Pretty in Pink at Costco: A Set of Princesses, A Bookish Boy, and An Invisible

Image from clker.com, Rolera LLC

A Guest Post by Lori Day:

I never want to be accused of considering Costco a microcosm of the real world because I’d like to have less despair than that, but maybe there is something to be gained by cautiously extrapolating from that surreal environment to something essentially true about the culture we live in.

One day, in order to take a break from the crowds of people forming around the free food samples and the incredibly long lines snaking through the electronics aisle, I decided to indulge in a slice of cheese pizza and a diet Coke at the snack area. I sat at a table at the back, and soon noticed that there were three tables occupied by mothers with two or three daughters each. There were no dads and no sons on this particular day.

 When you eat lunch alone, it’s amazing what you see and hear and notice about your fellow human beings who do not know you are quietly people-watching them.  The first thing I observed was the way the girls were looking at each other. The mothers had not yet acknowledged each other, but the daughters were making friendly cross-table eye contact. Soon, the mothers noticed that the girls were around the same age and were interested in each other, and everyone exchanged pleasantries and it was really nice, and very different than the usual vibe of competitive drag racing with shopping carts that we had all just survived. I find even basic human decency moving when I encounter it at Costco.

I got up to get some extra napkins, and when I returned all of the mothers and daughters were engaged with each other. You know what? That was really cool. I was totally smiling. Then I suddenly noticed something that for no explicable reason (other than complete desensitization) I had previously failed to notice…that all eight girls of these three mothers were dressed head-to-toe in pink. I don’t mean that some of them had on jeans and a pink sweatshirt. Or a pink top and off-white skirt. I mean what I said—literally every girl wore no item of clothing that was not light pink, medium pink, dark pink, fuchsia or magenta, in some combination, with zero items of clothing in any other shade or hue. (Not on a hit-and-run anti-pink rant here, just articulating the phenomenal amount of that color that was present.)

Then, I realized what the mothers and daughters were all talking about…who was pretty, who looked “just like a princess,” who had the most beautiful hair, whose fingernail polish was the most gorgeous shade of pink, whose pink hair accessories were the loveliest, whose sparkly pink shoes were fanciest and like you’d wear to a ball, etc.

Honestly, this went on for longer than one could possibly imagine.  I had long since finished my meal and remained sitting there, sipping my soda, transfixed. Mothers were almost competing to out-compliment the beauty of each other’s girls. This is sweet and caring, isn’t it? Yes, for sure, but it is something else as well, and it became something else very quickly.

The youngest of all the girls, perhaps three or four, stood up. She was wearing a pink tulle skirt, like a tutu, but longer and able to flow and twirl. She smiled coyly at one of the other mothers, twirled around a few times holding the hem of her skirt, and then posed. I thought she was going to courtesy, but instead she put her hand n her hip and pushed her pelvis forward…waiting. Her own mother beamed as one of the other mothers exclaimed, “My, aren’t you the belle of the ball?”

Soon, all of the girls—that is, except one—got up and casually wandered between the tables, visiting each other, showing off their pink dresses and the Disney costumes a couple of them had worn that day, since Disney costumes are now just regular attire. They were sashaying, flipping their hair, pretending they were models, striking poses, giggling, and drinking in all of the mirth and effusive praise of the mothers, who were utterly delighted by the whole show. Costco’s warehouse lunch area had been transformed into a cement-floored catwalk for an impromptu Toddlers & Tiaras audition. The girls were having a wonderful time.

Except one. This girl was around seven or eight, and of a quieter, more introverted disposition. She had a book and was reading. I could not see the title, but it was fairly thick, and the girl seemed like she was very absorbed in it and probably a pretty good reader. She glanced up repeatedly from her book to watch the other girls—some older, some younger, one her sister—strutting, preening, and lapping up every “How beautiful!” Slowly, she pushed her book to the edge of the table where she was sitting and looked around. No one noticed. She whispered something to her mother, and her mother whispered something back.

Eventually, the girl slid the book back across her table, away from where the other girls were roaming the aisles between the tables. Now here’s where I wished I had a video camera. I will not have the words to describe this girl’s face. Crestfallen? Glum? Hurt? None of these work. Maybe…invisible. She looked like she felt invisible. She looked down at her clothes and up at the clothes of the other girls and back down at her own again. They were pink but not frilly. I realized they were what I would call play clothes, not dress-up clothes. She kept looking at the other girls getting all the attention with their swirling and twirling, knowing her own clothes would not do that.

