Nicky Ellis
Sep 12, 2016 · 4 min read

On girls, guns and stereotypes

My daughter is three years old, and she has started making guns. She makes them from duplo, from pegs and pens. They are poorly executed, but recognisable. She doesn’t know they are guns.

The idea of a gun is moving around the nursery playground, emanating from older siblings, less suitable television, like those tame, distorted images of lions rendered in the middle ages by artists who had never seen a lion and had only a limited idea of its context. Reproduced in play and passed on, distorted but recognisable.

Other ideas circulate in the same way; death, the tooth fairy, unicorns, gender.

She set herself up as a tomboy as soon as she was old enough to dictate the terms. She plays with girls, but if called upon to decide, she’s on the boys’ team.

More than that, she has consistently and vehemently taken a stance against prettiness. It started with dresses and skirts, which she used to wear occasionally and now will not wear at all. And she doesn’t like to be complimented on her appearance. From before she could coherently articulate the sentiment, she would respond with fury if anyone called her pretty “I not pretty. I not”. If said about her hair, she will immediately ruffle it, caricaturing the most truculent of teenagers.

She accepts neutral, descriptive comments. I like your red trousers. That’s a good stripy top. She seemed for a while to find pretty and its synonyms quite distressing; I did my best to ban outright all comments on her appearance.

It was very hard to enforce. It’s fascinating how entrenched it is, how instinctive, even amongst people who think they are progressive and egalitarian through and through. It’s hard to repress the instinct to tell little girls how lovely they look when they put on a new dress or finally have hair long enough to plait.

I found it hard. And widen the circle and it’s everywhere; at her first hair cut the hairdresser asked if she wanted glitter in her hair. All the big girls got it. And why exactly? It’s a bugger to wash out. It’s inconvenient. To her credit, my girl just looked confused.

As her language develops, I get intriguing hints about what pretty means. “Mummy, you are very pretty today”, she says. My heart melts. I should just take the compliment, but of course I can’t resist. “Thank you” I say (reinforcing the idea, of course). “Why am I pretty today?” “Because your dress has lots of colours”. Pretty is also sparkly, shiny, fairies and princesses. It is normally, but not exclusively, associated with girls. Sometimes daddy is pretty too.

She talks to other girls about their dresses with interest. “You got a dress on. Why you got that on?” And sometimes, ‘that’s a pretty dress’. From time to time, she looks with reverent fascination at one particularly sparkly specimen of hers, hanging neglected in the wardrobe, but it is not for wearing. She was given a necklace for Christmas. She gave it to me, and quite likes it when I wear it. But it isn’t for her.

I still don’t know why she gets so angry if someone says she’s pretty. Sometimes she tries to deflect the comment (“No. I’m not pretty. You’re pretty”). This is no teenage angst though; I am certain that in her mind the opposite of pretty isn’t ugly. My best guess is that it means girly. Whether she’s at some level resenting the suggestion that she dress in a particular way, or reacting to some chance remark or muddled association, I’ll suspect I’ll never know.

What I do know is that all of this starts so very young. I’m describing it mainly for love of the anecdotal, because it’s fascinating, because I’m curious how anyone feels they can unpick the genetic from the environmental and say with any certainty that they have a handle on the difference between boys and girls.

I’m describing it also because it’s worth thinking from time to time about the often unconscious differences in the way we talk to girls and boys about their appearances, and whether we really need to go on about it quite so much when they are so little.

And then the other day at breakfast, the inevitable, the “will this make me fat?”

I probably should be surprised it’s taken so long, it peppers so many of the conversations she hears.

Will it turn me into a giant” she follows up quickly, and with more evident concern, making clear that it’s still just the shadow of a concept, out there somewhere with the guns and the medieval lions, but it will cross over into this world soon enough.

Nicky Ellis

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From a certain distance, it's all fiction. On reflection still a Burr girl.