“It’s your first boyfriend,” a woman cooed at her infant daughter, who happened to be lying on a mat next to a baby boy and had accidentally swiped him. “Isn’t that cute?” Neither baby looked impressed. When my baby daughter rolled close to the boy, the woman said, “Oh, look out! She’s trying to steal your boyfriend!”
My daughter is 9-months-old and is interested in other babies. She likes stroking their faces and sometimes holding their hands (or, OK, swatting them). It’s friendly interest. And yet many people have already spoken about her having boyfriends, being an admirer of other babies, finding partners, and liking one particular baby boy in a special way. Um, no, sorry. She’s a baby, not a flirting, sexually-active adult. I don’t understand why we are trying to sexualize children and make them grow up so fast.
There’s something disturbing about the constant references I hear people making to young babies about their appearances and romantic interests. Babies are interesting in and of themselves; we don’t need to add some extra level of intrigue that doesn’t actually exist.
I know some simply feel that this is a way of talking about the social lives of infants or that they think it’s cute and sweet to pretend that babies fancy one another, but in fact when we do this, we’re suggesting both that babies just being babies are dull, and also that all interactions between males and females are fraught with sexual overtones. These seem like pretty unhealthy messages to pass on to children.
Comments on babies having romantic feelings or being concerned about their appearance are pervasive and, to me, bizarre.
“Your daughter is so pretty, she’ll never have trouble finding a boyfriend,” someone told me. I know this person meant well and was being kind, but the remark struck me as problematic for a variety of reasons. First of all, my child’s appearance isn’t the most important thing about her, and I don’t want people to constantly refer to it.
Our society is looks-obsessed enough as it is, and I’d prefer to focus on my daughter’s personality, talents, and interests rather than her appearance. Considering the number of young girls who diet, worry about having the right clothes and make-up, enter beauty contests, self-harm, suffer from depression and/or eating disorders, get bullied, or otherwise get side-tracked by superficiality and entranced by their exteriors, we need to combat this.
Why not praise our children for their behaviors and not their glossy hair or high cheekbones or small waists? When someone said to me, “Your daughter has such long eyelashes that she doesn’t even need mascara yet,” I could only stare in disbelief. I should hope an infant wouldn’t be using make-up, but considering that there are cosmetics lines for young girls already, perhaps baby blusher and baby lipstick won’t be far behind.
Secondly, why should we presume that all children will grow up to be heterosexual? Or sexual at all? My daughter might want a boyfriend one day, but she might also want a girlfriend, or multiple partners, or none. Emphasizing heterosexuality might confuse and upset young people who find that their preferences are different, and it could make them feel unaccepted. When a relative saw a photo where my daughter was touching a baby boy’s cheek, this relative began joking about how my baby was so in love with that boy and couldn’t stop fondling him.
Considering that I’m gay, this assumption of my daughter’s heterosexuality made me feel like my relative was erasing my own sexuality, and it reminded me of how little support I’d received from some family members. And, incidentally, my daughter had slapped this boy just before the photograph was snapped; she certainly wasn’t touching him in a gentle or romantic way.
And some people combine the obsession with appearances with a certain “humor” about romance. A baby girl my daughter knows is always dressed in skirts and tights and is said by her parents to be wanting to look good for the boys. And when this girl lifted her skirt up, the remarks became disgustingly vulgar. At a lunch out, a baby boy gave me a sweet smile and his mother said he was charming the ladies already; while again I know this was meant in a silly way, the implication that an adult woman might be charmed by or sexually interested in an infant was rather odd.
Our children have years ahead of them for growing up and for budding romance and sexual activity. There’s absolutely no need to talk about them as sexual beings when they’re so young. Even when done in a jokey manner, we’re still giving our children clear signals about what we value and expect. I for one don’t want to encourage my daughter to prioritize her appearance and her social life above everything else; to do so would limit her. She has all the potential in the world, and she will always be more than just someone’s girlfriend.