|Photo shows three infant onesies designed for girls. The first one is turquoise leopard print and reads "Love to Be Glam." The second is hot pink and reads "Kiss me, I'm cute." The third is pale pink, and is adorned with a crown, reading, "Princess."|
While grocery shopping at the local grocery store, Meijer, this morning, I was stopped by the three outfits above, all lined up in a row. I posted the above photo to Instagram and Facebook with the following words: "When the messages start so young, the conversation is still not big enough. #letstalkabout #consent #patriarchy #rapeculture #notsocute #wordsmatter #sodoourdaughters #meijer
I was happy to see several parents joining the conversation, some with important questions that highlight the many facets of the conversation around the socialization of girls and the treatment of girls and women in our society. I wanted, and needed, to more clearly explore my own thoughts and questions on this topic, and perhaps lay bare some more of what I was thinking when I posted the photo above.
My very first thoughts went to consent, because messages about consent - including who gets to give consent - are being delivered from a very young age.
According to a government survey completed in 2011, 1 in 5 women has experienced a rape or an attempted rape, with 40% of those rapes perpetrated by an acquaintance.
Let's look back at the those onesies and the messages they're sending. The first reads, "Love to be Glam." In Merriam Webster's online dictionary, 'glamorous' as defined for kids, means "excitingly attractive." Does a toddler really love to be excitingly attractive? Do we want to convey that message about our youngest, most vulnerable girls? Most of the rapes reported above occurred by the time the women were 18.
The second onesie reads, "Kiss me, I'm cute." I find this one disturbing on several levels. First, this is placing adult words on a child's body, without no regard to the child's temperament or wishes - and trust me, children from a very young age can have a temperament which is not keen on lots of kisses, particularly from strangers. Second, this shirt implies that this female infant or toddler is worthy of physical affection simply because of their physical appearance - not because they are human and worthy of love. Of course, "Hold me because I'm small and vulnerable and need a secure base to attach to and to keep me safe so I can develop appropriately" doesn't exactly fit on a onesie. No, what this onesie says is feel free to touch me, because I'm cute and I deserve it. And what I am saying is that as adults, we should be honoring a child's right to consent or decline physical interactions as soon as they are able to, whether that looks like watching their physical cues (crying, stiffening for a baby might mean a little too much contact) or allowing them to voice their "no" to a hug, and then honoring it. That is what consent looks like.
If you're still not sure I should have tagged the photo with #rapeculture, I encourage you to check out what rape culture looks like at www.onlywithconsent.org
Allow me to confess I don't have a girlchild (I have a 6 ft. tall manchild, but you likely already knew that) so why do I care if you dress your daughter in a onesie that says Princess? Well, honestly, because I care about the well-being of all children, young girls - your girls - included. I am not going to vilify any parent that purchases any of the above articles of clothing. I don't see that helping anyone, or opening up the conversation for those new to it.
I do believe it's important to look at what message is being sent via the princess culture and to ask questions about it. What do we think of when we, as a society, consider the princess? A damsel in distress? A woman waiting for her prince? What does a princess value? How did she get to be a princess in the first place, anyway? What does a princess look like? What have real princesses' lives looked like?
These are conversations we can have with our daughters - and maybe, just maybe, we can wait to put those clothes, that label, on them until they're old enough to join in the conversation.
ON THE MATTER OF CLOTHING - "SKIMPY," "MODEST" OR OTHERWISE
The conversation on Facebook turned to the types of clothing available for girls at chain shopping stores like Target, specifically about short shorts being the primary type of shorts available for girls. A question was raised about whether it's a problem if a girl likes short shorts. This is a whole other can of worms from that of infant clothing. Girls and women have the right to wear whatever they want without "sending the wrong message," "asking for it," or getting raped. These are things we need to be teaching our sons - not forcing on our daughters. And in regards to the words above, when we as women use words like skimpy or modest, we're not just using words that describe clothing - we're using words that pass judgment on the wearer of the clothing as acting appropriately or inappropriately. I myself sometimes wear scrubs and a sweatshirt (it is Monday, folks) and sometimes wear heels and a form-fitting dress. I am no less an appropriate woman, no more deserving of rape, for either choice. I think we're having a different conversation when we're discussing toddler onesies - but sexualization is a pervasive trend at every age.
Rape culture is teaching women not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape. - See more at: http://onlywithconsent.org/blog/rape-culture#sthash.32IjyJeK.dpuf
I think ideas about the "right" clothing for girls and women to bleed into the realm of benevolent sexism, and in case your wondering what the hell that is, lucky you, I wrote a paper about it not too long ago. "Benevolent sexism is defined by a reverence toward women, who require the protection of a man and deserve the care of a man; although their rightful place is in the home, that place is a very special, very elevated place (Hammond, Sibley & Overall, 2014). (Perhaps you can see how princess culture might play into this as well). The scary thing about benevolent sexism is that it is an ideology held by both men and women - and an ideology that tends to punish, in very real ways, women that do not conform to traditional, conservative norms in dress or action. Masser, Viki and Power (2006) found that there is a relationship between the use of rape myths to excuse abuse of women and a belief in traditional gender roles.
All told, it's a complicated conversation - all the more reason to have it. Because sexism is real even when it looks pretty and rape is rape, no matter what she was wearing.
Inside, I found the following card, highly humorous and just a skosh ironic, after the conversation I'd just started about infant clothing and sexist messages. I thanked my husband for the card, after which (in a lovely display of emotional intelligence) he apologized for being offensive. But here's the thing, and the reason I'm sharing this - he wasn't offending me. I previously mentioned that this past fall, I was in a graduate class of all women, in which I was the only student to identify as a feminist. Some of the women thought that being a feminist meant you were anti-men or didn't like things that were feminine or that had to do with the home, like cooking.
But here's what being a feminist means to me, from a HuffPost article, "It is about speaking out and acknowledging instances of misogyny. It’s about fighting for equal pay or against rape culture. It’s about ensuring that women have control over their bodies, that they are fairly represented in leadership positions and in the media. It’s about demanding change to the systematic prevalence of unequal power relations between men and women. It’s about respect." I was not offended by my husband's card. I'm not offended by his appreciation of my derriere - he's the one guy to whom I've given consent as a mature, sexual being. But more so, when you read his words, they're about looking past the physical, and loving me for my "love of the work" that I'm doing. He sees me - beyond the sweatpants or the heels - and that is respect.
Hammond, M., Sibley, C. & Overall, N. (2014). The allure of sexism: psychological
entitlement fosters women’s endorsement of benevolent sexism over time.
Social, Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 422-429.
Masser, B., Viki, G. & Power, C. (2006). Hostile sexism and rape proclivity amongst
men. Sex Roles, 54, 565-574.