Keeping Up Appearances: Redefining Femininity for Ourselves and our Girls Part One

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be feminine lately.  The JCPenney girl’s t-shirt clothing fiasco prompted some of this reflection, as did Walmart’s new makeup line for girls pre-teen and up.  While I thought JCPenney’s buyers inept and sexist, and felt that the makeup line was an evolution of an already existing issue with young girls emulating adult cosmetic use, it has also been my recent re-reading of Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls that has affected my thoughts.  Pipher talks about how the messages that our culture gives our girls, transform girls from healthy, active, curious, adventurous, confident little girls, to insecure, often out-of-control, distant pre-teens and teenagers who operate from an external locus of identity that often fails them during adolescence.  I read this book in college, and it spoke to me then, but Pipher’s startling examples are even more salient and concerning as I read them as a more well-established adult and as a parent of a daughter.

Pipher talks about the active, high in-control, and affectionate parenting style that helps girls navigate through the difficult transition.  Parenting style develops during early childhood and I hope to keep some of these issues in my consciousness as I try to raise V with her father, M.  I’m challenging some of my own thinking about “femininity” and I’m hoping to take a more active role in creating a culture that encourages girls to integrate the best parts of traditionally feminine and masculine roles into their concept of what it means to be a woman.

With that in mind, I’m writing a series of posts about “femininity”.  I’m not sure how many posts will be involved, or whether they will be spread out over time, and I know I’ll keep writing about this topic on and off for as long as I keep blogging, but I have a few topics to discuss and share.  I hope you’ll take this journey with me and participate in the conversation.

Part One:  Keeping up Appearances:  What Makes Clothing “Feminine?”

Often I hear mothers of little boys bemoaning the few clothing choices available to them.  These mothers have been known to comment “There are so many more choices for girls…”  In my head, I’ve often wondered, “what choices??”  When I walk into my local discount clothing store, I can always pick out the girls section by looking for the island of pink and frilly.  These days, the pink is somewhat tempered by a ‘rocker girl’ look; I’m not hip to the lingo of the fashion trend, but I see it as Tim Burton meets the 80’s meets the Jetsons.  So choices are:  pink, or punk.  Neither of which appeal to my personal fashion sense. Still, among the first things said to my husband M and I when we disclosed that we were having a baby girl was, “Oh, good, now we know what color layette to get you…”!

M and I did not want our daughter V, to have her femininity dictated whilst she was still in the womb.  Purposefully, we registered for neutral clothing.  It typically comes in more dirt friendly colors, which allows kids who are, let’s face it, pretty dirty in their daily explorations, to not look as grimy as they really are. We went to a local resale shop and loaded up on comfy grey and black sweatpants, neutral overalls, and what my girlfriends labeled in somewhat teasing, partially confused tones, “those are boy pants!”  Apparently, the pleating and cut make a difference.  Boys pants are looser and baggier, while girls pants are cut tighter and curvier.  Hmm.  Despite, and in some cases, in direct opposition to our wishes, we were bombarded with pink.  I knew it would happen, and I did appreciate the generosity of well-meaning friends and family members. I just did not want the primary color my little gal saw for the first year of her life to be, well, pink.  I wanted to at least mix it up a bit.

So our kid wore the pink.  I really have nothing against pink.  It’s not my favorite color, but neither is yellow and I’ve put my gal in both.  It’s what we’ve assigned to pink over the years; the fragility, the frilly, the “oh so delicate” tints or brassy, bold and sexy versions of femininity.  It’s also the fact that when I go to purchase play shoes for V, I am often confronted with choosing pink and sparkly and strappy over sensible, durable, dirt colored shoes that can take some wear and tear on the playground.  So I have been known to buy the boy shoes.

V kicks it in an ESPN hat and her second fave color "bahlack" shorts and shoes!

Clothing for toddlers is not the worst of the issue however.  For a discriminating parent, one can either choose to buy “boy” clothes or find primary colors like red, green, black at your local Walmart.  It is some of the attire for pre-teens on up that really boggles the mind.  Pants with “juicy” or “hot” (or frankly ANY words) written across the bottom.  “Sexy” kids underwear: truly disgusting.  Super tight pants and tops.  Skirts that barely graze the upper thigh. I was in the mall the other day, and saw three young girls, probably about 12 years of age, who looked like miniature hookers.  One of the little gals was sporting a Dora the Explorer backpack on top of her Sex and the City attire.  How confusing to be in between those worlds; one in which you can dress sensibly and explore the world in an androgynous way, and one in which you must emulate the dress of over sexualized women to be valued.

