Pretty in Pink: What Girls Wear
Girl or boy?” is almost always the first question people ask when they hear about the birth of a baby. They don’t need to ask, however, when they see a newborn in her carriage on the street—the clothes and accessories provide the answer. Typically, a little girl will be dressed in pink and frills, and a boy in blue with a sporty theme. Lots of parents go to great lengths in this first year to distinguish gender for other people. They tie ribbons around bald heads and plant barrettes in bare wisps of hair; they put tough-looking Nikes or patent leather Mary Janes on little feet that don’t yet walk. Clearly gender is a parents’ issue long before it’s a child’s concern.
But there’s a grace period—a timeout, if you will—between ages one and three when smart moms puts their children in comfy pants or overalls for the tumbling, crawling, and cruising that they do. Clothes and diapers may still be color coded, but styles match the developmental needs of little ones and provide optimal comfort and movement. Who would want to restrict a little girl from learning how to walk by putting her in slippery, too-tight shoes or in a dress that doesn’t protect her knees from falls? But funnily enough, once toddlerhood is behind them, developmental needs seem less important and, alas, clothing for girls becomes “fashion.” And that’s the beginning of a lifelong lesson.
Who is pushing fashion to your preschooler? Little girls are likely to wear what their parents suggest or choose for them. Six- and seven-year-olds, even those with cool older sisters, are still more influenced by parents than are girls in the preteen or tween years. Knowing this, marketers have been much more interested in selling your young daughter toys and sugary cereal than a specific brand of jeans. But that’s changing. It used to be that clothing for five-year-olds was different from clothing for ten- or twelve-year-olds. Not anymore. Many brands now market clothing in sizes 4 to 16, which means your little girl can be very much the big girl when it comes to that halter, camisole, or denim mini-skirt. She can go from diapers to the cute little briefs that have replaced thongs. They make them that small.
Dressing for fashion à la Barbie or Lil’ Bratz dolls and dressing for physical play are completely different things. So what does that suggest to your daughter when you dress her in the latest fashions, such as low-rise jeans or belly shirts? It suggests that her play clothes no longer work for school as boys’ play clothes do, that play is a circumscribed area of her life and no longer her raison d’être. It says school clothes need to impress, to say something about you. This differentiation between clothes and play clothes may be okay for older adolescents and adults (when school sports teams replace the free play of the younger years and exercise is something you buy clothes for and do at set periods of the day), but it is completely wrong for children.
Following a trend that researchers have observed, your daughter may be spending less time at play than girls of earlier decades. This is very unfortunate and unhealthy. Play is the substance, the foundation of childhood. Girls live and breathe active play for a reason. They need to be physical; they need to run and jump and test their limits. According to philosopher Iris Marion Young, this kind of physical testing is intimately connected to how girls grow up to approach and experience the world. She writes that girls need to feel their bodies as “strong, active subjects moving out to meet the world’s risks.” Physical challenges prepare them for both social and intellectual challenges to come. So those crop tops and tight low-rise jeans do more than discourage movement. They tell your daughter—at an age when she needs to feel big, try new things, and widen her reach—that how she looks is more important than what she can do and more important than racing to the corner or rolling down the grassy hill as fast as she can. She may look cute in the moment as a mini Barbie or a corseted Cinderella, but the hill she forgoes or the race she doesn’t run will impact how she interacts with the world for a long time. It is a great loss to the preteen and the teen. What have they exchanged play for? A world of glamour, playing at dressing up, and doing makeovers?
We show how clothing for little girls, preteens, and teens announces the type of girl she can be and then extends this type into everything about her. Some of this dressing up is fun, but as we will say over and over, our problem is primarily with the lack of choice or, rather, the false idea that girls have lots of choices when these types are closing out other options. Parents can help create these options. Offering your daughter a wide-open view of the world and promising her she can be anything has to begin early and extend over time. One of the first way is to offer her all the colors of the rainbow and give her the clothes needed for full movement in play.
