My 4-year-old likes clothes. She likes to play dress-up and take her show on the road, which means that I often find myself wandering around the grocery store with Rapunzel by my side. If I were a stranger seeing her for the first time, I would ask her about her dress. If you could see her spinning around in it, you would, too, because it is so clear that she chose it thoughtfully and that she is enjoying herself and the story it brings to her life.
I see no problem in any of that -- her love of dressing up is entirely her own. I was a tomboy who grew up into a "tomwoman." Nowadays, I need to be able to run after my toddler. I'm usually wearing whatever pants are clean, a random shirt and gym shoes. I hardly wear jewelry or makeup. It's a good day for me if I've showered. I just don't think about my appearance all that much.
My daughter likes lots of things every which way: clothes, dolls, sports, Legos. I have no idea what she is or isn't yet. The same is true for my son. He, too, dresses up in superhero garb, and he, too, gets asked questions about what he's wearing -- it's hard not to ask when you're being stared down by a kid in a homemade mask. But, the questions for him are different. The variance is faint, but it's there, if you're listening. The comments and questions move on quickly from how he looks to what he can do, which super powers he has.
Whether she's wearing a Rapunzel dress or some other random outfit she has decided on for the day, the comments and questions directed at her focus on how she looks. Generally, they are all sweet compliments that she enjoys, but they are beginning to bother me. Even if I practice gender-neutral parenting -- supporting my sons and my daughter in whatever toys, clothes and activities they choose -- there are other factors acting on them. Nature is a part of what makes them who they are, sure, but what about the nurturing they get from the world?
I have been thinking more about this because I have been guilty of it, too. I'm catching myself bringing gender expectations into my comments to my children. I've been listening more carefully to what I'm asking and saying. I literally have to close my eyes and think of what I would say to my son if he were in one of his get-ups and then I say that thing or ask that question of my daughter.
I can't believe that I have to think that hard. I can't believe that I have to think at all; I can't believe that I change what I say and how I say it between my daughter and my son. Some might say that I'm saying and asking different things, because that is what you do with different people. You'd be right about that, but I hear myself and I know that that's not the whole story. I am looking at this little girl and putting things on her -- things I don't even know I'm putting on her and things I thought I'd never put on her.
I wrote this to remind myself to Ask Her More.
Ask her what you will ask her because she's a girl and ask her whatever you'd ask any boy; ask her if she has any special powers, ask her if she has a story behind the dress.
Maybe she'll be a fashion designer someday, or perhaps she'll be a woman who loves to get fancied up before she heads into her boardroom. Maybe she won't be any of those things. I don't care at all what she ends up doing as long as she knows all the way through that she can be whatever she wants.
We're about to listen to many interviews with Hillary Clinton. No matter whether you support her candidacy or not, it's going to get boring by the end. It always does. In order to amuse yourself, listen to what the interviewers ask her and compare that to the questions asked of her male counterparts. If we are discussing Hillary's hair and clothes and not his hair or clothes, we've done it. If we are asking her about being a mother and a grandmother and not asking him about the same, we've done it again. We think it doesn't matter, but words matter. Questions can limit just as much as statements can.
My girl is as sweet as pie and as tough as nails, the way most of us -- male or female -- are at our core. I am hoping she keeps on keeping on however she likes.
You can learn more about the #AskHerMore campaign here.