What if we didn’t expect girls to look like women and women to look like girls?

Today was my son’s 5th grade graduation. As I sat trying to hold back the water works (I get all soppy at such events), I couldn’t help but notice at least 85% of the 5th grade girls were wearing high heels. Some were modest little heels, some were honking platforms, and some had spiky, sparkly heels of the variety you might see Carrie from Sex in the City trying to traipse around the streets of Manhattan in. One girl I walked past even had a French pedicure with rhinestones on her toes!

The plethora of girl feet I saw sadly crammed into adult shoes today reminds me of a post I read a few days back at Appetite for Equal Rights about high heels for babies. As the post (read it in full here) notes, the baby heels are not actually meant for walking. So, in other words, they are like adult high heels! High heel shoes are not built for movement or comfort but, as Sandra Lee Bartky notes in her classic essay “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” they are about disciplining the female body into ‘proper’ form. Referring to high heels as a form of self-subjugation, Bartky notes that when a woman chooses these foot constraints “her body is thrown forward and off-balance: The struggle to walk under these conditions shortens her stride.” I am sure most of you have seen (or experienced) this shortened stride (reminds me of watching Gwyneth Paltrow in 6 inch heels recently mincing across the screen in Iron Man).

Now, the school my children go to is no rich bastion of kiddies. In fact, it is the school in our district with what is termed the ‘lowest socio-economic standing.’ So, this was not Beverly Hills babies or La Jolla debutantes. Yet, regardless of skin color or socio-economic status, these 5th grade girls already seem to have swallowed one message: “to successfully perform femininity/beauty, torture your feet!” (Another message they seem to have learned all two well: “flat iron your hair.”)

The torturous nature of high heels was particularly apparent when one girl hobbled across the stage to receive her certificate. As she did so, the woman behind me whispered, “wow, sure looks like her feet hurt.” Yes, ladies and gentleman, girls and boys, it ain’t no secret – heels hurt! They may make your calves look better, they may give you that desirable (?) hip sway and back arch, but damn if they don’t cause some pain. I wonder how many of these 11 and 12 year olds already know the mantra ‘beauty knows no pain.’ I also wonder how many of their parents promoted these very feminized performances with comments like “Now you want to look pretty for the pictures honey. Let’s straighten your hair, paint your toes, get a new dress, and buy you some heels…” How many parents talked about the academic achievements their daughter has made, their hopes she will go to college to be the teacher/librarian/politician/social activist of her dreams?

I don’t have a problem with enjoying adorning the body. I am a sucker for fashion myself and will admit to torturing my own feet once in awhile due to a particular weakness when it comes to cute shoes (damn if I could only get rid of all my own social conditioning!) Beautifying oneself can be fun. However, it can also be a prison house of shoulds, of hating one’s own body, of feeling like the next pair of shoes or the next lip-gloss will bring happiness. It is also a competition that boys and men are not expected to play – at least not with near the dedication. Yes, males are supposed to bathe and keep their hair looking decent, but they are hardly expected to shave, wax, perfume, pluck, make up, or diet themselves into a beauty norm that is preposterously divergent from what most humans look like naturally. Needless to say, they are not expected to wear shoes that make it impossible for them to stand let alone walk.

So, as I sat and watched all these diverse girls with their futures ahead of them, I was saddened by the fact that this future will hold all sorts of gendered expectations that lead to them hating their own bodies and tries to discipline them into ‘proper’ feminine form. For now, they are girls trying to pose as women. Soon, they will be women trying to pose as girls. They will try to keep their youth, their pre-pubescent hairlessness and body shape, their air of ‘innocence.’ (I sincerely hope none of them will grow into women who try to re-girlify their vaginas through surgery!) I wish they could grow up in a world that celebrates the beauty of intellect and activism, the beauty of the body in all its forms, colors, hairiness, sagginess, flabbiness, lumps and bumps. I wish they could grow up in a world that would pay them the same as men, would give them the same respect, would allow them to control their own reproduction, and would not treat them as Others, but as equally human and important.

What if as a society we didn’t teach little girls to try and look like women? What if we didn’t praise women who look and act like little girls? What if 5th grade graduations looked like a bunch of kids celebrating their achievement rather than a pre-teen debutante ball? If only, if only…

*For a number of other great posts on the high heels for babies phenomenon, see the following:

Little Girls Gone Wild” at Salon.com here.

“High heels for babies” at The F Word here

“Start em while they’re young” at Menstrual Poetry

**For a good analysis of this girl/woman phenomenon, see also “The Pornification of Youth” at Mocking the Litany in its Face.

“Padded Bras for Six-Year-Olds” at Feministing.com

and on the stripper poles for girls phenomenon, see this post at I Blame the Patriarchy


24 thoughts on “What if we didn’t expect girls to look like women and women to look like girls?”

