My oldest is now 8, but when she was in preschool I had a pivotal moment with her that just recently repeated itself with my 4 year old. For the most part, I feel the world is progressing but from time to time things happen that make me shudder at how hard it is to be a girl. It’s not in obvious, in your face, kind of ways. It’s worse. It’s in little expectations and passive opinions that put girls down before they’ve even had the opportunity to know who they are or what they are capable of.
Four years ago, in P’s second year of preschool she came home one day saying that the girls in her class wouldn’t play with her because she was dressed like a boy. She usually wore pants in the winter and then all of a sudden she wouldn’t wear all the corduroys I bought her. I worked around this for about a week, dressing her in dresses and skirts. However, P played hard. Leggings came home with holes in the knees after playing cars on all fours with the boys. But she also liked playing with girls but her attire was apparently causing a social problem.
Before I go on let me show you how I’ve dressed her and her sister in pants.
We’re a bit more stylish maybe than most? I don’t do the usual kid attire for the most part. I use to have my own line of kids clothes and have always dressed the girls very artsy, progressive and influenced by film and fashion icons. They very often receive compliments for their outfits. On week two of the pants problem I had had enough. Four year olds, who I didn’t know and whose mother’s taste I loathed were dictating what my daughter was wearing. And the real problem was that they were putting thoughts in her mind that REALLY bothered me. Thoughts about what boys and girls SHOULD and were EXPECTED to wear. One morning I drew the line.
I told P I wanted her to wear pants. Girls are girls no matter what they wear. I told her the next time one of her little friends criticized her outfits I wanted her to ask them when was the last time they picked up a Vogue? I also told her to ask them if they knew who Annie Hall was or Coco Channel. I had introduced P to these women already. I use to flip through Vogue and W with P and we would talk about fabrics, styles and designers. I told her to be strong and that I wanted her to learn right out of the gate that being different was great. She was still upset. She cried. Her dad got mad at me. I explained that today it was about corduroys and tomorrow it would be about tube-tops and ultra short skirts. I was sorry but she needed to be strong as did us as her parents. However, I sent her to school with a lump in my throat. I prayed all day that she would somehow find her place somewhere in the preschool social dynamic. This may seem stupid as an adult but preschool is just as important to a four year old as office politics and promotions are to a grown man or woman.
When I picked P up from school that day her pants were on kind of weird, a bit off center. My mind went to the worst place and I asked her what had happened, all the while afraid to hear the answer. She said after she had asked her friends if they had ever read a Vogue and a few other things and then they wanted to wear her pants! By the grace of God she had turned the tables and after that she never had a problem wearing her cords! I could also tell she learned something about social dynamics. Wardrobe has never been a problem since.
Fast forward to today. My youngest is now 4 and in her second year of preschool. She came home two weeks ago saying that she didn’t want to wear the pants I put her in because they were boys pants. I could literally feel the fire in my head! Here we go again! I asked her why she thought her pants were “boys pants” and she said some of the kids at school told her that. I said, “G, you are wearing them so they are girls pants.” You look amazing! The drama wasn’t as big as with her sister. Fortunately, I wasn’t dealing with the element of exclusion this time. However, I’ve heard her from time to time mention that this is a boy’s toy or that’s a girl’s toy and I’ve had to talk to her about there not being boy’s or girl’s toys. They are toys for everyone. What kills me though is that some of the kids who have said these things are from families who in theory are not sexist. Their words aren’t sexist but I’m starting to think their actions are. Do I address this? And if so how? Topic for another time…
Anyway, so my girls have heard my entire speech on equality for boys and girls on everything from clothing to jobs to responsibilities at home. However, it’s hard for my voice to sound right when they are hearing the opposite from so many other avenues around us. And then a miracle happened…
I have a friend who recently gave a Ted Talk, Samantha Ettus. She and I grew up playing tennis together. Not that we were close, she grew up in New York and I in Florida, but we saw each other at Nationals and other big tournaments from the time we were 12 all the way through college. One afternoon I started watching her Ted Talk in the kitchen. The girls overheard it and asked what I was watching. When I said it was a friend they wanted to see. I rewound and watched it from the beginning with them. All of a sudden I saw a light go off in their heads. They were so into her speech! Her words were familiar. They even said “you say these things to!”, except Sam was on a Ted stage, beautifully dressed and looking wonderful! She was talking to a lot of people! My message was no longer odd man out. It was the voice of leadership and success and it was sinking in! G was painting while she was watching and she started asking me “Would your friend like purple? Would your friend like green? Would your friend like blue and pink and orange and red?” The message was so valid and important to her. You have to watch the talk to understand why G was asking about colors.
Once again, I am so moved and in awe of the power of women athletes. I am so grateful to have played a sport at a level that gave me confidence, strength, determination and mostly it gave me an army of women who think the same way and who are now raising their children in the same way. It’s hard to grow up as a girl. But it’s an amazing experience when you are given the tools to do anything you want and as long as you have your sisterhood of strength. Fortunately, girls growing up with powerful messages turn into powerful and successful women. An incredibly high percentage of my tennis friends are succeeding in their respective ventures. The crazy thing is we all come from varied backgrounds; different socio-economic levels, ethnicities, religions, parenting styles and we were raised in different parts of the country and even the world. The one common experience we all had was tennis and most of us are thriving in life. That says a lot. And then there’s the women who are thriving in the public eye like Samantha. Fortunately she makes my job as a mother easier.
Now when I say “That’s not a toy for just boys or girls. It’s for everyone!” my girls believe me and they spread the message whole heartedly. What they wear is no longer an issue! The colors they chose are no longer right or wrong and I no longer have to be there to reiterate it. Even when another adult gives them the wrong message they speak up because the words aren’t just mine anymore. They belong to a greater group. Thanks to Sam my message has become part of their fiber, the fiber of strong women.
Here is Samantha’s Ted Talk.