“Look at that cheeky boy!”
“Your boy is a smiler!”
“What a well-behaved boy you have.”
“He’s really studying the world. He’s a curious one, isn’t he?”
“He seems like a cheerful boy!”
These are all typical comments that I receive about my daughter. She doesn’t go out dressed in all pink or in little flowered dresses and ribbon headbands, so I suppose it’s not strange in our very gendered society that people assume she’s a little boy. It is annoying, however. I’m female and I don’t wear all pink clothes, so I don’t understand why she’s expected to.
But what’s worse about this situation is what happens if I correct someone’s assumption. I don’t actually think it matters that she’s seen as a boy by random strangers, but if someone asks me how old “he” is, I always reply that “she” is just over a year old.
The response then is almost always along these lines: “I’m so sorry! Of course she’s a girl! What a gorgeous little girl! Aren’t you beautiful? Look at those eyes!”
In other words, when my toddler is thought to be a boy, people refer to his behavior and personality–his smiles, his inquisitive nature, his cheekiness, his calm mood. But when my child is seen as a girl, people mostly comment on her looks–she’s gorgeous, she’s beautiful, she’s cute, she has lovely brown eyes, she’s going to break boys’ hearts.
Granted, there isn’t that much you can say about a baby you don’t really know, and most people are simply trying to be polite and to make conversation. I appreciate their efforts. But I feel that the way they talk to, and about, babies reflects a much larger and very pervasive problem in our society.
Why do we focus on girls’ appearances, but boys’ behavior? What message are we sending to even the tiniest babies about what we value in them? When we compliment girls on their looks but boys on their actions, we suggest that boys do and girls just are. Boys are active and girls are passive. Boys look and girls are looked at.
Perhaps it’s time we change the conversation. Why not refer to actions and behaviors for all babies and children (and adults, for that matter)? If we’re stuck for something to say to a child or his/her parent that isn’t about looks, we can try asking what the child’s favorite book or toy or activity is. Or we can converse about the weather or the shop we’re in or whatever the child happens to be looking at.
It may seem dull to say “Are you going to have those pears for dessert tonight?” or “Do you like when it’s rainy?” or “She certainly seems engaged by all the items in the grocery store!”, but at least such comments or questions are broader and more positive opening gambits than “What lovely long eyelashes you have. You don’t need mascara like I do!” or “She has kissy lips, doesn’t she?” I’ve received those latter “compliments” about my daughter, and it’s hard to know how to reply. I generally say, “Maybe, but even more importantly, she has a great personality,” and people always look taken aback by that.
I want to raise my little girl to believe that it’s her actions and her personality that matter, not her appearance. I just wish the rest of society were on-board with that.