Sexy Toys, Little Girls, and the Big Picture

I do not have a sign posted anywhere in my home saying “Barbie and Princesses Forbidden”.  They simply aren’t a part of our media diet. Not on our radar. We have dolls and we have stories that involve a princess character, but they fall into a menagerie of toys, books, and characters.  

Amelia, my five year old girl.

I like that my daughter is five years old, going on six. I cherish childhood. I don’t shelter her, I just offer her a more healthy diet of influences for her childhood. At our house, it is Bindi Irwin over Barbie. Dr. Mireya Mayor over marriage for a princess. My daughter loves science, nature, art, and the Penguins of Madagascar. This weekend she discovered Star Wars when my husband gave the kids some little action figures from his youth. It is not so much that I have forbidden things from my home, as it is more my husband and I offer different choices. My daughter sees toys and images we don’t have in our home when she plays at other people’s houses, or when she is at school. It isn’t a big deal. I do not feel this will undo my parenting. She doesn’t consider them to be the proverbial “forbidden fruit”. She simply has been raised to have different interests and influences.

There has been an on going discussion on the Pigtail Pals’ twitter and facebook pages about toys for girls that some parents feel are too sexy and aren’t allowed in the home. Everyone seems to have a different opinion. Some allow Barbie, but say no way to makeup. Others allow makeup, but say no way to Monster High and Bratz. Some moms allow Tinker Bell, but say no way to Princesses….you get the picture. Everyone has their different line of acceptable/unacceptable.

In my opinion, sexy toys undermine the woman I am trying to raise my daughter to become.

I do not find the behavior of sexually precocious children to be cute. I do not like when little girls are dressed like mini adults. I especially do not like that the toy aisles geared toward my daughter are a pink explosion carrying messages about sexiness, narrowly defined beauty, narcissism, shopping, and becoming someone’s bride.

I think girlhood is an extremely important time for our daughters, as these years will lay a foundation for the women they will grow into.

So where your line sits will be up to you, what you allow or don’t allow. Maybe you think all of it is a big deal. Maybe you think none of it is a big deal. Maybe you pick and choose your battles.

I just want you to think about this when you make your decisions:

“It’s undeniably true that girls are encouraged to sexualize themselves at early ages, and that this can harm their developing sense of self. But our cultural sense of responsibility is deeply skewed. We condition young girls to aspire to an extremely restrictive standard of beauty and sexuality from almost the day they come into the world. We surround them with sexualized images of women, and tell them that these women have special value. And then, when little girls start behaving or dressing like those beautiful, desirable, special women — when they engage in the very childlike activity of imitating their role models — we condemn the girls and their parents…” –Sady Doyle for Global Comment.

I do not ban anything. I simply choose not accept any of the following for my daughter and her girlhood.

And my daughter seems to be doing just fine.



  1. Melissa,

    What a good wrap-up of the recent round of toy outrage. Thanks once again for the clarity with which you write!


    • Wholeheartedly agree…Very well-written and will share shortly! Am in the ‘banning’ vs ‘not banning’ convo over on @SueScheff @Momtourage forum right now, and tossing out some really big hardball ‘what ifs’ so we’ll see if they get answered. (hey, I’m a media maven not a parenting expert, so gotta keep it real and toss some hardballs into the mix)

  2. Well… I don’t mean to take issue or anything, but… please don’t pat yourself on the back for being Barbie-free TOO hard. 🙂 Really, some kids are just interested in different things regardless of the way we raise them to be. My daughter was introduced to the princess phenomenon by a preschool teacher, and has loved them ever since. I suggest alternatives, we do lots of different things (she is my worm saviour, my little paleontologist, and my strong athletic girl!), but she still loves princess stuff. I had to think long and hard when it first happened about how to handle it and I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t just squash her when she was so excited about something (princess), that isn’t fair either. So I let her do her princess stuff and we do other stuff too. It hasn’t taken over our homes, lives, or anything like that.

    There are lots of different ways of doing things, but being Barbie/Princess-free is not always as easy for parents as it has been for you. I’m glad it worked out that way for you!

