Gender Inclusive Photos for Youth Programming: Appearances Matter

I received an email from the director of a youth programs center asking to use photos of my children playing sports in their marketing materials. I declined for numerous reasons, the main one being that I am unfamiliar with their program and only endorse products/media I have closely vetted.

That said, I decided to take the opportunity to offer some unsolicited advice:

I would like to offer a bit of advice from a media literacy/marketing perspective — your link as it is now shows girls doing ballet and boys engaged in chess, science, and reading. That would not go over well with my community of 20,000+ parents who are very vocal in their desire for a gender equal childhood for their (all) children. One place I use for awesome stock photos is yadda yadda yadda….. Each image is a dollar and has a standard license for royalty free use. When I typed in “kids playing chess” I found several images that showed a boy and girl playing chess together. Same if I do “boy and girl ballet”. By making each of your course offerings very clearly open to both boys and girls you instantly double your market. While many parents are actively fighting the gender stereotypes presented to children, others may still be thinking and operating in a very binary system and would never have considered chess for their daughter had the suggestion not been inconspicuously put there by the photo. That’s how marketing works, right? Suggest to the consumer they need/want what they didn’t know they needed/wanted. 

The push for girls and STEM is huge among parents right now, and ballet training can be incredibly beneficial to boys who love dance/music/movement, but also for boys who long to be amazing football players (aka Lynn Swann’s amazing sideline foot work).  Kids’ interests in activities are sparked by all kinds of things, and a child looking over a brochure or website might see a boy doing ballet and think, “Hey that looks awesome, I want to try that!” Kids also love having a friend in the class, so now you have two enrollment spots filled by two boys doing ballet or a brother/sister combo signed up for chess. It just seems like good business to widen the market for potential clients, especially as so many community programs (summer programs in particular) are overly and unnecessarily gendered. Your course descriptions are wonderfully non-gendered and I’d love to see photos that mirror that kind of gender inclusiveness. 

I think you might have a lot of luck using the site I mentioned for images that best represent the quality youth programming your organization seems to offer. 

Thanks much, 


Representations of gender matter, whether it is youth programming brochures and websites to the instructions for board games. What is familiar to us becomes our norm, and when we are speaking of gender this usually means girls and their abilities and contributions are minimized or left out altogether. Even when this is done without intent (as is often the case), the message lingers and still works to shape young minds and reinforce dated stereotypes in older minds.

I’m pleased to report I had an immediate response to my email from the program director that assured he and his staff do give consideration to gender representations in their materials and had had trouble finding better photos that demonstrated this. Hopefully they’ll have better luck with the site I referred them to. The director also said they have an equal number of girls as boys registered for their upcoming chess class – kudos to those parents who don’t limit their daughters to ballet, cheer, and princess camps! Our kids thrive the most when we allow them the space to show us how Full of Awesome they really are, in all of their unique and special ways.

Moral of the story: Use your voice. It is important to call out the folks who are getting it wrong and perpetuating gender stereotypes in childhood. But it is just as important to give praise to the folks who are trying to do better and who are getting it right.

Dance is a beautiful part of being human. Humans are comprised of girls AND boys.

Dance is a beautiful part of being human. Humans are comprised of girls AND boys.


That’s more like. Both girls and boys can be master chess players.

The Words We Choose Matter

Last night at my son’s basketball practice I was chatting with his best friend’s mom while we watched the boys play. My daughter sat in between us playing Minecraft. The other mom and I were commenting on how good one of the boys on the team is — I talking about a first grader hitting three point shots. His skills, follow through after a shot, all of it – he is crazy good. Either he watches a ton of pro ball and is adept at mimicking their moves (similar to how I learned to ride horses) or someone at home is teaching him.

I turned to the other mom and was about to say, “He must have an older brother at home who is a star player and practices with him a lot.” But I caught myself, and changed ‘brother’ to ‘sibling’. Maybe his big sister is the all-star player. Or his mom.

Because what a crummy message to send to my daughter, sandwiched between our conversation, who is too shy to play basketball right now. The words I choose matter. Why give my daughter one more message that the court is only for boys? The court is for people who play basketball.

