A Letter to Bella, and Other Girls With Blue Shoes

Bella and her blue shoes.

Dear Bella,

Your mom told me all about your awesome blue shoes. I like blue. My little girl, Amelia, she loves blue because it is the color of the ocean. But if you asked her, she would tell you her favorite color is rainbow. Rainbows are so nice because they include all of the colors.

I heard from your mom that someone at school said your shoes were for boys. Maybe because they were blue or maybe because Buzz Lightyear was on them. At our house, we say, “Colors are for everyone.” Sometimes people get mixed up about that because they don’t think about it very hard. That makes me feel frustrated. All you have to do is look around the world and know that colors are for everyone.

But Bella, isn’t that silly! How could your blue Buzz Lightyear shoes be for boys if colors are for everyone and Buzz Lightyear is from a movie made for all kids and you are a girl standing in those shoes! I think people get confused about that, because they think something is only for boys because they never took the time to consider girls. I think people should consider girls.

Since you are four years old, you know a lot of stuff, and you know that girls can like or do anything boys can. And boys can like or do anything girls can. Things are kind of silly right now because grown ups keep getting in the way of kids, and some grown ups who are in charge of the companies that make stuff for kids like toys and clothes, they don’t have good imaginations like you and I do. These grown ups try to fit kids into little boxes that are labeled “Boy” or “Girl”, and then they only let certain colors or ideas into each box. They do that because it makes it easier for them to sell their stuff. Since boys and girls don’t grow in boxes, you can see how really goofy this is. But I have to be honest with you, there are a lot of grown ups who don’t question these pink and blue boxes, and then they teach that thinking to their kids, and then their kids lose their imaginations. Those are the kinds of kids who say stuff to you at school about your blue shoes.

Bella, your blue shoes are double scoop awesome, it is just that people have lost their imaginations. Little girls like you, with sparks in their eyes and fires in their hearts, you challenge what they think and expect from girls and they don’t know what to do. You make people think harder and that scares them.

The thing is, Little Girlfriend, that people have become so narrow-minded about what girls can do or what girls can like that real girls like you and like my Amelia don’t fit into their little pink boxes. You pop right out of them. Rip them at the corners. Knock the top right off.

And you should. There is nothing in this world that is off limits to you. There is no space nor dream nor challenge that you can’t conquer. There is no set of rules you must follow, no appropriate way to act. There is no person who holds the right to tell you what to think. You, Bella, are the great-great-granddaughter of a generation of women who fought like heroes to make sure there were no more pink boxes to stuff little girls into. Somewhere along the way, we forgot those lessons and grown ups let things get messed up.

Bella with your blue shoes, we really need girls like  you. We need you to remind people what real little girls are like. We need you to remind people that little girls can do anything. I’ll tell you a secret, and you can tell your mom, but I think if grown ups got out of the way of little girls, little girls would have the space to become so amazing and so powerful the Earth would shake right to it’s core and when the ground moves, all those people who lost their imaginations would fall right over.

So Kiddo, next time someone says something to you about something you like, or a color you are wearing, or what you look like, just politely remind them they have lost their imaginations. Rude comments will come your way and you just need to brush them away like a bothersome fly. The problem is not you, the problem is them and the limitations they do not challenge.

In fact, take a look at all of these girls, just like you, proving them wrong. Take a look at these girls, because you fit right in. You fit right in.

Make the ground shake, Baby Girl.

Love, Melissa.

 

Rice Krispie Treats and Boxes of Barbies

Rice Krispie Treat (recipe below) from blog One Ordinary Day.

When I was little, I would go to my friend Kelly’s house after school. Her mom was not only the nicest person in the world, she also made THE BEST afterschool snacks. Kelly’s mom made Rice Krispie Treats. My mom did not. My mom made other goodies, but she did not make Rice Krispie Treats. Somewhere in my DNA is an affinity for Rice Krispie Treats. 

So when I went to Kelly’s, I’d gorge on them. As much puffed rice and mallow as I could fit into my seven year old tummy…I would happily nom away. Then I’d go home and not eat one for weeks at a time. We ate crazy healthy at home. 

Interestingly enough, I am now 33 years old and I have zero idea when the last time was that I ate a Rice Krispie Treat. Years. Maybe even a decade? But I eat healthy every day, and my kids do, too. 

Oh? What does this have to do with boxes of Barbies at preschool? Because what you do at home and the values you give your children inside the nest you have built for them will be greater and more powerful than any misplaced box of Barbies. Should Barbies be at preschool? No. I can think of 87 more educational toys right off the top of my head. Preschoolers deserve more imaginative, open ended play – specifically when they are in their place of learning. Name me a time when preschoolers aren’t learning, right? 