    • JoAnna –
      Well….I will make sure that I don’t. This post isn’t meant to be smug. It is simply to say that I didn’t limit my daughter to what was being marketed to her, and she has naturally developed other interests. She doesn’t hate princesses, she just isn’t that into it.

      If a little girl is into fashion and princesses and all things sparkly, that’s not a horrible thing. I’m asking parents to look at the BIG PICTURE of what it means to condition our daughters to sexualized images as they age through their girlhood.

    • JoAnna – you made a call to allow those things into your home. You made the grown up decision that your daughters short term excitement was on balance was more important than whatever you personally perceived the benefit of restricting access to princess culture might be.

      There is nothing ‘innate’ about princess culture. These fantasies are a relatively new phenomenon in the context of millennia of human evolution. Up until 50 or so years ago, pink was seen as a variant of red, a boys colour and too strong for little girls who were dressed in pale blue. Your daughter isn’t ‘innately’ drawn to princess culture, but I can understand why it feels overwhelming. You didn’t give into your daughters inherent nature when you chose to allow this culture into your home, you gave into advertising.

      Ultimately, your choices as a parent have no bearing upon other parents who choose to parent differently. I feel that Melissa has every right to pat herself on the back for making the conscious decision not to give into the enormous pressure to allow her daughter to submit to this constructed, gendered culture.

      I won’t be giving into sex and drugs because they feel good and get my daughter excited and I won’t be giving into this construct that is, in my view, limiting and ultimately damaging for young girls and the women they become. This is my choice. Others might see princess culture as insignificant, as having no long term implications (although I wonder how parents can stick their fingers in their ears and completely ignore cause and effect when it suits them), as being too difficult to fight or is perhaps positive. They are free to make their choices as they see fit. But I won’t come onto their blog and dismiss their parenting choices because I’ve made different ones.

  3. In relation to the above comment, I also have a daughter that is into all things sparkly and “girly” and princessy. I let her play with Barbies because she loves them. But I do set limits on which ones she can have and I do have a line where there are somethings I don’t allow her to play with at all. I’m the mom and I get to do that. But also like the commenter above, my daughter plays with other stuff and has lots of different interests.

    Melissa, I don’t think you are smug at all. That’s one of the reasons I like to read your blog and participate in the communities you are building. I think you provide a lot of great information that let’s me consider some options I may not think about otherwise. I love that you educate parents and raise awareness on some really important issues.

    We do not parent all the same. All of our kids are not the same. That does not make one right and one wrong or one better and one worse. It just makes us different.

  4. Great post, Melissa. You know, if I am to be completely honest, every once in a while I wish my daughter (Melissa) was more interested in sparkles, dress-up, and dancing around the house to girl-power songs simply because I am! I don’t limit her choices (except for the blatantly sexualized stuff) and strongly encourage her to make her own decisions about products and play with no regard for what gender they are marketed to. As a result, I feel like raising this child is a beautiful process of continually getting to know her, the real her. And she is different than me. When I was a child, I rejected dolls, but I LOVED sparkles and dance, and I certainly wouldn’t go near a worm. But my daughter is bored with my attempts to teach her dance moves and instead wants to dig in the dirt for slimy creatures (entomologist in the making?)

    So for her birthday, bug-wrangler toys were the biggest hit and with spring arriving my house is like a biology lab of critters in jars and seedlings sprouting in window sills. And to satisfy my silliness, I host sleep-overs with her girlfriend who happens to LOVE dressing up in sparkles and dancing with me! Ha! Motherhood (and childhood) without gender limits is pure joy.

  5. Funny your blog showed up today for me.. was just thinking of someway I could get the girl empowering message across in my neck of the woods.
    I have two girl, 14 and 7. My 14 yr old.. was a crazy barbie, pink, frilly,pretty in pink ribbons and bows girl. I encouraged her love of these things although it went against my grain.. totally jock here.. hardly wear dresses. but still love the dressing up too!! We acted out stories with these pretty unrealistic creatures… stories that didnt end up with the “damsel in ditress”. Now.. my “little princess” is a straight A, involved in all aspects of school, tree hugger, lover of Christ, rugby panted, highly moralistic treasure and I couldnt be more proud. And wouldnt ya know it.. my 7 year old is a pretty in pink carbon copy. Will she turn out the same?.. God only knows. But what I feel is the BIG PICTURE is that know matter what our children come across we as parents have given them the tools to rise above crap and craziness. Temptation is a staple.. so how we teach our children to deal with them is the KEY! Just like boys whom are bombarded with voilent dark scary toys. Seems we are dooming our children from the get go. So.. “teach your children well”…loved your blog.. think it is inspiring myself to collect my thoughts and write a blog as well!! Cheers!!

