Be Anti-Limitation, Not Anti-Girly

We need to be careful when advocating for strong, empowered girls that we do not simultaneously denigrate things associated with femininity. A general example of this is distinguishing the problems with Princess Culture from little girls who like princesses, sparkles, and all things fancy. Princess Culture is the issue, NOT little girls.

A specific example of this is criticism I’ve received on my book when I talk about buying dolls for my daughter or a toy kitchen for our home. It has been suggested that I’m being hypocritical, but here’s what I’d like to counter with: We need to learn how to get out of our own way.

Dolls are a wonderful toy for *any* child for the social emotional play and role play they allow. This has nothing to do with gender or the stereotype that girls should grow up to be homemakers, rather it has everything to do with child developmental psychology.

As for toy kitchens — for young toddlers (early walkers) standing while playing builds strong leg muscles and balance. Children see their parent(s) working in the kitchen every day and a toy kitchen allows them to role play and emulate the people they love. It was suggested that by providing a kitchen for my daughter I was reinforcing the “women stay in the kitchen” stereotypes and that instead I should be encouraging my daughter to be a judge or scientist.

We bought a toy kitchen (in gender inclusive colors) for our home because young children love to role play and because we figured as our kids grew they would need to have basic food prep skills and the ability to feed themselves. Even judges, rocket scientists, and engineers need to eat.

Amelia received a toy kitchen for her 2nd birthday.

Amelia received a toy kitchen for her 2nd birthday.

Asses of Sports Illustrated Swim Issue Six Feet From Kids’ Hands On Learning Area: A Lesson in Naked Women and Men in Suits

What, exactly, is the hands-on learning experience when one brings their child to a popular national bookseller? Well, there are interlocking blocks to manipulate, sets of gender inclusive wooden toys for free play, dress up costumes for imaginary role play, and even a crash course in sexism, objectification, crushing beauty standards, and sexualization.

And you get all of that for free! You just wander around your family book store and while you let your little people stop to play for a bit, BABOOM! Just above eye level of your kindergartner is a display of media crap that even five year olds clearly understand.

Within six feet of the Duplo table (made by Lego for kids 5 and under), the Melissa & Doug preschool toy display, and within 18 inches of the toddler dress up costumes we have this:

Sexualized swim models in upper left corner, impressionable young girl in bottom right corner. A distance of six feet or so.

Sexualized swim models in upper left corner, impressionable young girl in bottom right corner. A distance of six feet or so.

Isn’t that fascinating? Really, take it in for a moment.

Let the sweet little head of that young girl in the bottom right sear into your brain as your eyes travel up diagonally to the topless ass fondling presented to us by Sports Illustrated. Did you even see the girl’s head, or were you zeroed in on the backsides?

Will your kinder kid pick up on the faux-lesbianism-for-the-male-viewers’-sexual-pleasure suggestion from the top row dominated by Sports Illustrated’s annual swim issue?

Will your mini me find intense irony in the fact that the Sports Illustrated swim issue coincides with the Winter Olympics (where fierce, strong women athletes actually compete in sports) and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (where activists try to educate the general pubic on the prevalence and severity of eating disorders and how the media impacts our body image)? Just typing that makes me chuckle.

That might all be a little over their head, but here is what they will understand loud and clear:

Women are a collection of body parts put on display for others. Men are doers and power brokers who get to wear clothes. 

Now, an older child may take it up a notch: Women are valued for their sex appeal to men and for their bodies, but only if that body is white, thin, and almost naked. Men can be all shapes, sizes, and colors and still be valued.

Your child won’t articulate these messages in that way but as parents have known for millennium, kids soak up everything the see and hear.

The constant bombardment of these images throughout their childhood, if left unchallenged by people raising the child, will act as a foundation that will establish the more advanced understanding I provided above on how women and men establish their worth in our society.

The Sports Illustrated 2014 swim issue.

The Sports Illustrated 2014 swim issue.

I’m not going to dive into a shocked hide-sex-from-the-kids prudish rant demanding modesty or needing black sleeves over the cover or even the retailer’s right to sell this issue. What I am going to do is ask you, moms and dads, what exactly do you want your kids learning about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman? What do you want them learning about their worth in society? Ask yourself why are there no nearly-naked men? Why are there no women wearing power suits, standing in authoritative poses? Or playing professional team sports for which they earn millions upon millions of dollars?

Here are the other covers the accompany this SI issue in this particular display.



