September 15, 2006

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes

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.

30 comments:

chichimama said...

I have to admit, my kids rarely make it out of their pajamas on major holidays. Which is why I usually volunteer to host.

I always feel somewhat deficient as a parent because I don't send out pictures to everyone I know of them all dressed up, but they are happy and I save a fortune on dress up clothes that get worn once...

What a great video. She will do well in life knowing how to fix a car.

ppolarbear said...

Growing up in Illinois, every Easter picture I have is one where the pants were removed moments before the picture, and you can usually see the undershirt under the dress. We'd wear the dresses for church, but that was it. church, pictures, and then back to those funny knit pants that were oh-so-cool. I know it was important to my mom to hand my dresses down to LP, and for her to hand them down to my cousins (and they originally came from next door neighbor, if they weren't mom-made.)
My nieces, however, LOVE to wear dresses--frilly or plain. They don't even wear the shorts underneath like I always did, "It's just underwear," Elder said, with disdain, when i asked her if she wore shorts to school "boys can see it in catalogs, so who really cares?" Despite their preference for dresses, they are lucky to have lots of clothes and a mom who really doesn't care what the clothes look like at the end of the day.

Jody said...

Well, I stick my son in sweater vests and polished shoes and he has quite the collection of ties (although that was our response to his direct and persistent request to be allowed to wear dresses to church, too). And we wear them on Sundays to church, or on holidays to church, and we do take quite the photos.

All of which is just to say, I totally take your point, but I'm going to go right ahead dressing my kids up until they cry foul and tell me to bug off!

(Because I'm pesky and inconsistent that way re: feminism and sex-role behavior straightjackets....)

MonkeyPants said...

I can remember the Kindergarten Easter Parade, where we were all told to wear our finest to school. Girls had made little easter bonnets and boys had made ties, out of cardboard and glued on squares of tissue paper, attached with string. We walked in a line around to all the classrooms, showing ourselves off.

I remember being jealous of the boys because they could still run around in their finery, but the girls' bonnets blew off when they ran. So not fair!

Chip said...

I love that video! What a lucky dad to have a kid who'll crawl back in those hard-to-reach places...

This video and your post reminds me of that movie My Cousin Vinnie, where the main female character, who dresses in very stereotypically feminine ways, is actually an expert car mechanic (because all of her male relatives were car mechanics) who saves the day. The Alabama courtroom of course can't believe that the little lady could possibly know anything about cars, but she blows them away.

On the dressing up, my daughter never really liked dresses too much and apart from her first communion dress she didn't have too many past the age of 6. And yeah, society does put very different demands on women. But I think having little girls in pretty dresses is the least of the problems -- the media imagery of adolescent and adult women are the real problem... Likewise the attitude of adults in the child's life. You survived the dresses because your parents didn't have a problem with you changing and running off to play. I suppose that if on the other hand you were not allowed to run outside but had to sit quietly in the dress, you might have gotten a different ending...

jo(e) said...

Chip: Yes, when I analyze something like the media imagery of adolescent and adult women, the sexism is easy to see. But the ways girls are treated different than boys – and encouraged to submissive, compliant, and passive – are much much more subtle when I look at early childhood. The subtle pressures *are* still there, though, and still affect girls deeply, and these subtle things are perhaps the hardest part of our culture to change. I am sure that I treated my own daughter in sexist ways at times because I come from a culture where sexism seems like normal behavior.

The whole "girls must wear pretty dresses" thing didn't affect me a whole lot because my parents didn't really buy into it. My mother put a much bigger value on playing outside.

But I do know women my age who still have memories of getting yelled at when they got their clothes dirty or ripped a dress, or who were shamed for sitting in an "unladylike way."

MindSpin said...

I remember getting in trouble for messing up my Sunday dress when I was five or six. Apparently I wasn't supposed to make soup of water and grass for the horses while wearing it. I wasn't supposed to go play in the creek in my ballet suit either.