Casual references to gender matter when our kids are listening to our every word.

Casual references to gender matter when our kids are listening to our every word.


Melissa Atkins Wardy owns and operates Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a small business in Wisconsin, where our shirts are printed and shipped with love. If you would like to order empowering apparel and gifts for girls and boys, please visit

Find Melissa Atkins Wardy’s book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” here, at your local bookseller or online.

Join the PPBB Community in conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

The Case of the Missing Pink Pencil

The other day my six-year-old first grade son was very annoyed with me as we walked through the toy store following his visit to the ER to check on a possibly broken arm. I let him lead the way through the store, saying he could pick out a small toy as a reward for being so well behaved during our long hospital visit and because the nurse who had promised him a lollipop and sticker if he was good didn’t make good on her words.

Ben led me through the toy cars, then the Barbie aisle and then over to all of the Elsa and Anna merchandise before we made our way to the arts and crafts. He zeroed in on boxes of Crayola colored pencils on the shelf and I could tell by the look on his face something was brewing…..

“Mom, the other day we were coloring cotton candy in on our worksheets. Can you guess what color mine was?” -Benny

“Hmmm… love cotton candy so I’m going to guess rainbow or turquoise blue?” -Me

“I had to color it purple because my box of colored pencils did not have pink.” -Benny

“Oh. But can’t cotton candy also be blue? Or, whatever color you want it to be?” -Me

“You are missing the point of my talking, Mom. My cotton candy couldn’t be pink because my box didn’t have pink. So pink wasn’t in my choices for me, but it should be because you say colors are for everyone. Why didn’t you buy me a box with pink?” -Benny

“Well buddy, I didn’t intentionally buy boxes without pink. The supply list said ’24 colored pencils’ so I bought two boxes of twelve because that was the cheapest way to do it.” -Me

“But two boxes of twelve is the same twelve colors both of the times. Those twelve colors don’t include pink. So, no pink for Ben.” -Ben

“So, do you think we should buy the box of twenty four pencils that comes with the pink pencil?” -Me

“I think we should, and I think when you buy me things you should just wait and think ‘Does this have pink?’ because you never know what my imagination can do.” -Ben

Colors Ev FINAL

Colors are for Everyone tee design from


Speak All the Louder

Yesterday we all listened to and loved Emma Watson’s UN speech on feminism and gender stereotypes. As quickly as the fanfare arrived, so did the online rape threats, death threats, and website counting down the release of nude photos of the actress/UN ambassador…..just because she is a woman who dared to use her voice and suggest the wild notion that females are human beings.

The reaction of these men who use fear to promote their power is a measure meant to terrorize us to ‘stay in our place’.  To shame empathetic men and to overpower outspoken women. To stunt our thinking and growth as a society. To silence our voices.

I think this kind of man is an excellent reminder of why we must speak all the louder.

There will always be scared men out there for whom educated, outspoken women are threatening. Their fear is not our concern.

There will always be intimidated men out there for whom women are seen only as vaginas, either to sexually please them or piss them off. Their lack of humanity is not our concern.

There will always be small-minded men out there for whom achieving equality between the sexes signals a dangerous loss of power. Their discomfort is not our concern.

Our energy has to be spent on modeling for our young people what a confident woman looks like and how a strong man respects girls and women. That is the single easiest thing that you can do to bring us closer to a world in which an articulate young woman is able to make a speech about men and women being more powerful as equals instead of opposing forces, and not come home to rape and death threats.

Our energy has to be spent on truly empowering our girls, which extends beyond facebook memes and movie characters and cleverly-marketed toys. It is the daily, sometimes grueling work of instilling in our daughters an unshakable knowledge that she has worth. Everything else in the world will tell her otherwise. We have to raise our daughters in such a way that when we send her out into the world she has the heart and courage of a lioness.

Steel yourself to the idea that this will not be easy. That does not mean it is not worth doing.

Our energy must also be spent on our sons, which is an often overlooked yet absurdly obvious answer to the problem of a culture of men who threaten through internet comments unspeakable sexual crimes against women, who create a color-coded system to give girls date rape drugs, or who fail to take a stand  against other men who beat women senseless. And that’s just this week’s headlines.

