A three-year-old girl is climbing a tree in a park. A man walking by comments to her mother: 'she should have been born a boy!' The mother makes a general comment of agreement, while I grit my teeth and tell myself that I am overreacting, that he means well, and anyway my two female tree climbers are out of earshot..
But am I really overreacting? I have two daughters and I can't tell you how often they are told that they are pretty, beautiful, cute, etc, by complete strangers, usually older men I've noticed, but not exclusively so. My youngest daughter is quite precocious and is keen to talk to anyone about anything and everything (really: she greets cats and dogs with the same enthusiasm and begins entire monologues that must be dialogues in her head) but I watch helplessly as she initiates conversation with a stranger about something that interests her and the topic is repeatedly steered back to how cute she is, how sweet, and so on. I hope that my habit of praising my daughters' character traits over their looks will counter the issue, but what if that's not enough? What if these comments are shaping the way our daughters themselves in the world: as not much more than pretty faces?
The comments don't seem to vary based on what they're wearing either - you'd think that a top with Thomas the Tank Engine on it would be a great opportunity for conversation beyond 'oh aren't you sweet/look at that lovely smile'.. Think again because instead those 'non-girly' things are simply completely ignored. This became apparent to me when a passer-by commented on the Spiderman T-shirt that one of my daughter's male friends was wearing.. My daughter owns the same T-shirt and no one has ever commented on it.
I've noticed that my girls are often praised based on their hairstyles (which are not really styles at all, since I cut their hair for them) and on things like eye colour, dimples, and once, skin colour (no comment). Other times people have interrupted their tree/playground apparatus climbing to advise them not to fall, to warn them about scratching their 'pretty faces' on the branches, and so on - even though I'm stood next to them supervising. Every time I have responded by reassuring the commenter that my kids are used to climbing and used to testing their limits and anyway if they fall they'll be okay, they're not that high up, they don't mind a few scrapes.. But no matter what I say, it makes no difference to the vocal concern of the passer-by.
It's not just about tree climbing though, as campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys demonstrate. In fact the comments started young: I remember taking my daughter to a playgroup and a boy snatching every toy she was playing with out of her hands, making her cry, repeatedly. When I appealed to the mother to intervene (the boy wouldn't listen to me) she said 'oh it's because she's so cute, look at her...' and so on. We stopped going to that particular group.
I wish that I could conclude that this is not a prevalent and serious problem, but other posts like this Latina Fatale article on 'how to talk to little girls' say otherwise. These are not one-off comments, and they have made me very aware of what a vain and gendered culture we live in. Frankly, it doesn't make sense: as a society we don't want our young girls to be vain and defined by their clothes or their looks, yet so many people reinforce them every day with comments that might seem flippant or kind to them but which create a focus on looks and clothing for young girls.. Then we criticise older girls for focusing so much on these things, and on what they weigh, and for wearing make-up so young, etc, and wonder why there are soaring cases of anorexia and bulimia, low self-esteem, self-harm and depression about size and looks among them.
As with most complex issues, there are no easy answers. This issue of gendered commentary can't be targeted with a simple campaign: it requires social change that extends far beyond parenting and involves everything from clothes to careers for our young women. But we can join in with the dialogue, recognise that there is a problem and start countering it. We can breaking ingrain commentary habits, and start treating younger women like they have exciting developing brains instead (they do). Let's talk to them about books and their favourite hobbies and shows and things they like to do. They don't need to be told that they are pretty, or that the way they look will be a measure of their success in life. Let's work to create a world for them to grow up in where this is true.