Friday, March 29, 2013

Neither Pink nor Perfect: Muddy and Mighty Middle Grade Girls

My eight year old daughter is always filthy.

Her coat, her boots, even fingernails seem to be dirt-magnets. She comes home from school in her mis-matched clothes (picked out by her self of course), with her face flushed and her ponytails crooked or falling out. And I have to stop myself from obsessing. Most of the time I fail, bemoaning,

“Why is your coat dirty again?” “Yuck, go wash your hands,” or “Those boots are NOT getting into my car!”

The funny thing is, she’s not a particularly sporty girl — not someone who would be called (if you use this sort of anachronism) a ‘tomboy.’ Rather, she happens to go to a school where children are allowed to be children. Where she builds fairy houses out of moss and sticks at recess, brews ‘witches potions’ out of mud and leaves, run around and does cartwheels. These are all things I believe are good, and important for both girls and boys. And when my son comes home in the same filthy state, my first reaction is to say “Well, looks like you’ve been playing hard.” Yet, my instinctual reaction is not always the same for my daughter.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our cultural expectations for girls to be clean. Not just clean, but prim, proper, quiet, well behaved and well presented. And I’m realizing it’s part and parcel of the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood – what Peggy Orenstein wrote about in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture. Now, don’t get me wrong, as a pediatrician/mom/writer, I’m certainly not recommending we don’t wash hands before meals or skip showers. But there is already such a psychological pressure on young girls to interact with the world and present their bodies in certain ways — ways that have to do with cultural expectations for female sexuality, not a hearty, healthy and body-loving girlhood (or womanhood!). These expectations of perfection aren’t just unrealistic, they’re potentially damaging of self esteem and psychological as well as physical well being, as Courtney E. Martin asserts in her groundbreaking Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women.

Yet, there is a cultural pushback happening. Consider that in 2012 Maine eighth grader Julia Bluhm circulated a petition asking Seventeen Magazine to stop Photoshopping and airbrushing images of models, arguing that photographs of perfect skin, hair, and rail thin bodies were unhealthy for young people’s self-esteem. Her petition gained national media attention, and even inspired a protest in front of Seventeen’s offices. Pro-body image websites like Adios, Barbie  urge young women to join the ‘body loving revolution.’ Other sites including Princess-Free Zone and A Mighty Girl do everything from posting parenting articles, to making lists of ‘independent princesses’ in media and books, to selling empowering clothing, including superhero undies, for ‘smart, confident and courageous’ girls.

And of course, there’s always the world of middle grade books! I mean, who can forget the fantabulous role model of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, the ultimate brave-hearted, strong, adventurous, horizontal braided, mis-matched stocking wearing middle grade heroine? Part of Pippi’s appeal (and Lindgren’s ‘before her time’ genius), in fact, is her ability to shirk feminine conventions, arm-wrestle grown men, rescue animals, climb roofs and out-smart dastardly pirates.

To read the rest of this essay please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

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