They are clever little critters, those preschoolers. Sucking every. single. thing. in. As the parent of a preschooler, I know how frustrating it can be when they pick up behaviors (or vocab) from school that you’d rather they had not. I also know what it feels like to worry about the influences, and the strength of those influences, your child encounters while at school. 

So what to do if your child’s preschool offers toys that you aren’t in love with? Does gendering have a place in preschool? Do you have the right to speak up about it? 

First, I’d say make sure what your child is calling a Barbie/gun/whatever is really a Barbie/gun/whatever. Your kiddo might come home saying she loves playing with Barbie at school and you could be fretting over nothing, because she was really playing with a Waldorf doll. Ha! That “gun” could be a wooden block, or some other kid’s shoe. Preschoolers live life by their own rules. After all, it is their world and we are just guests in it, so make sure you are eye level with them. 

But let’s say it is Barbie. And you don’t want your kid playing with her. What to do? The best place to start is asking questions. Kids love getting asked questions more than they like asking them. So ask away: What was fun about Barbie? How did you play with her? What friends did you play with? Oh that’s so silly, who made up that part of the story? Yeah, you’re right, we don’t have Barbie at home. What is your favorite toy at home? etc. You are laying groundwork that will build critical thinking skills – a crucial tool in media literacy.

And? When you ask how did he/she play with Barbie, your kid could surprise you….”Mooooom! At school we made a space station, but there was so much goo! And did you bring me a snack? No, Mom, it was pretend goo in my magnation. And the people kept getting stuck in the goo so they had to wear special suits that were green like grassy popsicles and the goo was bad and it was hot and it burned their feet and then monsters came and they all had to fight and then the good guys got away but one good guy got her long hair stuck in the goo and the monsters ate her up and OH MY GOD Nick hit Maya with his shoe and Maya’s nose started to bleed and then NICK PUKED!” 

And what was the highlight of the day? Not playing with Barbie or even Barbie getting her long hair stuck in the pretend hot goo. It was Nick puking. Barbie makes me puke, but she isn’t all bad all the time. Mostly. There can be creative play with a Barbie in hand. 

Second, most preschools rotate their toys, so Barbie may only be on the scene for a few weeks at a time. Remember – Rice Krispie Treats. It isn’t lasting. If it is really bothering you that Barbie is in the classroom, you could politely say to the teacher, “I’ve noticed Ally sharing with me that she is playing with the same toy day after day. She gets so excited when you rotate toys. Do you have a date to change up the room again soon? Ally loves it so much when you expose her to new toys and ideas.”

If it is really really bothering you that Barbie is in the classroom, email or call the teacher and let him/her know that you’d like a 15minute chat (not at drop-off or pick-up) to share your concerns and why you’d like to request that Barbie not be in the room. If the teacher says “Oh, but the girls just love them,” that would be a great time to bring up the fact that those girls then probably play with Barbie at home, and it would be so super to have the school offer new, more education-based toys because after all, we go to school to learn. Touch on the fact that Mattel’s version of Barbie today is usually dressed in extremely sexy, age inappropriate clothing, and then there is the body image stuff. The school can and should offer better, healthier toys. 

Does gendering have a place in preschool? 

No. I would argue further (until I’m blue in the face) that most certainly sexualized toys have zero place in preschool. 

**Here’s a GREAT article from one of my fave parenting sites, The Sixty Second Parent, on how to pick superb toys for your little crew…click HERE.** 

Despite the Hannah Montana shirts and Disney Princess backpacks and Spiderman shoes…preschool is about learning to love learning. Preschool is a really important time in a young child’s life for early literacy, socialization and friendship skills, building confidence, open ended play, getting messy, and exploration. Those seven things are non-specific to gender. If something in the classroom is being pushed on or limiting one group of students, then there is an imbalance in their learning. As a parent, hell yes you have a right to speak up if you feel your child’s learning is being hindered. BUT – be polite and well-informed and gracious to the teacher. They are professionals who dedicate their careers to our little guys, and maybe they just never questioned Barbie one way or the other. As you already know, once your eyes are open to it, you can’t unsee this stuff. 

Children have the natural born right to a childhood free of gender stereotypes and sexualization. Once people start to see it, they start to see it everywhere. You can’t unsee it. 

We can’t shelter our kids. We can protect them from harmful messages and media, yes, but we can’t shelter them. We can’t parent from a place of fear. We can’t, and shouldn’t, try to control their school days. And most importantly, we can’t afford to not talk about things with our kids. The examples we set and the lessons we give at home are most important. A parent is a child’s first teacher. If you are doing your job at home, take a deep breath. Give yourself some credit. This parenting gig is hard, and the pay is rotten. If you are doing your job at home, then the job is getting done. 