I wish I knew now all the things Peanut is learning to do!

Heather said...

I hated those dresses. The crinoline always itched. The armscy always pinched. And they made weird bulges when you stuffed the dress into your snow pants or puddle pants or any other pants that acutally had that most useful of sartorial items: pockets.

For me the most charming and encouraging thing about the clip is how competent, graceful, and purposefully dirty she is. She's just perched there doing her thing.

zelda1 said...

Joe, I so remember those days of frilly dresses and how I hated the itchy ones. As soon as we went to church, had our picture taken, my younger sister and I were out of those clothes and back into our jeans and old hand me down T-shirts. I never understood how my mother justified those shiny shoes when we were only allowed two pairs of shoes a year and by Easter, my first pair was pretty much shot and those patent leather ones didn't wear well at school. IN fact, I never wore them to school. I went from school shoes to thongs to bare feet. Yep, that was us, the no shoes on our feet kids.

joanna said...

My first communion ensemble was cobbled together by my mother's borrowing of other kids' things and having a dress made that copied my favorite dress. I remember the borrowed ankle socks--my own were gray and worn out--and that my mother had made such a big deal out of how careless I'd been with my things. But how clean can you stay when you're climbing trees or exploring old ruins of houses? I don't regret the gray socks for a minute! Thanks for the video and the memory.

Anonymous said...

My mother used to buy my daughter a frilly dress for every holiday and so I felt like quite the ungrateful daughter if I didn't dress my little girl up and take photos, the whole bit, and my parents and aunts and uncles gave my daughter a whole lot of attention and praise for how she looked so of course she loved the frilly dresses even if her knees were cold. But I really wish the relatives could have given my daughter attention and praise for other qualities, like how smart she is or how well she plays soccer.

R.

Bardiac said...

Argh! This post brings back all the frustrations of being forced to wear dress up clothes, and behave "like a lady" while the boys got to play outside, and the men sat around watching TV waiting to be waited on.

Thanks, Jo(e). I think I'll go put on a pair of shorts and get as muddy as I can gardening or something!

ccw said...

Usually I buy new pj's for the holidays; practical and everyone likes them.

Leslee said...

Jo(e), I feel so honored to be mentioned in your post. Thank you.

And thanks to everyone who has commented about my Peanut.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Boy I am with you 100% on this one!!! WE cotinue to erperate the stereotypes and the expectations for girls AND women!!! UGH!

WHen I was a child, we were required to wear dresses to school EVERY DAY except one day at the end of the year: field days!! And dress-up dresses for holidays stayed on at least through the majority if not all of the festivities and we were expected to behave with decorum.

Things have improved since then, but they still have a ways to go.

What's that Margaret Atwood book we all need to have read? The 'Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood

The 'Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood

keep up the good an important work you're doing! Mary :-D

Anonymous said...

I liked dresses when I was little but mainly because pretty dresses got me attention from the grownups. and then when I was a teenager, I dressed to get attention from boys.

it took years of therapy for me to realize that I didn't need attention from anyone to feel good about myself.

The dresses were itchy and my mother would freak out if I spilled food on them.

Boys had more freedom. They could get dirty and no one ever yelled at them.

Sara said...

That video of Peanut is great! I love how casual she is about the whole thing, how comfortable in the cramped space. I truly admire people who work on their own cars. Peanut is getting a good headstart.

We were not regular churchgoers growing up, so I was fortunately spared a lot of the mandatory frilliness. I certainly enjoyed my fair share of "dress-up" play as a child, but the fancy stuff was always that: a costume. And my Mom has always been adamant about sensible shoes. I never once owned a pair of patent leather shoes, or any other shoes with smooth soles. All shoes had to be rubber soled for traction.

Aliki2006 said...

