Why treating your little daughter like a ‘princess’ can hold her back
As mothers, are we unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes that could hold our daughters back from reaching their full potential?
The recently Tokyo Olympics has been touted as the most gender-equal games ever. So when South Korean archer and Olympic gold medallist An San was trolled on social media for her short hair, we all did a double-take. In the same vein, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was also shockingly fined recently for playing in shorts instead of bikini bottoms.
Hairstyle and attire may seem irrelevant and trifling for women competing at the very pinnacle of their sport. However, in the 21st century, when the concept of gender equality seems par for the course, stereotyping and biases still exist – especially when it comes to appearances and behaviour traits expected in girls.
Indeed, as the mother of a little girl and boy, I noticed subtle differences in how my daughter and son are treated every day. In fact, precisely because it begins at such an early age and so subtly, it is so deeply ingrained that it has created blind spots – even among parents such as myself.
GIRLS ARE MADE OF SUGAR AND SPICE
Just the other day, a relative of mine commented that my three-year-old daughter does not look like me, and that she has smaller eyes. She then turned to my daughter and completed her physical assessment by telling her that she loved her dress.
This might have been harmless were it an isolated incident. However, every day, our daughters are inundated with such comments – both positive and negative – from family, friends and even complete strangers, focusing on their features, physique and clothes.
Even when we post a picture of our daughters on social media celebrating a milestone or achievement, half the comments would be inevitably related to her appearance. She is growing prettier, isn’t she? Doesn’t she look like you?
Terms of endearment are also nuanced. “Sweetie”, “sweetheart” and “cutie pie” are more commonly used on girls than boys. And again, they centre around the idea of being pretty and agreeable.
The problem is, when we “praise our girls for being 'pretty' and 'sweet' and our boys for being 'brave' or 'strong', these praises reinforce behaviours or traits in children,” said Durgah R, clinical psychologist at Thrive Family. “With repeated praises, children’s self-worth tend to become linked to these traits.”
She noted that the focus on appearance, with self-worth linked to it, and especially when there’s criticism about the child’s appearance, are risk factors to developing preoccupation and difficulties with body image during adolescence and adulthood.
Additionally, The Good Childhood Report 2020 found that children who rated “being tough” as most important for boys and “having good clothes” as most important for girls had the lowest wellbeing across the group.
To be fair, a lot of these comments are made without malice. As a parent, how do you respond without causing a scene?
Perhaps one way is to make a conscious effort to balance compliments about her physical appearance with other compliments about her character, actions and capabilities so that she knows that she is defined by so much more than her looks.
It would also make a big difference if we continually helped our daughters build skills in sports, music or arts to give her a stronger sense of identity.
GIRLS SHOULD ASPIRE TO BE PRINCESSES
Speaking of girls’ sense of identity, whenever there is a dress-up party, you will find at least a few girls dressed as princesses. Conversely, you would rarely find a boy dressed as a prince. He would more likely want to be a pirate, superhero – or supervillain.
Is this partly because of the movies and books girls are exposed to?
For starters, it might be good to move away from stories that depict girls or princesses as beautiful but weak, such as Snow White and Cinderella, as well as other representations of women which put a premium on looks, figure and shape, suggested Georgette Tan, board member of Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) and president of United Women Singapore (UWS).
However, admittedly, over the years, Disney princesses have become more empowered, and less in need of rescuing.
That said, the princess trope continues to encompass being born or married into privilege, looking “conventionally beautiful” and being well-dressed. These qualities continue to define success for many women in popular media.
It’s simply not possible to fully shield our daughters from these influences (and influencers, I might add). They truly are everywhere you look.
The key is for female role models in a young girl’s life to provide the balance. Introduce our daughters (and nieces) to movies, TV series and books that depict women in non-traditional and empowered roles, that celebrate attributes such as intelligence, strength and independence.
This could include movies such as newer Disney productions like Moana and Wonder Woman, or the Little People, Big Dreams book series featuring historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Audrey Hepburn, Ella Fitzgerald, Ada Lovelace and Emmeline Pankhurst.