Barbie at preschool isn’t going to undo your parenting. Nor will a Hannah Montana shirt, or schoolmates with really crappy parents whose family values look like daytime tv fodder. Should you see your child exhibit behavior you don’t like, nip it in the bud. Explain to your child why you want him or her to act respectful, intelligent, and courteous. Maybe you have a family credo or motto that you expect family members to live up to (“Have a good day at school, Babes. Remember, be a good learner and a kind friend.”). Reinforce good behavior and encourage positive, healthy friendships. 

Try to make the good stuff look cool. So at school, Barbie got eaten by monsters at the space station because her golden, silky hair got stuck in the goo. You know what I see? Ignore Barbie and focus on what is important to your little learner – Goo. Space Station. Monsters. Know how many science and art projects I just thought of that you can do in the evenings or weekends? Focus on the good stuff, and make it cooler than the not good stuff. You remember how to be cool. 

Finally – spend TIME with your kiddo. They grow so, so fast. Don’t Google “Barbie + body image” and look for research that might  indicate your daughter could devleop xyz problems from Barbie play….engage in your own play! Go outside! Craft! Cook! Play a game! When was the last time you sat on the floor criss-cross applesauce and PLAYED with that little kid of yours? Build stuff and dress up and imagine and create and pretend pretend pretend. Did you know the “pretend” is a verb? It is an action, a thought process, a physical energy. And for goodness sakes, get messy!

We can only control so much of our child’s world and what they are exposed to,  but the part we control holds a lot of importance in the mind of that little person you are raising.

Proof in point? I’ve never even made Rice Krispie Treats. I used to love love double love them, and I’ve never even made them. Their power was fleeting. That photo above looks super tasty, and it is from the blog One Ordinary Day and it is of a Cake Batter Rice Krispie Treat

Pay close attention to the quote to the right of the recipe – it is not coincidence it is there and that I found it while looking for a photo of a Rice Krispie Treat for this post – 

“The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.” -Thomas Moore

Fear of Fat: Preschool Girls and the Thin Ideal

*Cross posted with permission from Jennifer W. Shewmaker, Ph.D.*

The old and new Strawberry Shortcake, one of many old school children's characters getting sexier, thinner makeovers.

In a study published in 2010, Dr. Jennifer Harriger, a colleague at Pepperdine University, looked at how much girls aged 3-5 had internalized the thin ideal (the idea that beauty in females = thinness) and how they attributed stereotypes to others because of their weight (fat=lazy, stupid, has no friends while thin=nice, sweet, has friends).

Yes, you read that right, 3-5 year olds! You may be thinking, “Oh come on, kids that young don’t think about things like that.” But, according to Dr. Harriger’s research, there is a very strong research base out there that tells us that children as young as 3 years of age are already beginning to buy into the idea that for females, thinness is equal to goodness.

So what did she find? The little girls that were studied showed evidence of having already begun to internalize the thin ideal and to stereotype others based solely on their weight. What was interesting about this study is that they had girls choose from several different game pieces (like those in Candy Land) which were identical except for their weight. The kids chose pieces that represented themselves and a best friend. Up until now, research studies have shown that kids don’t tend to distinguish that much between thin and average weights. However, in this study, the girls more often chose thin game pieces over the average sized ones. Dr. Harriger thinks this may be due to the fact that in recent years, the thin ideal has been presented to very young children more strongly through products and entertainment.

For example, consider this photo below, which was commented upon on Feminist Fatale.com, comparing a Barbie doll from the 1990s to one manufactured today. As you can see, the proportions of the doll, while always ridiculous, have changed even more to emphasize the thin mid-section and curvaceous breast and behind.  There have been many recent make-overs of several well-loved children’s characters, such as that of Strawberry Shortcake, to give them shapes and appearances more in line with the thin ideal. This change in the characterization of positive characters is likely connected to the change in young children’s opinion of thin-vs-average weight.

Barbie may have changed over the years, but her body now looks like a Victoria Secrets model.

One of the saddest and most startling findings in this study had to do with the things that the little girls said about the different game pieces. For example, they said about the fatter piece “I hate her because she has a fat stomach” or “I don’t want to be her, she’s fat and ugly.” What’s worrying is that we also see girls as young as ages 5 and 6 talking about dieting and wanting to be thinner. It’s time to stop and think about the messages our young children are getting about body shape and value. It’s time for all of us to stand together and show our children that being healthy and good isn’t about being “thin,” but about so much more than that. Instead of focusing on thinness, let’s focus on strength, both of body and character.

Harriger, J.A., Calogero, R.M., Witherington, D.C., & Smith J.E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin-ideal in preschool-age girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609-620. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9868-1

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Jennifer W. Shewmaker, Ph.D., is Director of the School Psychology Training and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. She often writes on the media, sexualization, and parenting issues.