I’ve had several parents write in to our Facebook page sharing their experiences with face painters at community events and children’s museums. One comment and photo came in, then another, and another. I took a step back to think about why this was important and why parents were sharing this with me. And then it clicked — this was more than the individual choices of these kids. Face painting is one of the few activities where a service for children is marketed directly to children in real time, and the child present picks the product directly in front of the marketer, with the marketer being able to immediately influence the choice.
Why does this matter?
How many thousands and thousands of kids do you think face painters come in contact with? What messages could and should those people be sending? Several parents have written to me saying their daughter was discouraged from getting a sports ball on her cheek, and instead got a yellow flower. Or the little boy who was discouraged from getting a butterfly, until his mom had to step in and defend his choice. When face painters say “Oh, that’s a girl color, you don’t want that” they are directly impacting the child’s imagination and reinforcing gender stereotypes. They are directly using sexism to change what your child thinks.
It seems pretty obvious how sexist the reactions steeped in gender stereotypes are and how they limit our kids. I would like to instead focus on a few fine artists and kiddos who got it right:
“I just need to give massive kudos to the lovely woman who painted my daughters face today at Adventure Aquarium. B asked to be a snake, the woman asked if she wanted to be a green snake or another color. B opted to be an orange tiger snake. But she never once suggested the bright pink or purple and told her an tiger snake was an awesome choice!” — Alicia, PPBB mama
“FULL OF AWESOME! I thought you might like to see who was totally full of awesome and getting her face painted as a baby jaguar in a sea of girls all getting their faces painted to be Hawaiian princesses at the local street fair on Sunday… (Tallie, in her Full of Awesome Shirt!)” — Roby, PPBB mama
“I thought I’d share my son’s photo from the recent Renaissance Faire. We had to fight with the artist to get him the painting he wanted, rather than the “Boy one” she was insisting he would like better. Check out this face, does he look unhappy???” — Morgan, PPBB mama
Natalie (7 yrs) to the face-painter: “I’d like to look like a tiger please.”
Artist: “Ohh, why that? You’re so cute, and you have such a pretty sparkly top on; wouldn’t you like some flowers or a rainbow instead? It would maaaaatch…”
Natalie: “No thank you. This outfit is for when I’m a dancer. The paint is for when I’m a predator. Tulips aren’t very good camouflage in the jungle.”
(You see that the frustrated artist couldn’t help herself and HAD to add some sparkle to Talie’s forehead and nose anyway. I hope it doesn’t glare and scare off all the prey.)” — Rachel, PPBB mama
Childhood is not a time for limitations. Childhood is a time for choices. We need adults to remember to respect and honor that, and pack away our preconceived notions of what boys and girls can and cannot do. In childhood, they should be able to do it all.