I'm de-lurking to say I enjoy your blog, and that I am remarkably remiss when it comes to dressing my kids up. Often we'll arrive at an event and I'll look at my kids and suddenly realize that a) my son's shirt is really dirty, actually; b) perhaps I should have combed my daughter's hair; c) not only is her hair messy but she's the only girl NOT wearing a dress...

Here in the South everyone seems to dress their little girls the same: oversized smock dresses with Peter Pan collars and a matching oversized hair bow.

Anonymous said...

Just to point out: why does your daughter's nom de blog include several personal attribute (including appearance) adjectives, yet your sons' are decidedly more superficial? Girls need the bolstering, boys are busy running around? Not trying to be snarky - I noticed this some time ago and am genuinely curious ... It seems to be almost a universal of mother/daughter relationships ...

jo(e) said...

Anon: I think it's because I have only one daughter and I have three sons. So if I called one of my sons the Smart Beatiful Wonderful Son, then I would be choosing him from amongst his brothers. It would seem like playing favorites.

Since I have only daughter, I don't need to call her blonde daughter or long-haired daughter or daughter-who-wears-jeans or anything that distinguishes her from any other daughter.

I don't see the word beautiful as describing a physical attribute -- it applies to all aspects of a person. It's different, for instance, than the word pretty, which is a word I tend to use only in sarcastic ways.

Originally, I called my daughter my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter and then said, "That's not her pseudonym. That is what I call her in real life. Her pseudonym is Daughter." But readers started using the longer pseudonym in their comments too so I stuck with it.

In real life, I am always throwing words like Wonderful and Smart in front of the names of all my kids. Because they pretty much are all wonderful and smart.

Jody said...

Because mines seems to be the only "Yeah, my daughters wear dresses" post, and because I'm not sure I was clear:

We all dress up for church on Sunday. The girls wear 100% cotton dresses because I accidentally bought a style once with something itchy and both daughters refused to wear it. It's true that pants are less constricting in some ways than dresses, but all three kids climb on the Noah's Ark and swing from the ladder and slide down the swings after church. ALL of their church clothes fall into the high end of the dork meter -- son's and daughters' -- because I happen to have a highly positive response to polished going-to-church images. We're practically the only family dressing up for church these days, though, here in southern Red Clay state, and those clothes are great, too.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the little girl helping Daddy fix the car. We are not so mechanical here (no one's car would really sustain that sort of intervention, being highly computerized and tinker-averse, alas) but the kids spend most of their days digging in dirt and doing odd experiments with mud and going on bug hunts and playing in the nearby creek. The kids don't do this in church clothes, of course, but that's a rule that applies to son and daughters alike. Red Clay is a devil to get out of clothing.

I totally take the point that "pretty" clothes for girls often send the "incapacitated" message and I realize that the church dresses are part of that. I have the defensive need to point out that my son owns two dresses, and is campaigning for a third, because he thinks it's unfair that girls get to be pretty-pretty and boys are stuck wearing nothing fancier than dumb ties.

I don't know what else to say. I had no idea church clothes were such a philosophical conundrum.

Jody said...

Uh, slide down the slides. They'd probably slide off the swings if that were an option, but there aren't any swings on the church playground.

Also: maybe it's because I'm an Upper Midwest Mosquito State girl, or maybe it's because smocking turns out to cost a fortune, but my girls don't own a single smocked dress with a peter-pan collar, nor do they have the sort of hair that takes bows.

Jody said...

Just thinking that the car comment makes me sound like an Asshole.

We have a Honda Civic and a banged up Chrysler Grand Voyager. They're definitely nothing fancy, I just worry about going under the hoods of any cars built after about 1980.

Also, the whole "dress up for family gathering and sit there being quiet and nice" thing? Total BS. We're out of church clothes as soon as we get home, on Easter and Christmas and every other Sunday of the year. You need to be in pants and a shirt or sweater to enjoy family time. You can't play kickball in a dress.

molly said...

My mom thought of me as her "little doll" and dressed me as such. I wasn't allowed to get dirty and wasn't allowed to wear pants till she bought me two pairs of jeans when I was 9.