Runners   Baseball     GQ    Baseball.2  SI swimcover

A PPBB Community Member, Mandy McManus Emedi, shared with me that during a recent trip to Barnes & Noble she told the manager that she was struggling with the SI magazine being merchandised at the checkout. “I’m very thankful my five-year olds aren’t here with me. It is precisely at their eye level.” The manager said he understood my concern, and could “take it up the chain of command.”

So what is a parent to do when he or she has just spent the better part of an hour looking for girl-empowering chapter books with the all-important female protagonist who saves the day without ending up in a romantic relationship as her crowning achievement and as said parent accompanies the child to the register her young, impressionable mind is staring at the SI cover getting the message that no matter what girl-centric adventures she reads she will be most celebrated if she and her girlfriends grow up to have photo-perfect bodies with which they romp around topless in the surf while men they don’t know oggle their bodies? What if that parent is there with his or her daughter who is getting study guides to help with the ACTs so that she can get into the college she wants and yet here is one more reminder that the most important thing she can do in our culture is look thin and sexy at all times?

This isn’t a Barnes & Noble issue. This is a cultural issue. I took this photo of my kids at our local mall’s play area last year:

Spencer's store front window one year ago.

Spencer’s store front window one year ago.

It is a cultural issue and unless we change it by pushing back against retailers and using our consumer dollars to follow the strength of our convictions, nothing changes. Unless we teach our kids to reject these messages, nothing changes.

~ Talk to the manager of the store and suggest exploitative magazines should not be placed where kids can absorb those sexist and harmful messages.

~ Better yet, right before you talk to the manager walk across Barnes & Noble to go buy “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” and have it in hand during your conversation.

~ Talk to your friends and family about these issues. What seems so simple may not be because this is ingrained in our culture. Make the people around you think about this stuff, question it, and push back. “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it”

~ Don’t buy media that reduces women to sex objects.

~ Teach your children that women and girls are not objects, they are agents with complex lives, goals, desires, and adventures.

~ Talk with your kids about this, teach them to question and challenge it and to use their voices if they feel strongly about something. Teach them to call out retailers and how to have productive conversations with decision makers who can help bring about meaningful change.

~ Model for your kids at home what real respect for men and women looks like.

~ Teach your kids, especially your daughters, that they are more than the sum of their parts.

And finally, teach them that until we start to see images like the ones below as the routine way that we see women depicted in media, we’ve got a long way to go:



Melissa Brantley photo credit, with special thanks to Gabrielle Tenn New and Mandy McManus Emedi.

Redefining Girly Is About Balance

Redefining Girly is about balance. It is the idea there are many ways to be a girl. It is also about letting girls show you who they want to be in the world.

The is the Original Pigtail Pal opening her birthday presents tonight. We tried to have her gifts focus on strong, curious, adventurous girls and balance out her obsession with mermaids. She received several books that showcase adventurous girls (Mermaid Tales, American Girl Josephina, Ivy & Bean, Madeline, Emily Windsnap), an American Girl science lab set, a shirt that says “Girls Love to Camp”, leg warmers, and Lego sets (Merida’s Highland Games, Ariel’s treasures, and one from the Lego Movie).

Redefining Girly is not about telling girls how to be a girl, it is about showing them everything that girlhood can be.

The OPP celebrates turning eight with some gifts that celebrate girlhood.

The OPP celebrates turning eight with some gifts that celebrate girlhood.

Big Adventure for a Little Girl in the Great Northwoods

Sometimes it takes getting away from media to really see the messages aimed at girls that are selling them short.  And sometimes it takes getting away from media to meet people who defy all the stereotypes we are sold….It turns out I think our cabin is located on one of the most feminist lakes in Wisconsin.

A few weeks ago my family met at our cabin in northern Wisconsin for a gorgeous autumn weekend of hiking, kayaking, enjoying the fall color, avoiding bears, and spotting bald eagles. We arrived after dark and were greeted by the Milky Way floating in the sky above the house. The starry sky, for me, always brings the awareness that we are indeed each quite small and unique in this universe. The hugeness of the cosmos, the complete darkness once outside of the city, the soft night noises of the forest all do such a wonderful job of making sure you are officially unplugged for the weekend.

I love taking the kids up there because it is so remote, and with no television, internet, or phone service the only entertainment is reading, art projects, playing games as a family, or sitting and watching the lake. It is also nice to let the kids run loose and explore the woods,collecting as many sticks and rocks as their little hands can hold. This trip they were quite interested in building houses for Leafmen from their favorite movie “Epic”.