  6. I think part of the point is that being interested in barbie or princesses or sparkles or glitter can be only a part of being girly! It isn’t all or nothing. It is balance. Wear that princess dress and dig in the mud! I think it is more about filtering the harmful messages than it is about the specific toy. (Although I admit, if Bratz are around when my daughter reaches that age of interest…)

    If you are capable of countering a negative image of a toy and still play with it that is fine.

    Right now I am struggling with the gun and violence issue with my almost 5 year old son, an interest he certainly did not pick up at home. I have realized that I can’t squelch the impulse but I sure as heck can try to limit it’s vehemence and impact!

    Developmentally, it is a challenge at the ages of 4 to 6 where children are just beginning to construct their gender identities. Because they are such concrete thinkers they do it in terms of dolls and guns and hair length. And also because we all don’t wear our vaginas and penises on the outside of our clothes (not to say that that is all it takes to determine gender identity, but they are at a concrete what do I see level of development).

    Just the meaningless two cents of a mom whose daughter inexplicably developed an instant love for dolls at one year even though I hadn’t ever purchased one!

    • Jenny –
      We really love Groovy Girls at our house, and mom-made/handmade Sophie and Lili. Both are soft dolls that look like little girls. And the Groovy Girls sparkle 🙂 I’m not anti-girly. I’m anti-sexualization.

      Interesting comment about the gun play. That will be a BIG issue in our house. I had two very scary incidences with guns as a small child. The most traumatizing was the teenage brother of a playmate holding us hostage in the corner of her bedroom with a hunting rifle pointed at our faces saying how much he hated my f*cking guts. I remember putting my body if front of hers, and sitting there, eight years old, staring him down. I don’t think guns are play things.

      But my son is a newly turned three years old, and he enjoys launching javelin-like things at people, dogs, my tulips, my car….it is biological, I swear. And he just got turned onto Star Wars action figures from the 70’s (my husbands), and he is walking around the house “pew pew pew-ing” everyone with his lasers. I laid down the law pretty quick that we don’t shoot people or animals (or my freaking tulips) and that he can take target practice on trees or fences. The kids are not allowed to shoot/spear/fight each other, but they may fight together against an imaginary evil. Perfect parenting? I dunno. But in our violence-loving culture, I don’t know how else to get around it.

      • OOOH I will have to check out groovy girls! Thank you. I was definitely agreeing with you that you aren’t anti-girly. I think you are very much like me… you want your daughter to embrace her own definition of female! Like I said, dig in mud while in a princess dress.

        My daughter just hugs and kisses baby dolls, which is developmentally appropriate and puts her baby in the stroller/walker. In my heart of hearts, I wish she had not received this stroller for a gift– no one gave my son one, if they had I wouldn’t have felt so affronted — but as a walker it works best for her needs, which are my paramount concern. Of course it was a gift from my mother in law, because she doesn’t understand me and my position on such silly things as stereotypes.

        I am not anti-girly at all, either. I cried when I had no dresses to wear and I put my daughter in a dress every chance I get. 🙂 I was definitely agreeing with you! It is about balance and choices in this very challenging world.

        There is nothing “athletic” about me and my daughter has some significant physical developmental delays. (Thus me not throwing out/giving away the stroller… the other walkers we have move too fast for her.)

        When the early intervention coordinator asked me what my goals were for my daughter I said, “look, two nerds do not breed an olympian. I am realistic. I want my daughter at a minimum to be able to have enough confidence in her physical skills to try and pursue anything she wants. I don’t want her to suffer socially because she can’t keep up with the middle of the pack. I want her to not hate physical activity so much out of frustration that she never embraces something to the detriment of her physical and mental health. While I am fine if she is the short asthmatic president of the chess club, middle school and high school might be tough for her if that is “all” she ever is! I want her to have options.”