She was ignored by all of the other girls and other mothers except her own. Apparently, her lack of proper attention to her own femininity was a tragedy for everyone else — innocent bystanders were being robbed in broad daylight of their God-given right to observe her in pink tulle, primping and sashaying in some big-box fashion show of this decade’s new essential girlwear.

I wanted to hug that girl, who is so much like my own daughter, and like I was as a child, and say, “Wow, that’s quite a book you’ve got there! What are you reading?”

Just at that moment the girl’s father came over, along with a boy who was clearly her brother. The boy had a Harry Potter book under his arm—that much was obvious. The father said to his wife, “I got a good spot out front. Are you ready to go?” The mother nodded and started to clean up the paper plates and soda cups on the table. The girl with the book got up and walked towards her dad. One of the other mothers said to her brother, “Wow, you’re a smart boy reading Harry Potter!”

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A big thank you to Lori Day for sharing her insightful experience with the Redefine Girly blog.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2!

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Lori Day

 

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Concord, MA, having worked previously in the field of education for over 25 years in public schools, private schools, and at the college level. She writes and blogs about parenting, education, children, gender, media, and pop culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

 

Comments

  1. That literally made my stomach hurt.

  2. Oh. Argh. I, too, was that bookish little girl. You can bet I am staying tuned in for part 2 of this story!

  3. That little girl with the book would have been me (except that my play clothes, even as a child, were rarely pink). I never fit in with the other girls in their dresses and overly-quick “maturity” and sexuality-play. Now I watch my daughter jut out her hip when she poses for pictures, and while on the one hand she looks so happy and adorable, on the other hand, I wish she hadn’t picked up on those poses yet. The other day she told me she loved her orange DreamWorks shirt, both because her uncle (who works there) gave it to her, and because it’s orange. Now I’m on a hunt to find her more orange shirts, happy to support her quest to wear colors besides pink. And when she’s older, she will be the SMART GIRL reading my Harry Potter books.

  4. it literally made my stomach hurt as well. and i swear i got teary-eyed.

  5. Wow. I used to make an awful lot of judgments in my head about women and girls. Only after reading women like you, Lori, and others, have I realized how difficult it is for redefined girls ;) to feel noticed and valued. My husband and I have gone out of our way to praise our boys for being compassionate and kind (feminine traits?). I never realized how much harder it is for girls to find people to praise them for being imaginative and smart.

    • Kelly, I LOVE hearing that parents apply the same sort of lens to the gender-policing of boys! Boys are also harmed by the separate toy aisles and pink/blue color coding. They are discouraged from playing with anything construed as girly, and as they grow up, they can have very stereotyped views of girls and what girls can do. Even worse, they begin to notice and value sexiness, hotness, and beauty in girls above all else. And don’t get me started on what happens once they have access to free internet porn and what is going on now in the world of teenagers. I will save those types of guest blogs for when you are all raising teens!

  6. I have witnessed similar situations. I have been a child care provider for almost 20 yrs and parents ignore so much sweet and genuine unique beauty to be consumed by another child who reflects things they value.
    I watched a mother repeatedly compliment another child on a pretty outfit all the while their own child is frantically trying to get their attention to show off their artwork. The look on their kids face is such hurt and betrayal. Kids quickly learn what we value and will often judge their own value based on that which gets parents attention and praise.

    • Tonya, why do you think there are a lot of parents out there who *don’t* notice this? I’ll be honest. I feel that having worked in schools with large numbers of kids I had to watch closely all the time gave me some sort of 6th sense, as perhaps you have working in daycare. Everywhere I go in public, it’s like my antennae are wiggling and I just “see” this stuff which I might otherwise miss. I think that for any parent, once you know what to look for, you start seeing it everywhere. And that seems like the first step to not being fooled by marketing. Thoughts?

  7. What’s so sad is that the scene described is so NORMAL in our society…to give attention to the girls that are covered in pink sparkles and pose like supermodels, or to the boy with the thick book. But the one person who doesn’t fit into either of those groups just becomes invisible. Reading this makes me SO PROUD of my 10-year-old daughter who wants to try everything … tae kwon do, art, golf, tumbling, tap dance, Destination Imagination, flying helicopters, playing the guitar … while commenting on the horrible clothing choices in the girls’ departments of our local stores. We battle the society norm every time we encourage imagination, intelligence, respect, and self worth with our daughters and sons. And each time I read a story like this one, I’m more determined to keep up the battle.