There had been black bear spotted on our property a few weeks back, so I was very leery this time around to let the kids run around by themselves. They were, of course, very anxious to do just that. I woke early on Saturday morning to take advantage of the light and photograph the trees and fall color. I wasn’t sure what time of day bears like to eat, but I was hoping not 7:12 am. While picking up some gorgeous leaves to make a cool pattern for a photo I found some very fresh bobcat scat on the drive. Now I don’t know exactly how big Wisconsin bobcats get, but judging by the size of the poo I’ll say it is bigger than a breadbox. In the event the wine I had been drinking the night before interfered with the scatological studies I had engrossed myself in while reading a field manual, I decided to quietly head back up the hill to the cabin on the off chance it was cougar poo instead. On my way back I saw a small snake sunning itself on the rocks, my announcement of which upon coming through the door sent my children scrambling for their clothes and shoes in order to catch it.

We are “free range parents” in the city, so it felt weird to keep such a close radar on the kids in the woods this weekend because of the bears. They were not allowed to be outside without an adult, nor could they walk back and forth from the lake to the cabin by themselves. For whatever reason, my seven year old Amelia seemed very unconcerned about the bears and the fact that one could eat her. She was going to have an adventure, she had literally declared it at the top of the hill before marching down. “I am going to have an adventure!” she yelled to the trees, smashing smaller rocks onto larger ones as she made her way down the hill. Her little brother Benny was hot on her heels, and off we went to the lake to spend forty five minutes throwing pebbles onto lily pads and trying to catch frogs.

We went for a family hike, but the hilly terrain quickly tired out the kids and their small legs. We headed back to the cabin for lunch and then down to the lake to kayak. The kids had gone ahead with my dad and my husband, my mom and I were going to load the kayaks and then drive them down to the lake. As I’m backing up the van and maneuvering it on the very steep drive, out of nowhere pops Amelia which gives me a small heart attack. She had walked back from the lake to the cabin by herself.

“Um, more likely I would die when my mom runs me over with the van. Anyway, I made weapons and I’m not scared of bears anymore,” Amelia informed me to reveal a small collection of twigs she had whittled into sharp-ish points. I was still concerned for her safety, because a fifty pound kid could make a good meal for something, still I could not help but smile that my little feisty had no doubt in her mind that she could take on a bear.

Kayaking lessons begin with my dad standing on the shore of the lake teaching the kids how to use the paddles and stay balanced. My mom and I discreetly tie a stern line onto Amelia’s kayak in an attempt to control her a bit before she heads into the open water. She hops in her green kayak, spends three minutes figuring out the rhythm of her arms moving the paddle through the water, and is soon gliding back in forth in the shallows in front of us. Then she notices the stern line.

“LET ME GO!” she hollers, as we try to explain to her we just want to keep her close by until we know she has the gist of it.
“LET! ME! GOOO!” this time using her paddle to try to pull on the stern line away from us.
“What do you want me to do?” my mom asks, enjoying the thought of me raising a daughter who is exactly like I was as a child.
“Let her go,” I say knowing Amelia will make good on her earlier declaration for adventure.

Within ten minutes she is clear across the lake having the time of her life. Benny and I hop in the other kayak and have a great time exploring the lake and trying to keep up with Amelia. The only way we got her off the water was because a storm was moving in. Amelia was soaked, cold, and euphoric when we got her back to shore.

“As soon as the rain stops I’m going back out there. Poppop said something about white water rapids. Where’s my fishing pole?” she asked through chattering teeth.

The following day we were out on the water by mid-morning, paddling to the far side of the lake that still had mist rising off of it. As we made our way across the water a bald eagle flew overhead. “This is AMAZING!” Amelia yelled, pumping her paddle in the air as she raised both of her little arms to the sky. Amelia talk and yapped the entire way across the lake, which caught the attention of one of our four neighbors. Each of the five homes on the lake is about a quarter mile away from each other by land, but on the water Amelia’s voice carries. As we reached the dock we met a kind lady in her late seventies who went on and on to Amelia about how proud she was of her for paddling all of the way across the lake. The lady complimented Amelia on her strong muscles and determination. It turns out, Midge, our new friend, had lived on the lake for years as her family had owned most of this acreage for decades. Her 96 year old sister still lives on the lake by herself year round. She told us about the bear and wolf they had seen in the past few weeks on the property next to ours, and gave us great advice on dinky diners in the area and info on some of the local folks. Next to our cabin lives “Doc” as she is called, a retired physician who lives there with her two dogs, one of whom had found fresh bear scat the night before. Then the 96 year old sister, then Midge’s house, and then one other house on the other side of the lake. Heading away from the lake, our neighbor was a lady who raises and races sled dogs. Midge asked if we’d be up for Christmas, but I said with the snows probably not because we didn’t think our vehicle could make it up to the cabin. She told us about how she used to bring her kids up and snowshoe in all of her supplies in on a toboggan and offered a few tips. She asked Amelia if she would snowshoe across the frozen lake this winter and visit her.

