When my daughter Evelyn was 2 years old, she was given a set of tutus. They were frilly, sparkly, lacy, and at that point, they were the most feminine pieces of clothing she had. And she loved them. She lived in them, refusing to leave the house unless wearing one. It was then that I realized that my protestations of “no pink and no ruffles” to those buying gifts for my baby were futile. I don’t get to choose whether my daughter likes pink or gravitates to feminine things. Learning to embrace and celebrate femininity by watching my daughter embrace hers has challenged and changed my feminist ideologies.
Growing up, I was a “tomboy.” I wore what was comfortable enough to play in and cared little about how it looked on my body. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I frowned endlessly when she made me wear dresses, my smile returning only when she permitted me to run upstairs and change into shorts and a T-shirt. As a teenager, I dressed myself in flannel and sweatshirts along with my favorite jeans. Even now, I dress more for comfort than for style. As a lesbian who leans masculine of center in my style of dress, I’ve always recoiled a bit at the idea of dressing “feminine.” I used to assume that women who “dress up” are doing it for men and not themselves.
In raising my daughter—a self-proclaimed princess whose love for clothing grows the more sparkles it has—I realize how wrong I was. I’ve also come to realize that there seems to be a common theme in feminist parenting, in which we support little boys wearing dresses and painting their nails, but balk when a little girl loves all things “princess.” Through my daughter, I’ve learned that raising feminist daughters does not necessarily mean raising tomboys.
My little girl is learning to express her gender identity, and she feels at her happiest when she’s parading around in a frilly dress. Right now, she’s able to express herself as a girl in an uncomplicated way, sheltered from a world full of gender discrimination, harassment and unfair pressures and expectations placed on her. In celebrating and encouraging my daughter in her style of dress and gender expression, it is my hope that I’m building a foundation of her feeling comfortable enough to be herself unapologetically.
I’ve also come to realize that there seems to be a common theme in feminist parenting, in which we support little boys wearing dresses and painting their nails, but balk when a little girl loves all things “princess.”
My daughter isn’t what I thought she would be when I was pregnant with her—she is so much more. She is strong-willed and witty. She can’t leave the house without accessories adorning her fingers and hair. She is confident and sure of herself and takes shit from no one. She glides effortlessly across the monkey bars at playgrounds, and she does it all in tutus and tiaras.
For Evelyn’s 4th birthday, I hired someone to dress up as Elsa from Frozen to attend her birthday party and entertain my daughter and all of her princess-loving friends, something I swore I would never do in my pre-parenthood days. But it made my daughter happy, and I no longer think that looking up to Elsa or any other Disney princess is the worst thing in the world. I don’t disagree that princess movies often devalue the strength of women, but perhaps instead of refusing to let princess culture cross the threshold of our homes, we can point out what in these stories is problematic to our daughters. We can keep pushing for stronger princesses—for more Elsas who have the power to shut down entire cities, Mulans who stand up and fight for what they believe in, and more Tianas who work two jobs to make their dreams come true.
Through my daughter, I’ve learned that women in lipstick and dresses are feminists, too, women and mothers like me, who just take a little longer to get ready in the morning. If anything, I look up to them more now, knowing how hard it is for me to get out the door some mornings, even with my simple “wash & go” hairstyle and clothing.
Walking down the street the other day with my daughter, we spotted a woman dressed to the nines, in a skirt and high heels, exuding feminine energy. As the woman walked past us, her heels clicking against the pavement, my daughter turned her head to stare, mouth agape.
“Mom, she’s beautiful and fancy,” she whispered with admiration in her voice. “She’s just my style.”
“I bet she’s strong and smart too,” I add. And I believe it.