For local heroines, Tan suggested SWCO’s Project Awesome and the book Awesome Women of Singapore, which includes stories of female philanthropists, Paralympians, lawyers, activists, soldiers and scientists that provide strong role models for young girls.
GIRLS NEED PROTECTING
Sometimes, even when we think we are protecting girls, it may have the opposite effect.
Take for example the cliche of “Daddy’s girl”, which encompasses the extreme protectiveness that fathers display towards daughters.
This is not just anecdotal. A study published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Behavioral Neuroscience suggested that fathers of toddlers engage in less rough-and-tumble play with their daughters as compared to sons.
This protectiveness, while stemming from love, can send the message to girls that they are fragile and weak, and need help and protection from a male figure, perpetuating the damsel in distress stereotype.
“When we ask little girls to be careful when swinging on monkey bars or kicking a soccer ball, but express joy when little boys do the same, we are stereotyping,” said Yuyun Tan, child and teen therapist and counsellor at Psychology Blossom.
Even when you label a boy “timid” and a girl as “just shy”, you are holding your children up to different standards. “Language is powerful and influences what the child learns to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour,” noted Dr Vivien Yang, educational and child psychologist at Bloom Child Psychology.
GIRLS SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH 'MASCULINE' TOYS
And the girls who love cars, robots and construction kits are considered tomboys and more often than not, encouraged to pick more “girly” forms of plays, like dressing-up props, dolls and tea party sets.
But do girls and boys really prefer different toys?
According to Dr Yang, there are some biological differences between girls and boys at infancy, however, strong social forces are also at play in terms of exposure and opportunity.
Why does this matter?
“Children develop crucial social, emotional and cognitive skills through play. Limiting children’s play based on stereotypes might perpetuate existing stereotypes by limiting the development of certain skills,” explained Durgah.
To develop well-rounded and confident girls, it is key to expose them to a wide range of toys. So while picking up that gorgeous dollhouse, it would be good to also include perhaps, a building set to develop spatial awareness and problem-solving skills, suggested Durgah.
GIRLS DON’T EXCEL AT STEM
If we think our girls are less courageous, resilient or capable than boys, they are less likely to develop the necessary skills and tenacity, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This could also be one of the reasons there are fewer women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) jobs. “Research shows that compared to boys, girls get less encouragement and support from their families when considering whether to take up STEM subjects and enter STEM careers. The issue for girls is the lack of confidence, and not that of competence,” said Georgette Tan.
To help our girls realise their full potential, we should start with the assumption that they are as capable and tenacious as anyone, and provide them with equal opportunities and encouragement to pursue anything from physical sports to challenging careers.
Should they fail, learning to pick themselves up will help them grow in confidence and resilience.
WHAT YOU CAN DO IF YOU'RE A MUM
Because children model their behaviour after parents, it is important to relook the standards we hold ourselves to. Don’t say these jeans accentuate your thunder thighs, or that you regret finishing the pasta for lunch, and will make up for it by eating salad for dinner.
For your daughter to have a healthy relationship with her self-image and to practise self-love, we will have to first embrace these attitudes. So if we have a love-hate relationship with food or body images issues, it is time to address these.
It is also key to call out unrealistic portrayals and teach our daughters to filter and analyse everything they hear, whether at school, from the media, or even random strangers. Help them decode gendered messages and instil in them a greater sense of self-worth beyond physical appearances, body image or gender stereotypes.
As a relatively new mother, I admit that this is a steep learning curve, with lots of grey areas. But as Yuyun Tan pointed out, gender differences can be quite subtle as compared to innate differences in personality types, temperaments and experiences that shape us as individuals.
While I don’t have all the answers, it is my hope to focus on both my children’s unique personalities and talents, rather than their gender. Indeed, as a woman bringing up a spirited girl, my wish for her is that she may excel in any field of her choice without ever having to worry about the size of her eyes or her haircut.
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