By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, September 1987
“What does Christina have on today?” M.J. wanted to know.
M.J. and Christina are friends. They ran into each other while shopping for tutus.
M.J., who is 4, was wearing a dress.
She looked pretty.
Christina, newly 4, was wearing dungarees.
She looked OK.
My sister-in-law Alice had warned me about this. I bought a raft of back-to-school overalls for Christina in August and showed them to her. “Are you sure Christina is going to wear them?” she cautioned as I snipped off the price tags.
Her daughter Julie, who is 5, won’t wear anything but dresses. And neither will most of Julie’s friends. It happens when the girls turn 4, said Alice.
Pink dresses, powder blue dresses. Dresses with nosegays, kitty cats and sunbursts. Dresses that show the calf, the knee and the shoulder.
Little girls, it seems, are the last stronghold of prettiness in today’s society.
Their mothers and grandmothers go off to work dressed for success in man-tailored suits in shades of ecru and khaki.
Their only concession to femininity is a wisp of lace at the wrist or throat.
Those moms who don’t hold outside jobs schlep about in denim skirts and loafers. If they are pretty, it is because their cheeks are still flushed from the morning workout.
If you want to see something pretty these days, you have to be quick. For, by the time a girl reaches the third or fourth grade, she has changed her look to tough.
She wears her Levis or jeans skirt tight, suggesting that, yes, she does own standard equipment thighs and knees.
But anything else that might be construed as pretty is hidden by high-top sneakers and an oversized sweatshirt.
A hank of hair, brutally chopped, falls forward to conceal what was, when last seen, a pretty face.
Pretty has become an embarrassment for women and older girls.
Like the Arab woman anonymous in her chador, a girl must cover her beauty, lest it tempt and torment the male of the species, causing him to banish her – or try to – from the workplace back to the boudoir.
But the littlest girls are still blessedly ignorant of the politics of gender.
Truly sensual, they paint their fingernails purple with marking pens. They dot their cheeks with rainbow stickers.
They gather up the leftover stick-on bows at the birthday party and press them to their bodices.
Out shopping, Peter wants to buy yet another Battle Beast to wage war on his bedroom floor. Christina is satisfied with a roll of that gold ribbon with the red hearts on it, please, Mommy.
She cuts a piece off and winds it around her neck. Thus adorned, she looks into the mirror and beams, enormously pleased. She is a fairy, a ballerina, a queen, a gloriously beautiful lady.
Christina is pretty. No, let’s be precise, Christina is a knock-out.
Jon and I are careful not to mention this in our daughter’s presence, however.
What if she grows up to be a fluff ball, a beautiful nothing? Christina is pretty enough and demure enough to get away with it.
Instead, we tell her at every turn how clever she is, how strong, how witty, all of which is true – but not as true as how beautiful she is.
Miriam de Uriarte, director of the Berkeley Child Art Studio, shares our bias.
She notices a difference between boys’ art and girls.’ Boys’ drawings are spare and functional, full of action, spaceships, combat and competition. Girls tend to draw houses, flowers, people.
“I used to think it was purely social,” says Miriam. Girls’ drawings, baroque with sunbursts and daisies and often nice to a fault, were strictly the result of conditioning, she thought.
But after 22 years of teaching children art, Miriam has changed her mind. “Now I think girls are naturally more process-oriented, more experimental, more in touch with fluids and textures. They tolerate more decoration in their work.”
Trouble is, Miriam adds, girls are “praised for drawing the house and flowers, for being a nice girl. They become stuck in this groove.”
Miriam encourages girls in her art classes to make ugly pictures, to express anger and fear. “I get some really powerful drawings.” She also gets, “Oh, yucky. I’m not going to draw a monster.”
Christina needed a leotard and ballet slippers for her ballet class. M.J. and Annie would be showing up at class with tutus over their leotards. Christina, I resolved, would also have a tutu.
She tried on the peach leotard.
Then the lavender leotard and black slippers.
The colors didn’t pull together.
Next, the pink leotard with a great white cloud of a tutu.
Christina was delectable. All in pink and white, my daughter looked like a dish of ice cream, a swan lady, a fairy princess.
She was pretty as only a 4-year-old girl knows how to be pretty. I told her so.
And, pretty or not so pretty, here’s what happens when girls get to their twenties: “Why He Never Called Me Back.”
Reprinted by permission of The Oakland Tribune