dolls, I loved TMNT too but yes I loved to play with makeup and style hair too – at 25 I had never thought how my femininity had been perceived by others before, I was just being me and I feel undeniably feminine within myself!! When I asked my siblings they said they don't remember our childhood's being gender oriented, besides the fact that at xmas people often got my sister and I the same thing (but in different colours) and my bro another thing, and even then we all "shared" or fought over everything of each others anyway!

    We always just had the freedom to choose and although I dont think any of us are "typical" in anyway, I have no doubt about my own femininity and never have. So I agree with others, I think its choice and freedom to explore that matters.

  10. Having a two-year old at home has really got me thinking about this. Ever since she was born my relationship to feminism has grown stronger, and I have every intent to raise her to be a strong feminist woman. When it comes to colors though, my battle has been lost for now. My little girl definitely prefers pink, and I've come to let that be a part of who she is. I figure that if you give a girl the rainbow to choose from and she still chooses pink that's just the color she prefers at the moment. Any day now she might move on to black, teal or yellow, no one knows her next move! But if I hear her talking about colors, interests, clothes or hobbies as "just for girls" or "just for boys" I will have to kindly remind her that colors do not have genders, and neither does interests and hobbies. Teaching this to her while society screams at her trying to teach her what being a girl is supposed to look like will definitely be a challenge, but one I am equipped to take on. I am very comfortable in my own shoes, and I can wear a dress and make-up one day and decide I don't even want to brush my hair the next. I can also acknowledge that a lot of my own issues when it comes to my self esteem and my body, and the need I had to look a certain way when I was younger has been shaped that way by our society's pressure on women to be a certain way which is terribly sexist and very destructive. I'm also in a loving mutual relationship with her father and he agrees with my feminist views and doesn't believe in the gender binary either. Hopefully we can give her the tools she will need to be her own person and create her own place in the world one day! So, bring it on, world!

  11. From what the daughters of friends and sisters have taught me, it does not matter which color pattern you choose to start out with. At the age of two, They will decide that they like green or orange or pink or All Things Sparkly, and you will simply obey and go with their color of choice because it makes life so much simpler. ^^

  12. I felt the very same concerns when my daughter was a baby. My husband and I tried hard to offer our little girl a little bit of everything. He's super into technology and science so we have plenty of robots and outer space stuff. I'm into nature and art so we have plenty of that around. We have all colors in our house and wardrobes. The only things we avoided were the super girly things because we figured she'd have her whole life to be bombarded with that shit.

    And you know what? My daughter is now three and she's over the top obsessed with dolls and babies and Disney princesses. She spends almost every day in a Cinderella dress. Honestly, it makes me cringe but it's just her 'thing'. I still do my best to expose her to everything else under the sun but I think I'd be doing her a disservice if I tried to control it.

  13. Growing up 6 years older than my "baby" sister – who is now with a lovely steady boyfriend – gave me an eagle eye on what my mom was doing with us. We had a lot of choices as kidlets, and if it was an overalls day, that was fine, and if it was a frilly dress day, that was great too – and we still vassilate between the two. But when we hit puberty, and discovered that we had bodies and appearances that were artistic and culturally valuable, our mother clamped down on looking girly. I got into makeup for theater – it was the only way I was allowed to have the coveted beauty that was portrayed by my favorite paintings – and the floodgates opened. My mother was terrified that we would only be seen as commodities, but her worry about what others thought taught us to worry about THAT instead, when we had started out looking at adornments as shiny colorful things that made us happy. Needless to say, more self-conciousness about the perceptions of others was tough on emotional teenagers.
    Thes days I'm as likely to reach for the combat boots as the red mary janes, and the power drill as the lipstick. Femininity and Masculinity are for the individual to express, and the clothes and products chosen should bring confidence and joy, whether it's "I wear short skirts because I'm proud of my athletic legs" or "I wear baggy jeans so I can be active and comfortable." Choice, choice, choice! With a side order of confidence that encourages respect. 🙂

  14. Thanks for writing about this. It is a topic I struggle with a lot.

    My daughter simultaneously bought into and rejected the "pink world." She is utterly convinced that there are "girl" toys and "boy" toys, clothes, accessories, etc. She wants nothing whatsoever to do with any of the "girl" stuff. Now, at 7-1/2 she is less interested in the "boy" stuff as well (specifically super heroes with which my younger son is OBSESSED) which leaves a bit of a void at gift giving time. Thankfully, she has identified a passion for drawing and writing.