        Those guns and lasers are SO biological! ARGH! Our rule is simple… not people, not animals. I want my son to be the same as my daughter – a person with options, a person I am proud of, a person who is loving, kind, sensitive, gentle, fair, generous, strong, hardworking, educated, intelligent and filled with good humor. I don’t want too much! 😉

        I am very very sorry (those words are inadequate) about your gun experience. My grandfather was a farmer, so I have been exposed to guns. I think my problem with guns/lasers/swords etc is that the culture of violence does not teach about the consequences of violence nor does it address the fundamental value of life. Oh dear… preachy and political. I will stop here. 🙂

  7. What an excellent post. I could have written it myself. Well, had I the talent you obviously have. 🙂 Thanks for your fantastic blog, and for always reminding me why I make so many of the choices I make in regards to my girls.

  8. I find these comments really interesting. It’s quite a firestorm, isn’t it? As mothers, it’s very, very hard to juggle all these issues and make the right decisions for our kids, day after day. Because let’s not forget – while protecting their youth and body image and self esteem are of critical importance to girls – there’s a lot of other balls to juggle, too. Getting exercise, stranger danger, daycare, healthy eating, vaccines…the parenting decisions are coming at us faster than we can make them sometimes. Add to that the innate desire to protect our own choices, and more often than not you’ve plunked yourself down in the judge and jury seat on someone else’s parenting.

    I agree with a little bit of all that has been said. I am glad to hear from moms like Melissa, because her passion, and more important, accurate information, helps me think more critically about choices for my daughter. But like JoAnna, my daughter was introduced to princesses quite by accident, and it was quite curious to watch her decide that she needed dresses and necklaces at 18 months. I hated the pink and purple plastic ‘jewelry’ that was available, so I started ordering beads on line, scouring craft stores, and creating my own wardrobe of brightly colored, wooden, safe necklaces for her. She couldn’t even talk, but she would NOT leave the house without two or more necklaces. I’m not going to squash that in her, or make her think that there is something ‘bad’ about wanting to decorate herself. She outgrew it on her own and moved on to other things. (And I have 10,000 beads left.)

    *However*, it was a slippery slope to owning every Disney movie you can think of, and a stable of dress up clothes to go with it. And pretty soon I found myself in a tight spot that I didn’t really support. So constantly talking about this stuff, and thinking, and debating, and learning is helping us (hopefully) become better parents. Or maybe just more confident parents. It’s helping me move away from things that I now realize lead down roads I won’t support. It’s helping me to clarify my own values.

    Like Jennifer, I pick and choose. Yes, she likes princesses. At this age, her game mostly consists of running around in a dress, pretending to be a fairy (poof! you’re a frog!), then a kitty, then a gymnast. I’m not going to make a big deal about the princess attire. Like the necklaces, she’s showing signs of moving on from them. More important to me are conversations about what she can do (anything!), who she can love (anyone!) and where she can go (anywhere!). If she wants to wear a glittery pink dress on the journey, whatever. But I do have limits, and that pink dress will not involve a low cut neckline, the word “juicy” on the butt, high heels, or whatever else I deem inappropriate for her age.

    I just encourage all of us to keep talking, keep thinking, and keep an open mind. We will never all parent the same way. But we can learn from one another and work towards a world in which our girls can grow up without stereotype, discrimination, and sexualization. Yay, moms!

  9. Melissa, as always, thanks for a well-thought-out and grounded approach. The most valuable piece of information that anyone can glean is that we all need to be AWARE…aware of the messages, aware of the effect of images on our childen, aware of how big industry exploits our children in the name of the almighty buck.

    So, whether Barbies, sparkles, and a profsion of pink are in your home, or a “Princess” bike sits in your driveway…parents play a HUGE role in how their children define themselves. Not every child that adores Barbie will end up limiting herself to a narrowly prescribed viewpoint or have body image issues. Still, many will. And that my friend, is why you MUST keep doing what you do! You are so instrumental in helping parents find a balance and helping them explore what has become socially indoctrinated ways of raising our girls. You raise awareness, and that is a very good thing!