“I know how to do that!” Amelia said cheerfully, remembering that last winter her best friend had taught her how to snowshoe and ice fish in Tomahawk.
“Of course you do! How glorious!” said Midge. I heart Midge.

We bid Midge farewell and made our way back across the lake. The sunshine, fall color on the trees, and time with my girl was just perfect. My husband and Benny were on the shore waiting for us so that they could take the kayaks out. Benny had kept himself busy by making a bear trap out of sticks and leaves. We were getting ready to trade off the kayaks when we heard an insane noise coming from the road. We looked up to see a woman mushing a team of sled dogs on a wheeled dog sled. When she saw us she yelled for the team to stop and slammed on the brake. She hopped off and came over to say hello. At this point I was in “Redefining Girly Heaven”. Amelia’s and Benny’s mouths were hanging open.

We introduced ourselves to Deb, the kids asked if they could pet the dogs, and we chatted for awhile. Deb had been racing dogs for years and was out this morning training some of her year old pups. She was amazing to talk to and when it was time to go, she asked the kids if they could help her get the team up the hill. She told them to hop on the sled, lift the brake, and yell “MUSH!” She ran along with the lead dog as the kids held onto the sled with a mix of terror and delight. At the top of the hill our kids got off and Deb hopped on, gave the kids a high five, and then turned to her team and yelled “MUSH!” one more time, and off she raced down the gravel road.

“That? Was freaking amazing,” said Amelia in awe.
“Oh my gawd,” echoed Benny.

And in the span of 48 hours my kids had explored the woods, made houses and traps and weapons out of sticks, examined copious amounts of scat, kayaked, and spotted two eagles. If Amelia had been watching television on Sunday morning instead of kayaking she would have seen commercials aimed at her that sell beauty, fashion, baking and baby care in pink hues to the tune of glittery, sparkling music. Even LEGO has drank the Kool Aid. She would have seen those same messages if we had been out running errands, repeated on store shelves and billboards. Amelia would not have seen messages about girls going on great adventures, doing strong things with their bodies, taking care of themselves and being independent. But away from the media we met women who took living in the big Northwoods in stride, showing my children that girls most definitely are smart, daring, and adventurous. At home we probably wouldn’t have met female doctors who chase off black bears, women who run dog sled teams or snowshoe supplies to their house for the winter.

I am grateful for experiences like this for my daughter, so that I can reinforce to her that there are many ways to be a girl. Equally important, my son soaked in all of this. And they are both better for it.

Amelia on the walk from the cabin to the lake.

Amelia proudly kayaking around the lake.

Within thirty minutes of learning how to kayak the child was off and exploring on the far side of the lake.

Building a house for the Leafmen with Benny.

Mushing the dog sled team.

Exploring the woods.

Why my daughter will not be limited to a 1950's era house-cleaing, cupcake-baking, princess-and-fashion-worshiping sex kitten glitter bomb

One of the great many reasons I become so annoyed with marketers and toy companies reducing my daughter to a 1950’s era house-cleaing, cupcake-baking, princess-and-fashion-worshiping sex kitten glitter bomb is that the following is a list of topics we just discussed before I could get my seven year old to go to sleep tonight:

– Imperial colonization of Africa
– Trans-Atlantic slave trade
– how to build a rondoval
– how humans started navigating the Earth
– how different cultures pass diseases to each other
– what was life like in ancient Greece and Egypt
– how does time pass, starting with the cave people
– the stratification of wealth in Africa
– will I buy her the Star Wars game she wants
– can constipation kill you
– what did cave people’s feet look like
– how did the ancient Celts make underwear
– do I love her a smidge more than I love her little brother
– did cave people wear skins fur side in, or fur side out
– sanitation practices of anciet Egypt

When we limit our daughters, we limit our daughters. Luckily for me, I had great advice and a strong intuition not to limit my daughter to what the pink aisles held for her. Instead I offered her the world.

And each night, she goes to bed knowing the world is hers.