Wendy Norris is a freelance writer from Denver, Colorado now working on
assignment for RH Reality Check. She was previously a New Journalist
Fellow for the Center for Independent Media and managing editor of The
Colorado Independent. She is editor/founder of Unbossed.com.
They’re marketed as "extremely funny" but the
underlying message is much more disturbing — baby shoes resembling stilettos
and "ima shopper" embossed on hot pink-colored rubber teethers
designed as mock credit cards.
Sadly, girls, even at infancy, are being subjected to
messages, both direct and subtle, that their worth is inextricably linked to
attractiveness and stereotypical feminine behaviors.
One would hope after decades of social progress in the
workplace, at school and home that the gender stratification of toy stores,
clothing racks and extra-curricular activities would be relegated to the
dustbin of history.
Not so. And according to some experts in cultural studies
and biology the influences that perpetuate gender stereotypes are as pervasive
The pink and purple
Melissa Wardy became so frustrated with the clichéd "ubiquitous
pink and purple princess-diva-drama queen" clothing options for her
pre-school-aged daughter that she founded Pigtail Pals, a T-shirt company to
redefine the term "girly."
"I’ve done many amazing things in my life but I’ve
never met a princess. I’ve never met a real ballerina," said Wardy, who
was a cold case homicide investigator before deciding to become a stay-at-home
mom. Her designs promote girl-affirming messages about non-traditional career
options, healthy body images and being brave, intelligent and independent.
But it’s not just girls that are being bombarded with
formulaic identities ripe for Madison Avenue exploitation. Wardy, who now has a
son, also finds that boys clothing is as fixated on unattainable muscle-bound
physiques, sports and macabre figures.
Navigating the local discount super store makes it even
tougher for parents trying to raise confident, socially-aware children. The
friction between families’ urging their children, especially girls, to pursue
their dreams is directly contradicted by the virtually inescapable
consumer-culture mores of prescribed clothing styles, overtly gender-based
entertainment and the annual onslaught of holiday toy commercials that
reinforce strict role expectations.
Try as we might to avoid these mini-Men are from Mars/Women
are from Venus dichotomies, there’s growing evidence that we’re actually
inadvertently hard-wiring some of these stereotypes into our kids’ brains.
Nature versus nurture
Until about age two, most young children are unaware of
gender roles and exhibit no toy preferences between trucks and dolls until
cultural pressures kick in.
Neurobiologist Lise Eliot argues that despite
conventional wisdom, "We don’t have evidence that the brain is different
at birth but we do know that the brain is strongly affected by learning."
In Eliot’s new book, Pink
Brain, Blue Brain, she also posits that if there are behavioral
differences between boys and girls there must be a correlated neurologic
difference — ones that are frequently incited by cultural influences.
For instance, Eliot’s research confirms that certain play
activities favored by parents and schools for young children help to create
neural pathways that magnify minute biological differences between boys and
girls that augment learning stereotypes. Encouraging boys to play with building
toys, sports and video games improves visual-spatial acuity that is linked to
math and science performance. Diverting girls to language dominant and small
motor activities, such as reading and coloring, builds another set of skills
more commonly associated as feminine.
While the strides made by the implementation of Title IX to
ensure equal access to academic and extra-curricular educational activities,
most notably female athletics programs, are undeniable in their benefit to
girls’ spatial skill development there still exists cultural manifestations of
gender-restrictive toys and play that curb such learning.
The complex duality of nature and nurture’s affects on
children’s gender identity and embrace of stereotypical behavior, says Eliot,
creates as an intersecting and self-perpetuating Venn diagram rather than two
distinct ends of a spectrum.
That new thinking stands in contrast to the bookstore
shelves that groan with tomes on raising boys and reviving Ophelia. To which
Eliot takes aim at the stacks of popular parenting guides which she warns are
too often "simply making stuff up" to substantiate preconceived perspectives
on differences between boys and girls that are not supported by scientific
Taking sides in the
While parents suffer conflicting messages about how to best
raise their children, Elline Lipkin thinks that girls are encountering their
own complicated set of social expectations that’s engendering contradictory
Lipkin, an author and researcher at the UCLA Center for the
Study of Women, mentions that the groundbreaking study, "Packaging
Girlhood," by Lyn Mikel
Brown and Sharon Lamb deconstructs the "selling of pink" or mass
clothing marketers attempts to sexualize young girls based on the intensity of
a pink hue chosen for clothing — light pink connotes the innocent good girl
while hot pink signals a sexy diva.
"That’s a very confusing conundrum for a lot of people
who don’t realize it," said Lipkin. "And girls are often left feeling
these pressures coming at them from all sides but they can’t articulate the
disconnect. It’s really confusing and really, really frustrating."
In her forthcoming book, Girls’
Studies, she examines the impact of pop culture and media on young
women. One effect of those pressures is the trend toward revealing,
age-inappropriate clothing and cosmetics for pre-teen girls designed to attract
male attention, that evokes the derisive term, "prostitot."
"From birth onward we are being shepherded along a
gender spectrum and there’s very little choice involved," said Lipkin
about the unrelenting cultural mixed messages that assail girls.
And that moment now seemingly begins as infants when they
slip on their first pair of high heels.