I had a pair of patent leather shoes. I wore them to the first day of school as I transferred into my new 6th grade class. I walked across the classroom, slipped and fell flat on my ass in front of all my new classmates. I never lived it down.

My Mom still apologizes to me for not letting me be a "real" child, and for trying to fit me into her idea of what her ideal child should be.

Marie said...

Love this post. I grew up in the South and I DO still remember getting yelled at to "sit like a lady". AND my Mom made me quit playing football with the neighbor guys when I was 12. When I asked why, she said it was because, "young ladies don't play football." The guys were sorry to lose me. I was just pissed. A hey, look, it didn't make me anymore ladylike as an adult. I still don't wear froufrou dresses. ;)

Chip said...

A friend wrote a reaction to this post and the comments and asked me to post it on my blog, it's up as Frilly dresses and gender at my daddychip2.blogspot.com blog.

Lilian said...

Well, I have two boys and I'm with Jody, I dress them up for church every week and sometimes they get to play even wearing formal clothes (we do remove ties and sometimes change their clothes entirely before eating the church potluck, though).

They have also been to several weddings. My eldest has already been a ring-bearer in 4 weddings, in two of them wearing a rented tux (there is a photo in my blog somewhere in Dec. 05). Because of his weekly "practice" wearing formal clothing, in one of these tuxedo weddings he stayed dressed all through the reception, until after midnight. (in the second one he was sick with a fever, so he was cranky and had to be undressed soon after).

Anyway... I don't know what I'd do with a daughter, I'd probably change into something comfortable as soon as possible as happens with Jody's children... Another thing... I don't remember my "church" shoes being slippery and uncomfortable when I was a child, I guess Brazilian shoes may be better than the ones you have here :)

You are perfecly right about the stereotypes, though, and the fact that we don't see many photos of dressed up boys around. Great discussion...

(I quickly checked out the discussion in Chip's blog and then thought about Jody's posts telling about her son wearing sparkly clothes and stuff... some people are already working on breaking the stereotypes although it's definitely not mainstream)

Ginny's World said...

Let's not forgot that it not always about looking pretty but feeling pretty. Being pregnant this summer I missed pretty dresses and skirts so much. Also, not to mention, most girls really like pretty dresses. I took my two year old shopping for her birthday party dress. Wasn't sure of the size to buy so we went to the dressing room for her first time. This shop was a combo kids/maternity shop so the dressing room was really big and pretty. My daughter was so excited that with out prompting, immediately sat down to take off her shoes. Then I put the pretty dress with the puffy skirt on her. Again, with out prompting, she gathered the puffy skirt up in her arms to hug and then spun around. This was all nature. I've never taught her to act so girly. It tickled me to death and will always be a sweet memory.

jo(e) said...

Ginny's World: Sure, there is nothing wrong with a boy or girl wanting to feel pretty. But evidence points to the disturbing fact that women in our culture, not men, are the ones that have a poor body image. Eating disorders, for example, are far more common among females than males.

And although the memory you describe might be sweet, it's hard to see how you could argue that it was all nature, and that your daughter is completely exempt from any influence from our culture -- that somehow she has learned nothing at all from interaction with other humans. I'd love to think that my own daughter is somehow removed from the influence of a patriarchal society, but since she hasn't been living in a cave, I cannot possible assert that.

Anonymous said...

My mom would not allow me to wear pants ever. It was a really big issue. I was her daughter on show. I had to wear whatever clothes she put out for me to wear. I felt acutely self conscious. She would often make me wear skimpy short dresses. She once told me that she had me wear plain white underwear with short dresses so that I would not do rough boy things. At school I always had to wear a skirt even for sport and it was only on the days when I had sport that I was allowed to wear sports briefs.

Even today when I visit my parents, I still feel the need to dress in a skirt and look presentable. Its just not worth the agro of getting her off side if I were to dare wear pants.