  8. I love this story and your observations at Costco, of all places! Next time you have to talk to her! What you wanted to say was perfect! And I think the impact of that coming from a stranger will resonate in a way that a parent saying it won’t. I once witnessed a mother screaming at and embarrassing her daughter (of about 13) at a public pool. She was clearly just having a bad day, but anything that sort of sad, walking on eggshells girl did was setting her off. At a moment later when I saw that her mom wasn’t watching, I swam over to her with my little girl and just quietly said “you know, sometimes when moms yell, it’s not because of you or anything you did. It’s just that they are having a bad day. Don’t worry about it too much.” She said nothing back, but her face & demeanor changed for the entire rest of the time we were at the pool.

    • Shael, I’ve thought many times about how I made my decision about whether or not to talk to her. I had decided at the end to do so, but by then the father had arrived, the comment was made to the brother, I was in shock, and the family left!! But before that, I honestly felt it would be best for me to remain unnoticed and let it play out. When I was a kid watching Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” I used to be so upset at Marlin Perkins for letting those lions capture those gazelles, and my parents would explain that the show was about nature, and that if Marlin or anyone interfered, it would prevent us from knowing how the natural world really works. At COSTCO, my role was observer and reporter. I feel more has been gained by not changing the scene by my presence and writing up my story than had I changed the outcome. What I wish I could have done was praise the girl with the book as lunch was ending, but the way things transpired at the end, sadly I did not manage it!

    • Oh, and I love your own personal story. Good for you! I have done things like that before too. I will be sure from now on I do more than just observe. I think we all have enough “data” at this point!

  9. I felt like I’d swallowed a rock when I read about the “invisible” girl. It’s hard not to be distracted by the “shiny” girly things, but that scene plays out horribly in my mind. We get so caught up in how cute it is when kids act or dress grown-up that we forget they have to be kids, too. Then, I was not what you’d call a girly-girl. Perhaps a little too serious for my age and “bookish” to fit in with my feminine peers and not interested enough in athletics to get along with the tom-boys. Expecting a baby girl any day now, I hope to raise a thoughtful, well-rounded girl. To see her (or any kid) left out of praise and attentino for not participating in such a display of super-feminity or super-masculinity would make me sick.

  10. The sexism in our society is disgusting. Girls are treated different than boys, toys are marketed differently, etc. etc. As a mother of two daughters I want nothing more than to raise independent, intelligent strong-minded girls. At ages 2 1/2 and 5 1/4 I am succeeding. They are all these things. However… they also LOVE the color pink. My 5 year old went from a girl who loves Thomas the Train to someone who loves things that are pink and with “flair” almost over night. I don’t believe it is because of any marketing or her desire to “fit in”. She is unique and flamboyant and puts together elaborate outfits to showcase her style. She doesn’t get any of this from me or her father. In fact, she regularly asks me to “dress up” more and put on high heels, makeup and fancy dresses. But… Let’s not forget that craving a desire to look feminine, and feel beautiful and fancy should not be seen as an either/or alternative to being intelligent, book-smart or even gender “neutral”.

  11. I too was the bookish kid (but with zero pink) and this didn’t make my stomach hurt because I always wanted to be left alone to read, to observe, to feel superior because I wasn’t like that. Okay, the feeling superior part wasn’t quite formed yet, but I definitely felt glad that I wasn’t the pink butterfly my sister was. Even if someone had just passed by and said, “Hey, that’s a great book!” I probably would have been a shy, croaking mess. I don’t know – maybe the Costco girl felt the way that’s described, and maybe not. Maybe she wished for more frills, and maybe she was double-checking that they weren’t frills.

    Now, my daughter (and sometimes my son) enjoys dressing up as Cinderella (yay! it’s blue, not pink!) and twirling when she has a dress on. She asks me “Am I a princess?” and I answer some version of “Yes, what adventure will you have today?” or some other push into less conventional princessdom. Is that fair? Isn’t that the same as steering her towards the preening if it’s what she wants to do?

