A Janesville writer is taking on gender expectations in hopes we can avoid the sexualization and stereotyping of girls.
In her new book Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween, author Melissa Atkins Wardy argues that girls in 2014 are dealing with societal expectations their parents and grandparents probably never imagined. That's despite the fact that today's women outnumber men in higher education and have unprecedented opportunities in business and in sports.
She says the fight must start at home, so her book is basically a how-to, or a "how not-to" guide for helping parents navigate the current state of gender expectations in this country.
"What lessons do you want your child to learn? Because every parent knows kids soak up everything around them," she says.
Atkins Wardy says it's not possible to block out culture and marketing, so parents need to teach their kids critical thinking skills to evaluate these messages on their own.
"You can't keep them in a bubble, and you can't protect them, and what you need to do is instill your family values to them," she says. "So when these cultural messages come in, the kids use them as a benchmark and the messages either stick and stay or the kids weigh them...and that way they're questioning what they're seeing."
Atkins Wardy began fostering these skills in her own children at early age, prompted by a shopping expedition in 2006 for her firstborn daughter Amelia - named after Amelia Earhart.
“I was looking for a onesie with a girl pilot on it,” Atkins Wardy says. “They didn’t make those. It was princesses, ballet, cupcake, tiara…or these messages about being a sassy diva. Why would I want my little girl to act that way?”
She found the same "gender segregation" as she shopped for sippy cups and toys. Other items geared toward her daughter - like Barbies "dressed in a way that would be appropriate for going clubbing in Miami, but maybe not for your six-year-old" - gave off age-inappropriate messages. Adkins Wardy says these contribute to the trend of "kids getting older younger."
"I didn't think it would be like this for my daughter," she says, "and then you look at the messages for girls, it was princess, fashion and beauty or domestic cleaning. And for boys it was everything else in the world, and I thought, 'Well, wait a minute. I want my daughter to play sports, and build things, and do science and like dinosaurs. Those aren't boy things; those are kid things."
Atkins Wardy finds fault in today's marketing culture. Since marketing’s deregulation in the 1980s, children are now a consumer group. Today, marketers emphasize gender roles and stereotypes, which Atkins Wardy says can be harmful to child development.
Moreover, Atkins Wardy was shocked to hear adults - like her daughter's pediatrician - not actively speaking against these messages. That's why Atkins Wardy says it's up to parents to steer the message and teach children “how to interact with the media.”
"I don't agree with banning anything from the home, so if you're going to have Barbie in the house, just be prepared to have some conversations with your child, and pick Barbies that are maybe Barbie President, or Barbie Teacher, as opposed to Ms. Sassy Barbie," she says.
Atkins Wardy, who is also the owner of a clothes and accessories company called Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, will talk about her book Wednesday evening at the Lynden Sculpture Garden in a Boswell Book Company event.