    For the record, I played Barbies with my sister for HOURS on END throughout my childhood…and then became a child/adolescent therapist, with a thematic in Women’s Studies/Feminism…and my DD bears, as her middle name, one of my fave feminist writer’s names…and yes, it is a pretty, sparkly name! I love the idea of raising our daughters and our sons with no limits. Melissa, you help people do that. I have NEVER experienced you as someone who has judged what others do in their homes. You just put out there another way of looking at things and being “aware”, that is so needed.

    Don’t stop doing what you do!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

  10. BTW, I feel compelled to add this disclaimer. After I walked away from my computer, I got to thinking: My experiences are in no way indicative of how somebody else may experiece Barbie, as an example. I grew up in a very different time. I was NOT bombarded with sexualized images of young girls at every turn of the corner, and that makes today’s world a totally different place for our girls. In the days when I played with Barbie, I didn’t see commercial after commercial exploiting girls and placing expectations upon them. THAT creates several psychological land-mines for our daughters that simply did not exist for many of us during our growing up years. I want to be clear that it is parental involvement, discussion and protection that can make all the difference. One plastic doll cannot define our girls in and of itself. It is a constellation of situations and media bombardment, combined with such playthings which come to bear on our daugters’ image of themselves. Girls of today are hard-hit from all angles and we must be cognizant of that.

    The take-home message, as always, is: Buyer Beware! Even more than that: Parent Beware!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

  11. This is an important article that will open eyes regarding gender roles and preferences. I like the fact, Melissa, that you mention you don’t restrict your daughters exposure so they won’t get the forbidden fruit syndrome.

  12. Melissa, I love your comment crew; all fired up, and erudite to boot.

    @Wendy Young agree wholeheartedly with your context line about sexualization today in ‘that was then this is now’ perspective and ‘constellation of situations” prose…I see a galaxy of truth in that statement.

    The “Beware” warnings? I say add an a and put a space in and we’re good to go from a media literacy standpoint (Be Aware) 😉

  13. I just found your blog today I think through Shaping Youth. I love it and I will be following. This post reminds me of a Dar Williams song – you may know it already but if you don’t I think you will really love it:

    She even has a great intro. Definitely worth a listen as I think it jives with everything you are saying.

    • Erica –
      Hello! Thanks so much for leaving the link to that song, I love it. So glad you enjoy the blog, I look forward to chatting with you more 🙂

  14. Melissa,

    I saw this blog post on Twitter (by Michele Borba, if I remember correctly) and thought it was dead-on and well written. I have two girls, ages 7 and 21 months. We’ve just started noticing our toddler doing things like stirring in bowls (she watched my husband and older daughter cooking this weekend) and this afternoon, she walked around in my Derby hat and a pair of my sandals.

    My older daughter has Barbie dolls, and she got a Bratz doll last year for her birthday. She played with them for, oh, two weeks or so. She dressed them up and princesses married princes, but then they went into a box and under the bed. She lost interest that quickly (that, and her baby sister keeps going after the small, chokeable parts, so she seldom has time to get all her dolls out). Given a choice, she’d rather be outside riding her scooter or bike, playing ball with a friend or making mud confections.

    Our message to her is, She can play with whatever she wants, but we watch and we listen to how she’s playing to make sure it’s appropriate. She’s not that much into TV, either, so she doesn’t get a lot of exposure to the sexualized images there. We’d rather she be outside, and we’ve taken her love of playing in the dirt and fairies and let her design her own fairy garden. She’s also taken over a product line in my business. She’s getting so much exposure to all that women can be – ministers, business owners, moms, wives, dirt-lovers, glamour queens – that there’s little room for women as shallow, sexualized creatures.

  15. My daughter (now 17) is hunting a job worthy of buying her the Harley she wants… she never played with Barbie, but I have to admit, she did have a Disney “princess” doll… Mulan… and her Mulan kicked major butt…

    No tink
    No “real” princesses…
    Strong woman


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