    I don’t know. This is a great post for exploring the issue though – and I think that’s what needs to happen more. Not just accept certain “types” but acknowledge the existence and validity of each type. Whether we like pink or not.

    • Ooh, good points. My daughter (10) is even more bookish than I was at her age (and that’s saying something!). She’s read all the Harry Potter books more times than the rest of the family put together, and we always have to tell her to put her book down and eat her dinner! She gets upset that her peers look down on her for not being dressed in the latest ridiculous fashions, but it’s more an upset that *they* want her to do something she thinks is pointless, not an upset that *she* isn’t good enough. She loves sparkly shoes and fabulous dresses, but she can see the difference between looking beautiful and looking like a plaything.

      Who doesn’t want to look their best? You’re right, this isn’t a clear-cut issue; some girls just love pink. Heck, my 6yo son’s favourite colour is pink (cue all sorts of extra tiresome bullying from his peers).

      But, let’s hear it for the book-lovers! My daughter would jump at the chance to go out in a gorgeous frock, but you can bet your bottom dollar she’d need a matching bag big enough for her book :)

  12. That was me, but I don’t think I ever saw anything as extreme! I hope the wee girl just gets on and enjoys her reading – soon enough she’ll realise (hopefully) that she doesn’t have to prance about and strut, even if all the girls around her are, and actually, her reading will stand her in much better stead for the future.

    A really interesting article, thanks.

  13. Corrie Covell says:

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you for sharing–I can’t wait to read Part 2.

  14. Catherine says:

    That story is kinda heartbreaking.

    Growing up in the 90s I was always the smart one and my sister was always the social one. My parents never defined us as such, but relatives (especially older ones) tended to comment on my reading and her outgoing-ness. Pretty rarely got mentioned, as I recall anyway – I might have been reading at the time.
    My parents very much valued education and as a teen I discovered my sister resented my designation as the smart one because she felt people viewed her as stupid by comparison. I don’t think this was true, and in my turn I resent her for so easily making friends and getting on with people.
    I think it’s easy to define yourself by others (especially siblings) when growing up. I just hope that reading girl is able to get some positive messages at home.

  15. I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter and my ex-husband went looking for baby clothes. He told the clerk that’s what he wanted and the clerk said “boy or girl?” He said, “What difference does it make? It’s a BABY!” He found out that day how incredibly sexist clothing is in this country. I did my best to clothe my daughter in “play clothes” through most of her childhood. (She’s now 12.) I also did my best to tone down the “you’re so PRETTY!” talk and get people to notice other cool stuff about her. I guess you could note my success by the fact that she was frequently mistaken for a boy.

    All that changed when she started pre-school, though, and many of the other girls spent as much time as possible in pink dresses. The love of pink happened OVERNIGHT. In my daughter’s case, I think it was just because she wanted to fit in with all the other girls. Their concerns became her concerns. She went through the princess phase. Then somewhere around 2nd grade, she started to notice the girly stuff, too, and did a total rebellion. Pink was out. She utterly refused to wear anything pink for several years. Soon after that she started reading Harry Potter books and went through them one after the other.

    Now I have a son who wants long hair and likes his pink shirt. He was recently mistaken for a girl. When all is said and done I just want my kids to be who they are without worrying about whether or not they fit all this gender stereotyping crap. Maybe I’m doing something right.

    • You’re doing plenty right! You gave me an idea. One day I will write a post about the preschool years, because I’ve noticed that parents’ eyes really get opened once their child reaches this age and goes to school and is influenced by peers. Gender identity in preschool is pretty concrete and rigid, and kids this young can be the most extreme among the gender police! Parents who say their children are doing just fine, and that their parenting will take care of it, bump into a huge challenge once their child leaves the nest and spends significant time among other kids who have very strong opinions about what is for girls and what is for boys–and kids naturally want to fit in. Parents often say, “Wow, what happened? Where did THIS come from?” when kids start going out into the world. It is especially true when they are teenagers. I once read a great quote (and can’t remember the attribution): “Marketing is the most important parent in the room.” It is not that bleak, but parents often have no idea what is waiting for their child out in the world where they have decreasing input and supervision.

  16. Ugh.

    I was that little girl, too. Definitely tuning in for the second part.

