It’s A Girl

There’s no doubt that she’s a girl. Every stitch of clothing she has on is pink and frilly. As she toddles across the playground in her tiered skirt and midriff top, I can’t help but think of how I dressed my daughters when they were her age. The clothes they wore were practical. I put them in dresses for church and special occasions, but for everyday play it was corduroy pants and T-shirts. They weren’t always pink. Or even pastel. And they rarely had lace or a ruffle. I didn’t want my daughters to grow up feeling boxed in by their sex. And I didn’t want others treating them like little girls. I wanted them to be treated as people, nothing more and nothing less.

A colleague told me the other day that her six-year-old son is starting to play T-ball and her four-year-old daughter will be cheerleading this summer. At first I thought, that’s nice, but then I came to my senses. At four years old you’re already teaching your daughter that it’s boys who do and girls who watch? And even worse, how to look pretty while they cheer the boys on?

My words may raise the ire of today’s parents who dress their girls so that there can be no doubt as to their gender. But my question for them is: why work so hard at it? And what difference does it make if your child is mistaken for the other sex? (God forbid a boy should be mistaken for a girl!) At the baby stage it makes it less awkward for people who can’t tell if “it’s” a boy or a girl. But so what? All they have to do is ask.

When I was coming up through the Women’s Liberation Movement, the emphasis was on not catering to the patriarchal society’s idea of what made a woman beautiful. So we shunned makeup and beauty pageants, took off our bras and stopped shaving. (Some of us did, that is.) But young feminists today claim their right to be feminine. Their mantra is that whatever they want to do or look like is their right. They are much more inclusive: anything goes. This would seem to be a more liberated approach. But is it really?

It is one thing to try to be sexy because it makes you feel good; it is another to do it because society demands it. Women are still being judged by how well they fit society’s idea of femininity. Sarah Palin, young, slim and attractive and a former beauty pageant runner-up is much less threatening to the American public than is Hillary Clinton who is older, heavier, a lot less folksy and more hard-hitting. (Although Palin showed that she could be hard-hitting when the occasion called for it.) I’m not talking about the reaction to her politics and her experience, but to her appearance. If she does go far in American politics, it will be partly because of her acceptability by these standards.

This is how much things have changed since the Women’s Liberation Movement of the ’60s and ’70s. In those years, feminists said that you should not be judged by your looks; today there is a desire to be all a woman can be, including being feminine. But it is still important for a woman to decide how she wants to be feminine. She should not be squeezed into a one-size-fits-all concept of femininity.

Second Wave Feminists and Sex Appeal

Ah, the good old days! I sure miss the time when feminists would come out in force to protest something they felt strongly about. For example: a little over forty years ago, on Sept. 7, 1968, 150 women protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. This was one of the first large demonstrations of the Second Wave of feminism in this country, aka the Women’s Liberation Movement. The reason for this protest seems self-evident to me, but then, as a Second Wave feminist myself, I can relate to the thinking of the protesters. To wit: beauty pageants exploit women.

Am I showing my age here? From what I’ve read of Third Wave feminism, beauty pageants may well be a dead issue for them. They may even see them as a form of feminine empowerment. I suppose they could be seen that way, but I lean toward feeling that women sell their souls in order to become icons that are pleasing to men. That may be putting it a little strongly, I admit. I am not immune to the artifices women use to retain a sense of their feminine power; as a way to stave off my concerns about aging I have turned to make-up and fashion to make me feel that I am still somewhat desirable. But why should I have to feel that I am a shadow-woman if I no longer have sex-appeal?

The difference between Second Wave and Third Wave feminists is that Second Wave feminists were ahead of their chronological age when they protested the Miss America pageant. They could see into their futures when a woman would be discarded as no longer important when she begins to visibly age. They could relate to women who were already there. They were also concerned with those who came behind them: they didn’t want their children and grandchildren to be caught in the same trap.

But now we find that younger feminists are no longer worried about this issue. They are claiming their right to be “grrls,” to be feminine in defiance of what men think about them sexually. I can see their point but I still worry about the insidiousness of the way men project their ideal of feminine beauty onto women. Second Wave feminists were protesting the process by which women are made to feel inferior by not measuring up to that ideal. Third Wave feminists may well be fooling themselves if they think they are not affected by this process.

It’s easy for young women to feel complacent about and protective of their womanly wiles. All they have to do is be young, and they are considered to be appealing. They won’t relate to Second Wave feminists’ concerns about using sex appeal to gain acceptance until they themselves reach middle age. I guarantee it. And by then it may be too late to recapture what they lost when they were trying to be feminine according to society’s standards.