We love to go a wandering
What was it that constructed me as a girl?
Was it my mother, when I was a very young child, her open toed white sandals and the summer dress she wore one lovely May morning?
Was it my father and the fairy tale book he bought me with its illustrations - some colour plates, some line drawings - of princesses, of Cinderella, of Snow White? The frills and flounces and furbelows that immediately drew my attention? I did not make a good tomboy. Unlike my sister, I was too anxious for tree climbing or the blasé ignoring of Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted signs.
I wanted long wavy hair (mine was straight as stair rods and cut short in a pudding bowl bob) and dresses ludicrously layered in lace. This version of femininity lasted for years. I haunted the local market and bought trimmings for a few pennies, tried to stitch them to my schoolgirl pants. With very limited success. I was still a chubby schoolgirl lacking in glamour or allure.
Way before periods and puberty I had an idea of what a girl was. Since most of my ideas about the world came from books, then this must have been the place. Those princesses, willowy, perfect featured, wearing dresses with tight-laced waistcoats and flouncy sleeves. Nothing whatsoever like my own life, or my own body and yet .. I wanted to be pretty, feminine, floaty, a dandelion wisp of a thing, lighter than air.
My favourite garment was a pale blue sprigged party dress with a paper nylon underskirt. It was like wearing fibreglass but I think I grasped early on that it was necessary to suffer to be glamorous. Maybe this is some version of a celice, the pain an indication that femininity-wise, you are in the right zone, and will be rewarded for your suffering. Absolutely insane, but very powerful.
By the time I was in my 20s, I was in rebellion against this ultra-feminine view of womanhood, and wore denim dungarees, men’s suits and overalls. With my own daughters, especially the first one, I think perhaps I tried too hard to avoid pink and frilly, although grandparents and older relatives certainly provided a fair share of traditional for a girl garments. When she was 2, the oldest girl simply decided she would only wear either pink or red, and that was that. My second daughter was curiously unbothered by what she wore, but perhaps I was also more relaxed. By then it had dawned on me that maybe it was more important to encourage my daughters to be assertive, to see that they had choices, rather than impose unreasonable prohibitions of any sort.
I wonder if the construction of a girl without reference to pink and blue, or other stereotypes is easier these days? It seems like the gender neutral baby clothes business is booming. Kardashian babies wear black, and the whole issue of gender is being reimagined in a myriad ways. Although I do not believe masculinity is no longer an issue for men, it certainly seems that lines are blurring.
However, maybe it takes more than David Beckham in a skirt to have a real impact on attitudes. Here’s Glosswitch, writing in the New Statesman a couple of years ago:
In a world that is supposedly more equal, gender stereotyping has gone underground. We tell ourselves that we treat babies the same, regardless of whether or not we know their sex, but research suggests otherwise (e.g. here and here)
Gender is a language we can critique, but it is not one we can easily opt out of speaking. It is not just that we cannot control how others see our children; whatever our personal principles, we cannot always control how we see them ourselves.
Some parents have gone down the road of total gender-neutral child rearing, as this article in the US magazine Parents discusses. In the world at large new gender-neutral pronouns and adaptations of language are being invented and issues around gender and gender stereotyping are discussed openly these days.
Constructing a girl via the pink frilly path is no longer the only option. Whilst it’s true that the bombardment of images goes way beyond an illustrated Fairy Tales, at least the deconstruction of these images is also available. As Viv Albertine said recently in discussion with Lauren Laverne at the Sage Gateshead’s Free Thinking Festival:
“Young women are much better informed and that’s a weapon in itself.”