What I want for Christmas is for people to stop objectifying my daughter.
But after I took my four-year-old daughter Violet to visit you last week it seems that even YOU can’t deliver on this particular request.
You may recall that we walked into your little house for the family photo and you remarked on every item of clothing Violet was wearing — including her socks.
And then you told her she was the most beautiful and best-dressed person in the shopping center.
Couldn’t you have just stopped there? Hell no! You ploughed on to suggest that she takes up modelling when she grows up.
Now I don’t want to be too harsh on an old Commie doing his job. I know you were trying to build rapport with my preschooler the best way you knew how.
But I also know that you are capable of doing better. For example, when my friend took her four-year-old son to see you in a shopping center, you didn’t focus on the boy’s appearance to break the ice. Instead, you talked about your reindeer.
Reindeer! Violet’s enthusiasm for Rudolph is just as keen as any boys’. In fact, she loves your entire pack.
You could have bonded with Violet over your mutual regard for flying animals. You could have even talked about boring old non-flying deer. Violet would have been thrilled.
But, no, your only interest in Violet was a) her prettiness, b) her comparative prettiness to other girls and women in the store and c) whether she was interested in making a career out of being judged by, and valued for, her looks.
I’m over-reacting, surely. Well, no, I’m not.
I don’t mean to go all Piers-Akerman-weird-feminist on you, but if your comments were an isolated incident, then perhaps it would be an overreaction. But the thing is, this focus on girls’ beauty and appearance is a year-round phenomenon.
Like most girls, my daughter hears, ‘That’s a pretty dress, did you pick it yourself?’ or ‘What lovely hair you have’ or ‘You have the most amazing eyelashes’, or ‘I like the bows on your shoes’, or ‘You are so cute’ almost every time somebody engages in conversation with her.
If family, friends, shop assistants, complete strangers and even Santa, only remark on how girls look, rather than what they think and do, how can we expect girls to believe that they have anything more to offer the world than their beauty?
It also further serves to widen the gender divide. We train girls to be objects, valued for how they look, and boys to be agents, valued for what they do and think.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever comment on girls’ appearance. Little girls are cute so of course appearance-based compliments spring to mind when we see them.
But little boys are gorgeous too. Yet that’s not the first or only thing we ever say to them. Why can we think of creative ice-breakers for boys but yet when it comes to girls we always resort to commenting on their physical appearance?
This isn’t all your fault, Santa. The focus on girls’ appearance to the exclusion of everything else is so deeply entrenched in our culture that we often don’t know what else to say to them. Despite our best intentions, we have no frame of reference to engage with girls on any level other than the superficial.
So I’m going to help you out. Here’s a list of suggestions to break the ice with the next girl who comes to visit you.
– Where have you been today? or Where are you going today?
– How old are you?
– What do you want to be when you grow up?
– What’s your favourite book/toy/sport/animal/food/song?
– Do you know any Christmas carols?
– Check out your surroundings and remark on something such as a flowering plant, a truck, a picture on the wall, Christmas decorations, even the weather.
– Or just imagine what you would say to her if she were boy.
Meanwhile Santa, I’ll leave a copy of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth for you next to the milk and cookies. Merry Christmas.