  1. That girls want to play dress-up and emulate the style of their mothers doesn’t surprise me. What consistently does floor me is how we push them into fashion worries and pains before they show interest. The baby shoes are the most obvious example of parent-generated fashion stupidity (and the shoes are harmful – babies need to be free to focus on learning to move and walk!). Yet, I just had a conversation with a friend yesterday in which she lamented that her 4th grade daughter doesn’t care for nice shoes yet, and will wear sneakers with her ‘nice clothes’ instead of the clogs and heals and ‘fashionable shoes’ her mother buys for her. My friend shrugged it off, since the girl is in elementary school, but seemed to look forward to a day when her daughter won’t be so concerned about being able to run around on the play ground, and give-in to the foot torture.

    I don’t get it.

  2. Habladora,
    Thanks for your comment.

    I think not only do girls (and boys) want to play dress-up, but so do adults. This performing of gender (ala Butler) is something humanoids do each day. However, like you, I think forcing a certain performance of gender onto a child is problematic (and is something most parents do of course).

    In the example you give above, you note you feel the mom is shrugging off her daughter’s preference for tennis shoes for now. However, as you indicate, this might very well change as her daughter gets older. For instance, she may not shrug off tennis shoes or clogs with the prom dress…

    Seems ‘gender policing’ becomes all the more prevalent as kids age. And, they don’t only get it from parents, but from friends, teachers, the media, etc. Sad, eh?

  3. “I sincerely hope none of them will grow into women who try to re-girlify their vaginas through surgery!”

    This is getting pretty popular these days. I’m curious to know the statistics on this. Not that it really matters. But it’s something I haven’t heard anyone talk much about.

  4. Yes, vaginal rejuvenation is unfortunately a growing field in the cosmetic surgery arsenal. I don’t know exact numbers, but Jessica Valenti writes about these surgeries in her book Full Frontal Feminism. I will look into more details on numbers and post on this soon…

  5. “..High heel shoes are not built for movement or comfort but….are about disciplining the female body into ‘proper’ form.”

    i threw off the “shackles” of high heels years ago, when i broke my right ankle in 3 places…i’ve worn cowboy boots since then….and now, i’ve witnessed other women wearing them…albeit for fashion, not necessarily for function…

  6. Three and four year old girls are dressing for school in these little women outfits. Often they are pricey branded clothing. No spikes so far, but platform sandals and the like that they run and play in with the little boys and girls on school playground. The other day a 37 month old little blond cutie said to her teacher that she didn’t want to get sand on her dress and coordinated shoes (and so was striking up a conversation with supervising adult) instead of playing with the friends she wanted to be with…. What a strange world.

  7. Here is an excellent page with ads featuring the woman/child image:

    I’m not sure if it’s more disturbing that women are supposed to look like girls or that girls are supposed to look like women. Women are even referred to as ‘girls’ a lot of the time. And they’re lumped together in that category of ‘women and children’. Can you imagine ‘men and children’?

  8. Sorry for the delay in responding to all the great comments/links. I am technically on vacation until Aug 5 and away from regular internet connection.

    Thank you to all of you for reading and commenting.

    The way girls are taught to ‘feminize’ in such limiting ways is so problematic, and I am glad to see its an issue that speaks to so many. Together, we can work towards a world that is better all around for girls and boys, women and men, and for those who identify as transgendered or gender queer. Gender should not be a prisonhouse, but a playground — not in the way the 37 month old girl Shirleyslumber mentions above, but in the sense that gender should be about chosen performance and play that is done for pleasure/enjoyment.

  9. A few years ago, when my daughter (now almost 17) graduated from 6th grade, we had a terrible time trying to find a dress that I felt was appropriate for an eleven year old. It seemed like all the stores jumped from “toddler” to “grown woman” although we looked several places. We finally settled on a nice t-shirt and a skirt (after finally finding one that wasn’t a micro-mini).

    I am not a prude (at least I don’t think so) and enjoy dressing up every now and then, although I probably fall on the less feminine side of the female spectrum. I have been very disappointed with the choices and messages that are being given to women and girls by the fashion industry. Thank you for posting this.

  10. Thanks for commenting Harrietsdaughter.

    I am disappointed right along with you regarding the paucity of choices the fashion world offers to females AND with the limiting/soul destroying messages they send out.

    Sadly, I think the jump from child to grown women is happening younger and younger — a friend told me Target sells thong underwear and padded bras to fit 6 year olds!

  11. WTF it was a special day,and the girls that you saw were probably just dressed up for the occasion.All of this woman’s lib shit you went on about was propagated by the rockefellers to create dissent in marriages,divorces,and dual-incomes to put more money in the pockets of the bankers.

  12. And then we complain about the growing number of child molesting incidents (and demonize pedophiles in the process).

  13. Da streckt sich meine Lanze in den Himmel und will nur noch bumsen wie eine Nähmaschine.

    Ihre Wärme und diese Erotische Ausstrahlung musst du einfach
    einmal kennen lernen. Bei dem kannst du es dann mit richtig hemmungslosen Camgirls treiben, die nichts anderes kennen als guten Sex.

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