Pretty (Sexy) in Pink: Your Perfect Little Angels
O —off the hook
T —too cool for you
(Written on a bikini underwear set for sizes 4 and up)
Walk into J. C. Penney, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Old Navy, or any similar department or clothing store and try to find a regular T-shirt for your daughter. You remember the kind—no clingy, Lycra-enhanced material; no Bratz or Barbie or Disney faces; no rhinestones; no fashion accessories attached; no slogans or funny sayings that announce the particular tribe she identifies with, such as princesses, cuties, shoppers, cat or monkey lovers; no fake pink sports team logos. Just a basic brightly colored cotton T-shirt that she can wear with jeans. It’s next to impossible. Once common, they’re now specialty items found in expensive children’s clothing stores, in sporting goods stores (although there’s lots of pink there, too), and in L. L. Bean catalogs. When we asked for them in J. C. Penney, the helpful saleswoman pointed to a section and told us there might be a few left. Sure enough, tucked between racks of glittery fairies, rhinestone-emblazoned “Born to Shop” slogans, and pink “Angels Varsity Track Champs” shirts, we found one lone red T-shirt stylishly fitted in its own plain way. One left? If this is supply and demand, wouldn’t it be the other way around?
The commercialization of girlhood hits hard. Sexy clothing for four- and five-year-olds is all the rage, and if you read T-shirt slogans, you know how girlhood is marketed. Your daughter can choose her identity, but the choices are frightfully limited: Professional Drama Queen, Paradise Princess, or Pretty Princess Beauty Queen. (That covers all the options!) There is also Extra Fancy & Delicious/Quality Guaranteed, Spoiled, Princess Soccer Club, 100% Angel, Hollywood Superstar Film Crew, and Cheer Bunny. These shirts are all in sizes 4 to 16. Isn’t that an awfully broad age range? There used to be a distinction between little girl and preteen. No more.
In our review of clothing for younger girls, we were continuously surprised by the ways little girls are enticed to look older. A few stores sell sizes 4 to 6x, but even these had a much older look. Penney’s Total Girl brand touted tight, hip-hugging, flair-legged jeans with little purses attached in red, pink, or a pink-and-black leopard pattern. (Purses for four-year-olds?) The little embroidered hearts, flowers, and butterflies on the legs suggested little girl, but the style said sassy teen. How do five-year-olds play in these pants? What do they put in the purses? Probably marbles, candy, or little plastic animals, unless they’ve been to Toys “R” Us and bought an Imaginarium Purse Play Set, complete with wallet, credit card, and makeup compact.
Most stores fill the racks with clothing geared to older girls but in little girl sizes. In the fall of 2004, Kmart sported biker chic that seemed racy for even preteens, much less the tiny bodies that would fit into size 4: faux black leather jackets with zippers and leather lacing up the sides; low-rise, flair-legged jeans with leather ties and little pewter hearts (a nod to younger girls perhaps), sleeveless jean jacket shirts, and shirts with sexy pink lace over black. Even Kmart’s Tinker Bell nightgown had an edge: Pixie Chick.
When we wondered aloud in a store called Fashion Bug what girls from sizes 4 to 16 would have in common, a cheerfully defensive clerk attempted to explain. Walking to a rack of skirts, she told us there was something for everyone: the older girls would probably go for the low-rise denim miniskirt with chains, while the younger girls would prefer the low-rise gray stretchy miniskirts with the pink ruffle. The same goes for the little sweatshirts. “The girls do the distinguishing themselves,” the clerk told us. “A twelve-year-old would not wear the guitar-playing monkey. She’d go for the ‘My Favorite Subject Is Social Studies’ T-shirt.” So why make the monkeys in size 16 and the social studies T-shirts in size 4? Her answer sounded like an answer from a slippery marketer: “So everybody’s happy.” (And we find it interesting that a salesgirl getting paid $7.50 an hour can step right up and defend the multimillion-dollar corporation.)