I do not expect all girls to avoid pink.  I do not expect us all to wear pants or jeans and t-shirts.  Personally, I like a little frill or a modest cut that flatters my appearance.  Yet as a mom, I do feel the need to think carefully about the messages that my clothing choices for V and myself communicate about what it means to be feminine.  Alongside the dresses in both of our closets are sweats, yoga pants and jeans and beaten down t-shirts for doing art projects or getting grubby in the garden, or climbing around and digging in the dirt at the park.  Mixed in with the pinks, are blues, greens, blacks, reds, oranges.  There is a whole world of choices out there for my girl.  She can pick the pink if that’s what she likes, (her fave color is actually “pourple”) but I want her to know she can pick the baggy, comfy, grey t-shirts with pirates or airplanes or dinosaurs on them, and not be any less feminine.

V doesn’t need to get her nails done, or have her hair perfectly coifed and highlighted, or put on layers of makeup to be beautiful or feminine.  She just is.  Amazing, funny, joyful, intelligent, loving, and beautiful.  Beautiful is one of the words that describes her, but not the only one.  As a parent, I want to make sure she learns that beauty and femininity are much more complex concepts than the limited views we often take when we shove our gals in pink hats and booties from day one.  Someday, V may sport rocker punk pink attire, or she may wear a lab coat and sensible black Dr. Scholl’s shoes, or she may wear worn out sweats with her hair stuffed in her husband’s oversized ball cap (my attire most days).  I just don’t want her thinking pink, or “juicy” or half-naked=feminine.  I want her to value her femininity and realize that being feminine is more than attiring oneself in a manner that solicits male sexual attention or that is wrapped up in images of delicacy and fragility.

14 responses to “Keeping Up Appearances: Redefining Femininity for Ourselves and our Girls Part One

  • Cat von Hassel-Davies

    You are an amazing Mom! Great post and I hope a lot of Moms and Dads see this.


  • Laura Davis

    Great topic and outstanding viewpoint. My oldest daughter grew up in boys shoes, and it still drives me crazy how boy’s pants are such a higher quality than girls (with the reinforced knee panel) so both my girls wore neutral “boy” pants in their younger years. Practical for crawling kids exploring or being outside, and oh how they hold up to daily wear and tear!

    I too have an inner struggle with how to present myself for my two girls and my son – I have noticed the last year or two that my 8 year old daughter becomes fascinated when she sees me putting on any kind of makeup (which is a rare occasion, but I will use it for a special event; foundation and tinted chapstick is the extent.) My son will make a comment that I look beautiful. I look forward to more posts about this issue. It is a topic that I think a lot of parents go through/struggle with/think about. I know I do!

  • Pamela

    Great points re: the reinforced pants….ah, why do they do that? And why don’t we say anything as parents? Stay tuned to my future posts for the one re: makeup….:)

  • Jessica@Team Rasler

    The wardrobe is a tough part of parenting, I think. The oversexualization and pretty princess for girls, the skull & crossbones or constant sports for boys. I only have two boys, and I scour the resale shops for higher end clothes that are plain and will last longer than the overly gendered stuff everywhere else, but it’s tough. It makes me sad, too, that my 3-year-old who loves pink has no pink options in the boy section for him to wear. If we do end up having a girl someday, I’ll be happy to try out some different styles of clothing, but she’ll probably wear a lot of the same stuff her older brothers do! (Or at least, a mama can hope.)

  • Legolas


    Great article and very valid points…especially for the tots. As we see the adult generation of women surely moving toward a neutral-sexuality point of view, it remains in their hands to leave the “Old World” ideas in the rear-view mirror mirror and treat their young ones as they see themselves. As for those that have not yet adopted that line of thinking, whether for personal desires or because of peer or older generational pressures (hi, granny and gramps), we can only hope some of their ideas will be changed by way of books, new friends, and articles such as yours.

    Carry on!


  • Pressure from Ourselves: Redefining Femininity for Ourselves and our Girls Part Two « therippleeffect2009

    […] To read Part One click here: Keeping up Appearances:  What Makes Clothing “Feminine?” […]

  • MEL

    Good post babe. My biggest complaint about women’s clothes that wasn’t particularly addressed above is “style over function.” Particularly in shoes and pants. Shoes are meant for walking and protecting your feet, not for balancing on the balls of your feet or over-extending the soft tissue in your lower legs. And pants–why have faux pockets? WTH is that about? I have to carry all the stuff if you go w/o a purse b/c your pockets either don’t exist except as decoration or are so small that only a tic tac can fit in them.

  • Rivvi Rex

    I think what bothers me about the whole gender thing is that, what makes clothes “boyish” or “girlish” anyways?

    Like it’s kinda sad how boys can’t wear dresses or pink w/o being dictated as girly/gay/tranny and such, and girls usually can wear what they want w/o being judged as much.

    I’ve been googling all over possible explanations on how clothes got defined but no luck.

    • Pamela

      Rivvi, I remember wearing something that said that pink was traditionally a “boy” color until like the 1950’s for some reason. I wish I could remember the source. You are right that girls have more freedom to dress how they please; even if they are bombarded with messages pushing them in one direction. Thanks for reading and your thoughtful comment.

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