Sunday, January 2, 2011

Toddlers and gendered clothing

My 22-month-old girl, C, is going through a phase where she only wants to wear dresses or skirts, preferably with sparkles or patterns. (Also preferably without a nappy, but that's a story for another day.) If I try to dress her in pants and a top, she wails in protest. "Noooooo! Me no wear pents! Me be pwetty, so pwetty!"

With the warmer weather, I've largely given up the battle, allowing her to wear whatever she selects. It was a bit more difficult on some of the cooler days we had in November and December, but on these balmy days, a little sundress is quite weather-suitable. Once she's dressed, she pirouettes in uneven but joyful loops around the room, singing "Me pwetty! So pwetty! My 'ave dwess! Boo-ful C!"

C has two elder sisters, both of whom like their dresses very well, but neither of whom is now (or has ever been) obsessive about clothing. They like to dress up for occasions and dressing up often involves wearing dresses, but mostly they self-select clothing that is a mix of types, styles and colours, and their predominant criteria seems to be comfort. As I write this, mid-morning on a lazy Sunday with nothing on the horizon but a shopping trip sometime later on, my 5 year old is wearing a red t-shirt and white cotton shorts, while the 7 year old, her head buried in a book, is still in pyjama pants and a somewhat stained green shirt.

Nor am I myself a very girly-girl with respect to clothing choices. I tend to select clothes that I believe are fit for purpose (and fit me), rather than being overly concerned with how they make me appear. I actually don't like to wear dresses all that much, although I do wear skirts.

So I wonder where this fixed idea has come from, that prettiness lies in clothing that is usually, in our society, worn by females; and indeed that feeling or being "pretty" is in itself a wonderful thing.

I wonder if it is partly a result of the fact that, as the youngest and blondest of my children, and an exceedingly appealing one (if I do say so), she is constantly being petted and fussed over by others, people who tell her that she is "so cute", "so lovely", "so pretty", and compliment her on her clothes: "WHAT a pretty dress!" and "Doesn't she look like a little doll!" I don't especially like this kind of commentary, but it's almost impossible to counteract when you're talking about grandparents, doting aunties, and random old ladies at the shops. It feels churlish to say "Actually, I'd prefer you don't focus on her appearance when you talk to my child", and I doubt there would be understanding of the underlying point anyway.

Of course, there isn't much point trying to read too deeply into it - she's not quite 2, and barely has a sense of herself as a separate entity, let alone a deep, nuanced understanding of the politics of beauty ;-) Still, it is something I observe and note, as I watch this youngest child of mine grow.

1 comment:

  1. I saw exactly the same thing in my daughter at a little older than yours, we found ourselves having major battles over getting her dressed in sensible clothes for daycare. She ended up saying to my husband "If I don't wear a dress I won't be beautiful."

    We realised that her carers were changing the way they greeted her depending on what she wore. With a dress she got "Good morning Caitlin, don't you look beautiful today!" in other clothes it was more along the lines of "how are you this morning?" We did ask them to stop mentioning her appearance and told them why. They very happily did and it worked!

    We also asked the grandparents and anyone else who had regular contact with her to avoid mentioning appearance when greeting her, and explained why. Didn't have any trouble with people not getting it.