Sure, there are also sweet little tops with animals on them for the younger girls, but the older styles are all available, too, so of course the younger girls want them. Procter & Gamble set up a sweepstakes with Limited Too clothing stores to advertise their Secret Sparkle Body Spray deodorant to girls as young as seven. They also placed ads in teen and tween magazines. Dave Knox, assistant brand manager at P&G overseeing the body-spray launch, explained the rationale: “If you don’t target the consumer in her formative years, you’re not going to be relevant through the rest of her life.” The problem was that their warning label said, “Keep out of reach of children.” Following an investigation by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), the children’s advertising industry’s self-regulatory forum, P&G stopped the sweepstakes and pulled the ads. But the point was made, show the girls the brand and style that older girls are wearing, and let them see it’s possible to wear it, too. Not only does this make it hard for parents to say no, but it hooks girls really young on products they don’t need and begins their dressing for fashion rather than for practicality—what they might, given their own devices, dress for versus how they should dress for good health and comfort. These older clothing styles show up on the girls in TV shows that kids are watching, they are strategically placed in doll sets, and they are choices in popular computer games. Reality and fantasy may be blended for young kids, but parents shouldn’t fall for it. In the real world where child pornography on the Internet is a problem, there is something disturbing about little girls in leather, chains, and lace.
But what are the options? In spite of all the little Mia Hamm and Cheryl Swoopes sports fans, if you walk around the mall you will observe that wherever you find a mention of something sporty, it is balanced by some pink, some glitter, or some other indication of a girliness/fashion diva. Most girls’ sports pants are not really for sports; they don’t have the durable make, the loose fit, the breathable fabric, or the high waist of real sports pants. They’re a fashion statement, a “sport princess” or “sport cutie” announcement. As with that cotton T-shirt, you have to go to high-priced specialty sports shops or buy from more expensive catalog stores such as Lands’ End to find real sports pants in a range of colors for girls. Or you can go to the boys department because, of course, sports clothing of all kinds hangs in rack upon rack in the boys’ section of any store. Even in those pricey catalogs from stores that seem to take active girls seriously, we find page after page of stereotypes. Girls’ clothes are “so soft she won’t want to give them up on laundry day,” and “Quality never looked so cute.” Boys’ clothes are touted as “the coolest in class,” or “Guy blows out knee in a week? Climber will cure the habit!” Whether it’s T-shirts, pants, or sleepwear, according to marketers boys live for action and girls live to look cute.
As much as most stores subtly discourage girl athletes, they train girls to be shoppers as soon as they’re old enough to voice their preferences. You find T-shirt slogans such as “Love Shoppin’ and I’m Never Stoppin’ ” and “I’d Rather Be Shopping” and an overabundance of accessories available to them, such as those little purses attached to everything from jeans to sweaters to backpacks. “Shopping: the real exercise for girls”—while that’s a slogan we’ve never seen, we think marketers would love it. In this regard, the influence of fashion dolls is everywhere. The wide-eyed, big-headed, sexy “passion for fashion” Bratz dolls or their wannabe look-alikes are on every form of clothing, starting at toddler age. You can fashion-train your little girls with images of purr-fect sleek cats with big doll-like eyes. They adorn sweaters, purses, and shirts, and often are featured holding a shopping bag.
Don’t get us wrong: Most girls love this stuff. We know they do. In J. C. Penney we heard two girls about five or six years old begging their mom for “Pretty Princess Beauty Queen” T-shirts. And they know how to beg! They’ve had training from TV commercial girl models. “Come on, Mom,” they plead. “It’s on sale. Look, two for one. Pleeeease.” But loving it isn’t really the point. Girls love double-fudge-frosted brownies, too, but you wouldn’t want them eating a steady diet of the stuff. The problem is not the single, silly T but the sheer quantity of products that offer so few options to girls and come with the marketing tentacles that seem to reach out, grab, create, or remake everything into a narrow sexy image. It is a very big problem.
Pink and Girly, Red and Feisty:
Are They So Different?
Some girls seem to love everything pink and glittery while other girls want nothing to do with it. Why? There are lots of reasons, including what their parents are drawn to, what their friends like, and what shows and ads they’re watching on TV. They may need to be different from an older sister who seems to have claimed a style for herself. But have you noticed that girls seem to choose either pink or anything but pink? This isn’t by chance. Marketers are not only offering clothes, they’re offering a kind or type of girl. This kind of girl is either really feminine, or she rejects the feminine for more masculine choices.
Feminine for the littlest girls is coded pink. Pink baby dolls line toy shelves, pink clothing dominates girls’ departments in stores, pink bedding and room decor grace the pages of catalogs. Pink, usually accessorized with white and pastel colors such as lilac and yellow, symbolizes all that is sugar and spice. It announces sweetness, innocence, and security (in all those pink bedrooms). Wherever there is pink, there are angels, princesses, hearts, and flowers.
