California Girls, Part III
Photo: Brandi Eszlinger/flickr
As a developmental psychologist who studies gender, I often ask parents about how frequently they play with gender-typed toys. The sad thing is, apart from a few toys like dolls and tea sets, a stereotypically feminine toy in early childhood (the preschool and kindergarten years) often revolves around appearance and adornment. For example, common toys for girls include:
- Dress-up clothes (i.e., princesses, brides, and fairies)
- Toy hair salon tools and make-up sets
- Nail polish
- Crafts that emphasize adornment (e.g., jewelry-making)
- Sticker dress-up doll books with clothing items for every occasion (ballet practice, beach outing, you name it) and an unfathomable amount of possible combinations
- Dress-up mix and match dolls with different outfits
- Books that emphasize appearance (e.g., Fancy Nancy – the fancier the outfit, the better)
Don’t get me wrong. I think fashion is fun and can be creative and has its place. It’s just that there is such an imbalance, where so many toys emphasize the external appearance of girls and do not emphasize other important aspects of self-development.
The toy industry emphasizes this much more for girls than for boys. This became evident to me when I was recently creating an experiment on how a preoccupation with appearance develops in young children. For the experiment’s outcome, I wanted to see what toys children would “buy” with fake money when they’re playing “store” – appearance-related toys or neutral toys. It was basically impossible to find any masculine toys that would remotely appeal to boys that had to do with dress, appearance, or grooming. It was incredibly easy to find appearance-related feminine toys.
Preschool and kindergarten is the time when children are beginning to form gender identities, so children tend to be extra curious about what gender means during this developmental period. They are also usually quite motivated to learn the “rules of gender” and rigid in following these rules. Thus, many young girls do frequently play with these feminine-typed appearance-related toys. I speculate that this play with appearance-related toys likely reflects how much young girls already care about their appearances. Continual play with these appearance-related toys may also contribute to further fostering a preoccupation with appearance. Psychological research supports the notion that this concern is developing at quite a young age. In one study, researchers asked 3- to 10-year-olds, “Tell me what you know about girls/boys? Tell me about girls/boys. Describe them.” Children tended to associate boys with activities, such as playing video games and sports. When thinking about girls, children mentioned appearance themes, like, they have long hair, they wear dresses and jewelry, and they are concerned with appearance. Several researchers have come to the conclusion that young children often start out believing gender stereotypes such that boys are what they do and girls are what they look like (also see here).
My own study looked more directly at whether young girls are concerned with their appearance. We interviewed 35 3- to 5-year-old girls and asked them, “Is it important to you to be pretty? (If yes) How important, a little or a lot?” About 69% of the girls that we asked said that it was “a lot” important to be pretty, the highest end of our scale. The disturbing part was that variability was quite low – only 20% said, no, it’s not important, and 9% said that it’s only a little important to be pretty.*
We also asked the children a follow-up question if they answered “Yes” to “Is it important to you to be pretty?” We asked, “Why is it important to be pretty?” Some of these young girls already showed awareness of the social nature of prettiness and the social norms around prettiness for girls. They said things like “Because other people won’t say, ‘You don’t look nice’”, “need to be nice and pretty” and “because you have to.” They also responded with, “So they know your name” and “Show others to be pretty.” Others simply expressed their enjoyment of looking pretty – “because I feel fancy”, “fun to be fancy,” and “I like to be a princess.” A good number of girls knew it was important, but they were not yet sure why, or, they might have had a hard time articulating this knowledge. These girls were quite young, after all, and still developing their language skills.
These kinds of responses trouble me. These girls are just learning how to be girls and what it means, and this is what they are learning? Others I have talked to have noticed similar disturbing trends. My lab conducts studies at local childcare centers with 3- to 6-year-olds. When I was talking to the director about my project, the director told me that whenever she would visit the childcare sites, the young girls would tell her that they liked her shoes or some other piece of clothing. If this director wore a new skirt, some of the young girls would actually notice and ask if that was a new skirt. These are 3- to 6-year-olds talking appearance shop with a woman several decades beyond them. When I visited the childcare site myself, I actually saw a 4- or 5-year-old girl look me over from head to toe to check out my outfit. Yikes! I hate seeing this “checking out” behavior in adult women, but I didn’t expect to be checked out by a 5-year-old.
From where are children learning that girls are what they look like? That to be feminine, one needs to care about one’s appearance and look pretty? Being bought and playing with toys that focus on appearance may play a role, although this has not been empirically supported yet. We also likely model this behavior for them – both through the media (see also here) and through our own examples. In terms of media, in my own work, I am particularly interested in the impact of Disney fairytale princesses, a $4 billion dollar franchise, with widespread global influence. The older films especially emphasize that heroines are beautiful and that beauty is valued. Beauty gets you the prince and the happily-ever-after. Disney isn’t shy about it, the heroines are named “Belle” and Sleeping “Beauty.” Snow White was the Fairest One of All. Although the newer films try to emphasize other aspects of heroines, such as resourcefulness and being caring, the heroines are still unrealistically drop-dead gorgeous.
But Disney is not the only culprit. We are too. I struggle with this too, as an aunt. At the same time that I try to not buy my nieces appearance-related toys, I model my own concern about appearance. When I visit them, they see me apply my make-up in the morning – so many interesting creams and powders and colors! We go shopping together, and they see my sister and I spend time deciding on what clothes to buy. They see us wear heels that aren’t good for our backs or our feet. As much as I wish to be liberated of beauty concerns and not care about what anyone thinks about my appearance, I’m far from there still. (I do have fantasies about one day becoming one of those eccentric professors with white hair, flowy loose clothes and comfortable walking shoes). Jennifer Weiner wrote a nice piece on her own personal struggle with caring about her looks, but wanting her daughters to care about inner and not external beauty. Research has found, perhaps not surprisingly, that mothers’ personal dissatisfaction with appearance (in this case with weight and body) predicts adolescent girls’ disordered eating behaviors. This suggests that the example that we set does matter.
My sense is that as soon as girls learn that they are girls, they are learning that being a girl means that they need to be pretty. I think it’s sad that that’s what “girlhood” is equated with at such a young age and at such a formative developmental period. We don’t yet have evidence that this early appearance concern fostered in preschool and kindergarten is sustained through adolescence or adulthood. If it is, though, there is much evidence (mentioned in Part II of this series) that high appearance concerns in adolescence and young adulthood is associated with a whole plethora of negative outcomes. So it’s hard for me to watch young girls playing with appearance-related toys and adoring these unreal beautiful heroines and to not also imagine what could be in store for them later in life. Let’s not define young girls and ourselves by what we look like, but by what we do.
*These data are preliminary and have not yet been published or peer-reviewed. We are still collecting more responses, but I imagine the trend will remain the same even when we add more children into the study.