This morning, while driving my kids to out-of-school care, my 9 year old daughter said from the backseat “Mama, why do I have to sit with my legs squished together?” A quick glance back showed me that she was wearing a sundress, so I told her it was because she was wearing a dress and she doesn’t want to show her underwear. She replied “but even when I wear pants I have to”, to which I replied that, no, as long as her pants were not split at the crotch seam there was no reason for her to sit like that. And then she mentioned HER (I’m sure every mother has a child that when their name crosses our child’s lips we shudder slightly at the mini-Mean Girl frenemy that we wished they didn’t have. In this case, let’s call her Anna).
“Anna says that even when I wear pants, I ALWAYS have to sit with my legs squished together, or I am not ladylike. She said being not ladylike is rude,” my daughter sounded confused as to why Anna would tell her one thing and her mommy would tell her something else…(just wait, my darling, you are only at the beginning of Mama disagreeing with your friends! We haven’t even hit the teen years yet…)
Suppressing the desire to roll my eyes (after all, I am the grown up here…scary), I said “if she says anything like that again, tell her that your mommy doesn’t believe in ladylike. It is sexist and silly, and as long as you are not wearing a dress or a skirt, there is no reason to not sit however you feel comfortable”. I explained to her that no one tells her brother to sit “ladylike”, so why should she?
It made me think about how we indoctrinate our little girls from such a young age to be little “ladies” in more ways than just the pink, plastic Barbie way. (Case in point – one of my friends found pink Wonder Woman gardening gloves and tools… Wonder Woman does not wear pink, so why the colour choice? Little girls are perfectly capable of liking gardening gloves in Wonder Woman red, blue and gold!!) It may seem innocuous to tell our daughters to be ladylike, but it is a way of controlling their behaviour and teaching them to yield to gender norms. By teaching them that if they aren’t ladylike, they are being rude we are limiting them to two options – a feral ruffian child, or a polite little girl. It is a way to strip their equality away before they even realize it – their brothers jump and shout and kick and run, and we say “oh he’s such a boy!”; the girls try to jump and shout and kick and run, and we say “hush now! That’s not ladylike!” We tell them to sit quietly, we tell them to dress prettily, we tell them to brush their hair, and keep their clothes clean, we tell them to be like princesses, we teach them to be little ladies. And it needs to stop.
So I say no. My daughter is never as beautiful to me as when she is unkempt and freckled and free. When her eyes are bright, her head tipped back in a loud laugh; when she stands on the seawall facing the great Pacific Ocean, hair and dress whipping in the wind, arms flung back and her face peaceful. She does not need to be packaged to suit the norms of her gender. She needs to be kind, accepting of all people, polite, willing to stand up for herself and for others. She needs to express herself, and be allowed to be herself, just the same way that her brother is allowed to be. So please, do not tell our daughters to be ladylike. Do not pose them prettily, as though they were dolls. Do not ask them to keep their dresses tidy. Teach them to be strong, and brave, and truly and utterly themselves. Let them sit however they please, and voice their opinions and explore; get dirty and loud and jump, and not keep their “legs squished together”.