Angelina Ballerina is a great example of what pink represents for young girls. Made famous in a series of picture books and now a PBS cartoon and doll sold in American Girl catalogs, Angelina is a little white mouse in a pink tutu adorned with pink roses, pink-ribboned ballet slippers, and a glittery tiara. She is the embodiment of sweet, soft, pretty, and delicate. American Girl sells Angelina with loads of pink clothing (both for the dolls and real girls), accessories, room decor, purses, pajamas, and a sleeping bag. Parents can buy pink Angelina bedding so that little girls can “dream sweet dreams with Angelina!”
The choice for girls who are not into all that pink are the colors associated with boys: blue, red, green, and black. These colors convey action and aggressiveness. So it becomes more than a choice of frills or colors; it is a choice of characteristics, qualities, and labels—those associated with stereotypes of girls (girly, cute, sweet, innocent, soft) and stereotypes of boys (active, sporty, aggressive, strong, bold). Girls understand the difference and how it feels from a very early age.
But is pink the only girl color? Pretty in pink has lately been accompanied in the girls’ department with sassy in red. Check out the packaging for toys and crafts with brave and independent girl characters. There’s sassy Eloise (“I’m a nuisance in the lobby”), outspoken Madeline (“Bonjour! I’m Madeline. Tiny I may be, I’m a leader naturally”), and ever independent Dora the Explorer. A welcome alternative to pink, red is not coded sweet and soft but bold and assertive; not delicate and pretty but strong and feisty. The red girl is the girl who is not like the other girls, and not like the other girls can develop into not liking what makes those other girls who they are, putting them down for being too girly and weak. The girl wars mentality we see in the media is most often between girly girls and tomboys, between what we fear starts out as the pink girl and the red girl.
Pink, too, has undergone a fashion adjustment. There is innocent pink (pastel pink with lacy white), and there is pink with a sexy edge (hot pink with black—sometimes lace or leather). The pink wars. Will it lead to the girl wars? The innocent good girl and the sexy diva? We prepare girls for these choiceless choices by giving them an illusion of choice. You can see the types emerge already in the products available to young girls. If there are only two kinds of girls, the “black and hot pink” girl soon chooses glittery bikini panties over Hanes briefs, the “drama queen” T-shirt over the “little princess,” Lil’ Bratz and Bratz (in which pink with black is explicitly connected to sexualized clothes and animal prints) over the sweet pink baby doll, the devilish costume over the halo and wings. It is innocent enough when we’re talking about five- and six-year-olds, but things get more difficult when boys enter the picture in middle school and girls struggle to find their place in the age-old good-versus-bad girl split.
Dressing Like Your Doll or Dressing to Play
We also see this girl-typing in the latest move for younger girls: dressing like your dolls. Mattel’s Barbie has entered the girls clothing business, but of course Barbie Fashion is so much more than clothes. It’s a type of girl, an attitude, a toy, a lip gloss, a fragrance, a secret. All too often it is marketed as desire for what another girl has. A four-page spread in Nickelodeon Magazine in 2004 had the following:
Page 1: A girl dressed in hot pink: “The blue jeans. The cute tops. The lip gloss. Where’d you get that?”
Page 2: Barbie dressed in variations of hot pink and black; fashion shots of her hips, legs, shoes, and sunglasses: “Where’d you get that? Fashion Fever Dolls. Dolls with all the latest fashions available in the toy aisle. Collect all 21.”
Page 3: Girls ranging in age from about five to twelve made up and dressed like Barbie in hot pink, black and red, black faux leather, a black boa, pink and black miniskirts. They are posing as they would at a photo shoot or at the end of a fashion show catwalk. “Dressing to impress. The gossip. The phone calls. The emails. Secrets to confess. Where’d you get that?”
Page 4: Close-up of one of the girls dressed in Barbie fashion in a black leather jacket with a pink rose on the front. A pink bottle of Barbie fragrance is in the corner. “Where’d you get that? Barbie Fragrance. Available at Macy’s. Introducing Barbie: The Fashion.”