  17. That was absolutely crushing to read that through to the ending. I’m sitting here, near tears feeling like I’ve been kicked in the solar plexus. Why? Because I was that little girl a long, long time ago. My heart bleeds for her. I want to get right down on her level and tell her how impressed I am by the fact that she likes to read. I want to ask her what her favorite part of the book is. Ugh. Poor girl.

  18. Folks, thank you for all of these comments. I am sorry the piece was so painful. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and like I have six eyes and ten bleeding hearts because I see stuff like this all the time, and I can’t un-see it. Once you notice it, it IS painful, because it is everywhere. And the really hard part for me is to be constantly reminded of how relatively solitary my views are, because there are always parents who push back and say, “Why is this such a big deal?” or “What is wrong with this?” It can feel very isolating and disillusioning when what to me is so obvious, to others is invisible. Every single one of you who is letting this into your heart, despite how hard that is to do, are now going to be able to see this phenomenon more often on your own, and that may be hard for you. But you are also positioned to be part of the solution and to raise your children in healthy ways, and help be that village for other parents willing to let you. Melissa does an amazing job here at Pigtail Pals, and we are all lucky for her guidance. I have had a long career in education and I spend an awful lot of time these days writing about parenting and education, and I’ve got to say, all of you are one of the BEST Facebook groups I have ever encountered. It is really a pleasure being part of this community and helping you all in any way that I can. You all seem like GREAT parents…thoughtful, intelligent and engaged. Cheers!

  19. A reader sent me over here — I am sad about what you saw and agree the emphasis on women’s looks is getting out of control again. Here’s my post: http://surrenderdorothy.typepad.com/surrender_dorothy/2012/01/donts-for-wives-and-other-things-people-used-to-and-still-do-think-about-women.html

    • Hi Rita!
      Post-feminist society, my ass. Especially the part you mentioned about the half-naked female entertainers at the grocery check-out, like one more grab-and-go piece of meat before you leave the market. Keep your pants on, Girls, and let your talent carry you.

  20. i was a SMART GIRL with my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys (one of my favorite books was a huge thick book with the first three Hardy Boys stories…I read it to pieces) and Harry Potter books, in the frilliest blue clothes I could find, playing with my Barbies who frequently found themselves on a deserted island after a shipwreck and made their own raft to get away, or went bungee jumping from my bunkbed with the help of a rubber band.
    Right now I am a nearly 20 year old SMART GIRL who got a 32 on my ACT the first time I took it, without any fancy test prep program, after being out of school for a full year. I have a pair of jeans that are light blue, sky blue, that I love, and two Harry Potter shirts, one of which has writing in German and is therefore wonderful (I was born in Germany when my parents met there during Operation Desert Storm. No dual citizenship for me). Still don’t like pink. I cut very simple tunics for my Polly Pocket dolls from fabric I bought at the Walmart scrap counter, and I knit scarves, or anything else that doesn’t need a pattern or circular needles.

    I think it helped that i was an outcast from childhood on, so it’s easier to not have to fit in. I had the attitude from a young age of “so they don’t want to be friends with me? Fine. I’ll make my own friends.” I love going through my old writing notebooks from those days. My fictional characters were so much more interesting than the real-life people.

  21. Where did the whole “pink for girls, blue for boys” thing come from anyway?

    The saddest thing about your story,Lori, is that we should WANT our kids to be proud of their individuality and uniqueness instead of feel embarressed by it as this girl did. We should ENCOURAGE our children to discover whatever it is that excites and inspires them and support where these interests take them..instead of trying to manipulate them towards our own.

    It’s funny, but for some reason, this morning I was thinking about my sons and how when they were younger, they had a toy kitchen set that they played with ALL the time and not just any kitchen set, but a DORA the Explorer Kitchen set. I didn’t even think about the whole “Girl vs Boy” toy argument at the time and either did they. Thank goodness. They just played. A few years later, my older son (I think he was 11 at the time) wanted to choose his own outfit to a wedding we were going to and he chose a pair of jeans, running shoes and a PINK shirt with a navy blazer. He looked awesome and knew it. I love that my boys don’t seem to be affected by gender stereotypes..and I’m really hoping this lasts.

    I think it helps that they’re surrounded by some pretty amazing girls and women too.
    My sons train and compete very seriously in Martial Arts (my older son is reigning Canadian National Champion in Taekwondo)and a lot of their teammates are incredible girls who definitely Redefine Girly!

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