Sixteen shiny, twirly, sparkly princesses dance around the room, waving wands and adjusting tiaras. My daughter stands on the sidelines of the birthday party and observes, a bemused expression on her face, as if she has stumbled upon an alien species.
It took me the best part of an hour to coax her into a denim dress and purple tights. Her shoes are pink -- she tolerates pink -- but they are grubby Converse, not Cinderella slippers. This is as close to princessified she is going to get, at least for today.
My daughter is proof that not all little girls want to be fairy princesses, wear floor-length party dresses everywhere, and paint pearly pink polish on tiny little nails. She insists on wearing her wellies at all times. I can count the occasions she has worn a dress, since she was old enough to refuse, on one hand. She hates having her hair brushed, her face washed, her nails trimmed. She will always choose The Jack and the Beanstalk over Sleeping Beauty. She does like Peppa Pig, but I imagine only because she also jumps in muddy puddles and winds up her brother.
Photo supplied by Claire Gillespie
My opinion on gender-typical toys, for what it's worth: if you give your children the freedom to make their own choices about what they play with, what they watch on television, and what they wear (to a certain extent; I do draw the line at my daughter wearing her wellies to bed, despite her pleas), they will gravitate towards what they like, regardless of their gender. My son went through a phase of accessorising himself with my bangles, belts and handbags. I didn't bat an eyelid. He got bored of it after a few weeks and moved onto more typically manly pursuits, like pretending to be a superhero.
I think most little girls -- and my daughter is definitely the exception to the rule: the numbers speak for themselves -- are drawn to the world of princesses, fairies, baby dolls and dressing up, not because this is forced on them by their parents, the media or society at large, but because they genuinely like all that stuff.
Why do they like it? Hormones, naturally, play a part. A 2002 study into children's toy preferences by Gerianne M. Alexander and Melissa Hines sent shockwaves through the scientific world by revealing that female vervet monkeys favoured stereotypically feminine toys, while their male counterparts preferred the stereotypically masculine ones. Yes, that's right. The little girl monkey reached for the doll and the cooking pot, and her brother picked up the ball and the car. How do cultural influences come into play here?
I may have inadvertently contributed to my daughter's rejection of typically girly pursuits. In 2009, a study of foetal hormones found that the higher the testosterone levels, the more likely a baby girl would be to go on to display typically male behaviour. It applies to both sexes, of course: a low level of prenatal testosterone would result in a boy more likely to enjoy typically feminine activities and toys.
It's likely that a combination of factors -- biological, cultural and downright inexplicable -- have resulted in my daughter's tomboyishness. She's still only 3, so it's unlikely that she's making a concerted effort to avoid being pigeonholed as a "typical" girl. I'm not aware of displaying a boring life that she wouldn't want to emulate, although I am her primary caregiver and who knows, perhaps she imagines that Daddy is off saving the world during the five days of the week she doesn't see him. Maybe she sees her big brother playing rough and tumble and just thinks, "That looks fun."
Does it bother me that my daughter doesn't join in when the other little girls are playing house? Not for a second. She's over with the boys, running faster and jumping higher than she ever would with Cinderella slippers on. In any case, she'll always be a princess in my eyes. A tangled-haired, grubby-faced, puddle-stomping, world-conquering princess.