It’s the “total girl” that marketers are after, right? But “total girl” isn’t what teachers mean when they say they’re educating the whole child or what you and we mean when we say we support the total girl. “Total” to marketers means finding every inch of their body to adorn. Expanding one’s market means not just reaching down to the lower ages for products introduced to the older ages but finding new parts of their bodies to colonize or own. The tiniest parts, the forgotten parts, such as nails, which should be dirty after a day of play. Unfortunately, there are kits for manicures and pedicures; there are spa-like kits and ones with makeup. They are meant to get little girls thinking about and investing in how they smell and how they appear to others. American Girl, now in cahoots with Bath & Body Works, has Truly Me, a line of body products that “celebrates the qualities that make you original—your hopes, your dreams, your inner star that shines so brightly,” and a body consciousness that goes well beyond fashion. For a limited time little girls can receive a free compact, perfect for applying that pre-makeup glitter Bath & Body Works markets to ages three and up. Claire’s has Snapple-brand lip glosses called apple lip juicer and strawberry lip yumms as well as candy versions called Junior Mints lip balm and Reese’s Pieces lip gloss pot. Walgreens sells lip smackers and face glitter and a Rose Art Glamour Gear Glitter Magic Makeover for ages six and up. Think of the message: Boys can gorge themselves on candy; girls need to decorate themselves with it.
Then, of course, there are the accessories. On the displays overlooking the girls’ section, Gap Kids tells girls their products are “so fresh. so fun. so sweet. Just like you.” Here they sell that idea of fresh natural sweetness to six-year-olds with unnatural lip gloss, hula girl charm clips, pink sunglasses, necklaces, shimmer powder, bath fizzie, and a “charming” beauty set, complete with nail polish, lip gloss, and a star charm. They sell a “totally toes” pedicure set, and their signs tell girls to “keep it clean” with lots of hair and body wash, and body lotions. They can keep some of that stuff in one of the seventeen different bags or purses the Gap sells, or they can slip it into their three-ring binder. Gap Kids Pretty Pocket Kit in “old school pink” masks as a pencil case, but it really holds lip gloss, body glitter gel, and nail polish. So much for the three Rs.
Boys can keep it dirty at Gap Kids with accessories that suggest on-the-go action: visors, camo (camouflage) soccer balls, sneakers, goggles, backpacks, and a camo tent. (Girls wear sexy camisoles; boys get military camo? Pink and blue seem tame in comparison.) They have accessories, too, such as wallets and key chains, but none to make them look nicer or smell pretty. They have no personal hygiene worries. They can be naturally stinky and proud of it!
Boys are dressing up as military personnel, policemen, and explorers. Girls dress up as hot little teenagers. This is no more apparent than on Halloween. Walk through Wal-Mart or look through any Halloween flyer or catalog, and you’ll see pirates, firefighters, and superhero clothes offered to boys; princesses, cheerleaders, and sexy divas are offered to girls.
When we were kids, Halloween was a chance to dress up like someone you weren’t. It was a time to be a little transgressive, to cross the usual boundaries set in place by social mores and convention. At Halloween’s gloaming, the powerless became superheroes, the young became wrinkled and bent, the poor donned dazzling jewels, and people of the day became monsters of the night—vampires, witches, and all manner of ghastly ghouls. Sometimes girls became mustached men, and boys became big-breasted women, just for the absurdity and the fun of it! We raided our parents’ closets and makeup supplies, tore up sheets for bandages, painted lipstick blood down our cheeks, or dug out Dad’s big rubber boots to invent someone outlandish. The streets resembled something out of Night of the Living Dead, save for a few oddly bright Tweety Birds and Cinderellas.
Halloween is still a chance to be who you aren’t, but anyone with kids can tell you that costumes have become something of an art form. No wonder all the kids want them; Mom’s closet looks drab by comparison. They are elaborately accessorized affairs made of every fabric and material known to humankind. Costumes come with things like hats, boas, glasses, wands, microphones, wigs, swords, slippers, purses, pom-poms, wings, medallions, scarves, crowns, handcuffs, whistles, badges, and broomsticks. They have muscles sewn in, plush animal-like fur, foam chest armor, layers of chiffon, and fake leather or metal. Some are full-fledged fantasies that parents who can afford it pay $20 to $40 to see come alive on their child. (Sixty dollars will buy you a bride’s costume, complete with “giant diamond ring.” Alas, there is no groom’s costume in sight.)