    I try to instill her a positive sense of self outside of gender identity. What she wears is no big deal as long as it is clean and weather appropriate. Even so she has a very negative reaction to any clothing or a hair style with even the slightest feminine cut or style. I fear I've failed to help her be comfortable with herself. I pray this is my own angst and that she is just fine with it all but I worry about her extreme anti-girly stance.

    Just to clarify, I have no problem with her choices to dress in clothes purchased from the boy department and to have a short "boyish" hair style. My concern is with her classification of things as for boys or girls and her total rejection of all things for girls, as though rejecting her own self.

    I really appreciate the many articles exploring this subject on the site.

  15. My one year old has both trucks and necklaces and babydolls and basketballs to play with… but it's when she's wearing pink and a flower clip in her hair that strangers fuss over her and tell her what a pretty girl she is. I see her respond to that, and that's not something I can control unless I severely limit the people she has contact with. She's learning even at one year old that she gets a specific, very pleasant response if she picks "girly" things. The only thing I feel like I can do is make sure she gets the same pleasant response at home, if nowhere else, when she picks "boy" things as well, so if nothing else she knows that she's supported unconditionally at home even if it's different out in the big world.

  16. We've not generally bought our daughter anything pinky-girly, as we know there are plenty of other people who will! We don't ban it, but we just want to be sure that our daughter (who will be 5 in June) understands that she doesn't have to be limited just to pinkness and girliness, and it's easy for girls to believe that they're 'not allowed' anything else if we don't present them with other options. And that sets up an unhealthy pattern for future life – I'm not allowed to be sporty, I'm not allowed to be into science, I'm not allowed not to be interested in make up etc.

  17. Can I just add how much I LOATHE all the pro sports paraphernalia marketed to females that have turned the franchise colors into ALL PINK?? Come on. Even as grown adults we still have to deal with this crap? Gimme my team colors in a woman's cut, please and thank you.

  18. Ah I love this! I work in a residential treatment setting for kids and I see this sort of thing all the time. People push their ideas (which are normally pretty closely tied to society's) on gender roles onto the kids and it frustrates me to no end. If a girl wants to wear something with a superhero on it, it doesn't make her any less a girl. If a boy wants to play with a baby doll, he is no less a boy. I still struggle as an adult with being feminine while not fitting into society's picture of it. My struggle is more with how I am accepted by others. 'Cause dude, I love my batman t-shirt and my high tops and no one is going to change that. I also struggle with my own son and not forcing him to alienate 'girly' things simply because that is what a product is marketed for.

  19. One of my very best friends ever refused to buy her daughter anything not pink. She also taught her that girls say fluff instead of fart. When she started watching my son she was mortified that her girl migrated to the super heroes, trucks, and dinosaurs more than her own toys. She began to teach my son what girl toys and boy toys were. I calmly put a stop to that. If he wants to play with a Barbie he should be able to play with a Barbie. Unfortunately, it didn't work. He has since taken to scolding me when I say fart because that's not what girls are supposed to say. I remind him that girls and boys can say the same things because we're all people. I'm pretty much clueless on how to stop the backsliding. I want to raise a feminist man!

    PS For those wanting gender neutral clothes, our local Wal-Mart just put out a ton of shirts in all colors, including neon pink and purple, in the boys section.

  20. I was totally a tomboy who loved to play fight with the boys and hated pink, I still do, but also I loved to play with all the furniture I got for the doll house I never got and I loved to use my little kitchen and play with leaves and mud in it… all girly stuff, I think I was such a rad kid that could kick butt while cooking a lovely meal for my baby doll.

    I'm having a boy in june and I can't wait to play with him since I still like "boy stuff" and I may go crazy watching Transformers and Avengers with him; but I was just as excited when I thought he was a she, I was so happy to have a little girl to cosplay Avengers, I wanted to get her a Loki costume xD… now I just hope that my son enjoys cooking with mom 😀 because I'm about to get a nice little kitchen to play with my boy xD

  21. I've been thinking about gender roles a lot lately. We recently found out that our twins are one boy and one girl (we're 22 weeks pregnant). I think it will be easier for them to have access to both "boy" and "girl" toys this way. I hate that everything is so very pink and blue for babies. It is really difficult to find gender neutral baby stuff. When I try to bring up gender roles for kids most people look at me confused. My nieces love to play with monster trucks just like their brothers. I recently asked a friend who has just girls if her girls ever play with cars or trucks. She looked at me like I was crazy. If my kiddos don't have interest in the opposite gender toys that's fine. I just want to give them the choice to figure out what they like without imposing it on them.

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