Our energy must go into expanding the current definition of what it means to be masculine, so that our boys can grow into men who are allowed to be full human beings for whom having emotions and feelings is acceptable. We can teach our sons that violence is not a path to power. We can instill in our sons an unshakable truth that girls and women have value. Boys need see articulate, successful mothers and respectful, self-confident fathers working together to raise their families — and not in just the 1950’s implication of that sentence, I mean as a society of mothers and fathers who take responsibility for our collective children turning out to be good people.

Fear, intimidation, and the threat of violence have always been used to silence voices attempting to bring about change and equal rights. Yet change always comes.

Be not silent. Speak all the louder.

Emma Watson


Image Source: Gender Equality is Not Only a Women’s Issue. It’s a Men’s Issue Too.


Melissa Atkins Wardy owns and operates Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a small business in Wisconsin, where our shirts are printed and shipped with love.

If you would like to order empowering apparel and gifts for girls and boys, please visit

Find Melissa Atkins Wardy’s book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” on Amazon.

Join the PPBB Community in conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest

Support new documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom

The Mask You Live In

What about the boys? There is so much focus on how girls are treated by society and media, it is a valid question to stop and ask if we are giving the same considerations to boys and what that impact might be.

I notice it most with teens and young men, their movements are like a choreographed dance, their gait and posturing all mimicking each other. In college my girlfriends and I called it “The Man Dance”, as we sat there waiting for these boys to really figure out what it meant to be a man. But you’d look into their eyes, or have a long conversation with one of your guy friends, and realize they are just as confused, uncertain, excited, compassionate, and lonely as we were. We were allowed to show it, of course, because we were girls. The boys couldn’t because then the homophobic slurs would start, and our friend would be teased for having any human emotion beyond indifference and arrogance.

I was raised with brothers and am now raising a son. I’ve always had a close group of guy friends, even now, and I feel like I understand their insecurities and hopes and ambitions. My husband is the kind of man who says ‘I love you’ to all of us all of the time, who is affectionate and intelligent and thoughtful. He is a “man’s man”, but he is a man who respects women and is kind and gentle to children. He has emotions, we’ve seen him cry over more than just sports. Our son is allowed to dance and wear toe polish and love art with as much freedom as he is allowed to love racing down the street on his bike and mud stomping through creeks and catching bugs. He is allowed to be a human being, to laugh and cry and worry and whoop and shy away.

But not all boys have that right. Yesterday I heard a mother tell her eighteen month old son not to be “such a wuss” because he didn’t want to kill a bug. I heard a group of teen boys walking down the city street in front of my house, one boy being teased for being a “pussy”. He must have committed some indiscretion against the Man Code which immediately earned him the fate of being feminized and degraded.

And I wonder, will they be allowed the space to grow into their own manhood? What kind of men will they be? Or will they have to wear the mask?

My friend and colleague Jennifer Siebel Newsom has begun a new project looking at all of these issues facing our boys. Whether you have sons or daughters or no children, how our society treats its youngest members is impacting all of us. Jennifer and I have talked to each other about the hopes and dreams we have for our children and how the media and culture impacts our vision of the people our children can become. Jennifer is raising two daughters and a son.

Her new project, The Mask You Live In, will be a 75 minute documentary featuring powerful interviews with popular thought leaders and celebrities as well as academics and experts in neuroscience, biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, ethics, education, sports, media, and history. It will be an exploration of American masculinity, and what prices our boys pay to fill that role.

From the Kickstarter campaign page: “The Mask You Live In documentary will examine how gender stereotypes are interconnected with race, class, and circumstance, and how kids are further influenced by the education system, sports culture, and mass media- video games and pornography in particular. The film also highlights the importance of placing emphasis on the social and emotional needs of boys through healthy family communication, alternative teaching strategies, conscious media consumption, positive role modeling and innovative mentorship programs.”

I hope you join PPBB in supporting this much needed project. Jennifer has set to to continue the discussion and increase the comprehension of gender inequality in our country. Click HERE to visit the Kickstarter page to support this project, even a $25 or $50 donation will push the project forward.