I belong to a lucky crowd of female scholars in Denmark who have never really felt gender to be a hindrance, in terms of career aspirations or otherwise. I grew up playing with boys and with very strong female role models and basically never doubted that girls can achieve just as much (if not more) than boys. After some years where the whole gender issue has not really been a big deal for me becoming a mum (to a girl) has accentuated some of the issues for me.
My daughter is 3 years old and is currently working quite a lot on the question of gender identity. She attends a nice kindergarten with well-educated daycare workers. Beyond being nice and professional, they generally also have a really sound attitude towards children, in my opinion. The kindergarten has a huge playground, most of it a wilderness where the children spend their afternoons getting really dirty. Sometimes so dirty that I have to take a deep breath before lifting my daughter to give her a hug when arriving in office attire to pick her up.
This morning, I picked out her clothes as I always do. I’m quite strict on it – I (or to be fair her father) decide what she wears. She is dressed according to the weather and the fact that she spends a substantial part of her time outdoors playing. This doesn’t mean that she cannot wear something she likes, or that she doesn’t have (too many) pink or lilac items in her closet. But at the end of the day, I decide; I try to strike a balance between all the pink clothes available to little girls, and items that are less ‘gender specific’, and I guess in my humble opinion better suited for playground life. Growing up in the 1980s I never had to deal with the whole ‘princess thing’ haunting small girls today, and I guess that has also left me quite unwilling to dress my daughter as a princess. (Now, *there’s* some serious material for other posts on what we do to our little girls!!! Please stop referring to them as princesses…)
I dressed her in a red t-shirt (which she really liked) a pair of black leggings with flowers on and a pair of denim shorts (hoping the afternoon would be warm enough for her to go bare legged in the playground). Finally reaching the stage where we were ready to get out the door (a stage that one has to wait for with a 3 year old around), Sofie looked at her clothes and looked back at me and said ‘mummy, the other kids in kindergarten will say I look like a boy!’. Now, all parents think their kids are adorable, but Sofie has big eyes and long blond hair and by all means does not look like a boy. Right now it matters, I guess coming to terms with your gender identity is quite normal at 3. So I asked her why. She pointed to her denim shorts. ‘They are for boys’ she proclaimed. Now, we all know that is factually wrong. Denim shorts are not for boys. I guess we can all remember ads (which we may object to on other accounts…) but which clearly illustrated that denim short are not exclusively for boys. I however, was quite surprised. How could denim shorts be for boys? And why on earth would the other kids comment on her clothes? At 3? Couldn’t they at least wait until they become teenagers to start with that kind of behavior?
I tried to explain to her why her shorts are not for boys, and that she does not look like one. If she had been a bit older, and we had not already been late, perhaps I should have also questioned the problem of looking like a boy. Instead I tried to provide her with ammunition, should anyone try to bully her during the day.
I guess I am still left a bit baffled, however. I know the daycare workers – they are not the ones reproducing stereotypes like that. I know most of the parents – really nice people, with all the dads I know extremely involved with raising their kids, clearly indicating households where chores are shared equally. While I, of course, do not know what other parents tell their kids in the privacy of their own homes, I think perhaps some of us may skim a little too lightly over the fact that the clothes offered to girls are currently very ‘girlish’. We may think that since we feel equal, so will our girls. That since we have been able to deal with previous cultural stereotypes regarding gender, we can let loose on the princess-mania facing our little girls, kindly sponsored by Disney. Now, my daughter will always be allowed to watch princess Sophia on Disney Junior, and she has dresses for dress-up, and she will be allowed that as well. But we need to talk about it. We need to talk about what gender means, and how it should never limit you.
We may be taking our equality for granted, but oppression comes in many shapes and forms, and while my generation (in my specific cultural and geographical context) may not be completely free of it, I guess we have become aware of how to deal with quite a lot of it. But we do need to remember to pass that on to our girls. Because, frankly, my daughter looks great in denim shorts and they are really practical for playing with mud in the playground. She just needs to know, that just as we don’t leave anything else exclusively for the boys (say power, prestige, high wages), we will not leave denim shorts either.