When I was a kid, little girls were supposed to dress up for holidays. Little girls often wore pretty pastel-colored dresses, slippery useless patent leather shoes, and bows in their hair. They were supposed to stay pretty and clean, and smile for the camera. Little boys could wear pants and sensible shoes and run around like crazy, but little girls were supposed to act like little princesses. "Sit like a lady," girls were told, again and again, whereas "boys will be boys."
I can still remember some of the dresses that I wore – a purple one with puffy sleeves and polka dots that I just adored – or my very favorite, which was a First Communion dress that my mother dyed yellow after my sisters and I had all worn it. The skirt flared out when you twirled, which made it a fun dress to dance in. I can understand why anyone, male or female, could enjoy clothes, could love to experiment with color and texture and drape. I myself have lovely billowy pantaloons I wear for belly dancing.
But the idea that girls were supposed to dress pretty seemed silly to me as a kid. It seemed that mostly, the dresses were just for photos. I never stayed in them long. They looked pretty, but skirts and slippery shoes just aren't very practical for playing outside, at least not in my climate. Have you ever tried to climb a tree in a dress and patent leather shoes? Or gone on a hike on a cold windy day wearing only tights under a dress? Before Easter dinner was even out of the oven, my sisters and I would already be changing into pants and boots so that we could race around the muddy backyard. Luckily, my parents never cared if we got our dress-up clothes dirty or if we discarded them altogether. Any dress I wore had already been handed down twice, so I could rip clothing climbing over a fence and it didn't matter much at all. And my mother, with five kids to clothe in a climate where we sometimes still had snow on Easter, abandoned the convention of holiday dress-up clothes pretty early in my childhood.
When I see photographs of little girls, all dressed up in pretty clothes and smiling for the camera, I still sometimes wonder at the kind of gender stereotypes perpetrated by the photographs. I suspect that the girls in the photos, like the girls in my family, discard the pretty clothes quickly in favor of more practical clothing as soon as the photo is snapped. I know that Dandelion Niece will show up for Easter dinner in a frilly pastel-colored dress, which she will show everyone proudly, and that doesn't stop her from stomping through puddles and getting the dress covered with muddy spots moments later.
So I am not saying that these photographs directly harm the individual girls in the photos nor am I criticizing the parents who take the photographs. I've taken photos like that of my own daughter and nieces. But I do wonder about the cumulative effect of the images we get over and over again of little girls dressed pretty, smiling at the camera. It seems as a culture we have a need to examine the gendered roles we ask girls and boys to play even in early childhood. Sure, perhaps things have changed since my 1960s childhood days, but it still seems like girls have this social pressure to "look pretty." I'd like to say I have seen just as many photos – in the media, on the blogs, wherever – of little boys dressed up to look pretty, in wholly impractical clothing, asked to smile for the camera -- but to be honest, I haven't. Our female children are under societal pressures that do not extend to our male children.
This was a long way of saying that this video, of Fresh-Cut Flowers' beautiful little girl, pleased me immensely.