But there’s one obvious way that Halloween costumes lack imagination. Go ahead and pick out the boy and girl costumes from the following list of catalog descriptions:
“Pow! Bang! Batman to the rescue.”
“Evening star enchants everyone.”
“The Gladiators enter the arena, and the crowd goes wild!”
“Made in Heaven.”
“Shadow Panther Cyber Ninja, protector of the galaxy!”
“Chic pink pussy cat is spotted at all the best soirees.”
You get the idea. Halloween has become less about being who you aren’t for a night and more about fantasizing that you are the ultra-girl or uberboy the material world says you should want to be. Boys are tough, active superheroes, ninjas, and warriors, ready to save the empire, the world, and the universe, complete with fake muscles to prove their manhood. “Ask the incredible hulk over to your house—but don’t get him angry,” warns one catalog. “Bulging padded ‘muscles’ are stitched into torso, arms, and legs. . . . Transform your little hulk into the most powerful human-like creature.” Little girls don’t “take on evil” or have “bold adventures” or even “incredible fun.” They don’t save, capture, leap, strike fear, or stop enemies—they don’t do anything. Even Wonder Woman, a rare exception, only “encourages fortitude and self-confidence.” That she does so in a spaghetti-strapped leotard with beige stretch nylons and what resembles a bikini bottom suggests the only thing she’s ready to battle are Halloween- night goose bumps.
According to these costumes sold in department and drugstores, in catalogs and online, girls get their power almost solely from their looks. They just are—“puuurfectly coordinated,” “darling,” full of “lightness and beauty.” If they act at all, it’s to “sizzle,” “slither,” “rock the stadium,” or “stalk the stage in zebra stripes.” They are lotus blossoms and beautiful princesses. (And have little to do and no sense of direction. “Which way to the castle?” asks one girl featured in a costume catalog.) They are dancing queens, pink cheerleaders, divas, fairies, and Barbies, Barbies, Barbies. Girls are beautiful to behold in their short skirts, full skirts, grass skirts, and even pirate skirts (something no self-respecting pirate—and there were real women pirates—would wear) and off-the-shoulder gowns and lace-up bodices, made of shimmering satin and pink sequins. Even the more traditional Halloween-type costumes speak to the ultrafeminine and increasingly sexy—pretty witches and gothic princess, sexy genies and hot devils who aren’t scary but plan to “paint the town red in a stretch velvet leotard with fluffy marabou trim.” As one of our surveyed girls told us, “I wore a devil outfit because it was simple and looked sexy.”
Is it as limited and narrow as it seems at first glance?
Web sites sort their categories explicitly along gender lines, with categories like “Princesses and Barbie” and “Star Wars and Sci-Fi,” or even more pointedly “Girl Costumes” and “Boy Costumes.” When we checked a promisingly neutral “When I Grow Up” category on one site, we found the same gender divide. There parents can find fifty-five costumes for boys and only twenty-two for girls. Of these, fifteen are cheerleaders, divas, and rock stars. Included in this “when I grow up” section was our number one thumbs-down nomination. Don’t all parents wish their daughter will grow up to be a “French maid”?
There is something especially pernicious about all this. Fantasy for children is about trying on new roles, about imagining the unusual or impossible, about wearing whatever wild and crazy identity suits their fancy or captivates them at the moment. Why would we want—and, indeed, pay good money—to limit kids in such stereotypical ways? (We’re including the littlest kids here. Don’t forget to dress your infant in a baby Hulk, Spiderman, or Superman costume.) And why especially on Halloween? After all, isn’t Halloween the night when the veil between the worlds is thin, when the real and imagined come close to merging? It’s the one magical night when we can expect imagination to wander far and wide, to let carnival and spectacle overtake convention.
Do your daughter a big favor and encourage her to see herself as something other than the pretty princess, the sexy diva, the veiled genie, or the glittery fairy. Help her imagine that she has power over more than how she looks, how well she serves her master, or what prince she attracts. This Halloween, go ahead and raid the closet with her. Imagine that anything is possible. If her heart is set on glitter, at least help her imagine a feisty fairy who takes on the magical realm’s evil dragon, a butterfly that saves the insect world, or a princess who can use a map to find her own way to the ball.
Copyright © 2006 by Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., and Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D. All rights reserved.