Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Pink, princess-y and sexy too soon

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 10:00 AM EST, Tue February 4, 2014
Author Melissa Atkins Wardy with her 5-year-old son Benny and 8-year-old daughter Amelia.
Author Melissa Atkins Wardy with her 5-year-old son Benny and 8-year-old daughter Amelia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Redefining Girly" is a new book about fighting the stereotyping of girls
  • Author Melissa Atkins Wardy started a business selling empowering tees for girls
  • Gender stereotypes in products lead to sexualization of girls, Atkins Wardy says
  • Advice to parents? Help your girls create their own "personal brand"

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Melissa Atkins Wardy calls it her "a-ha" moment.

There she was looking for her first sippy cup for her then 6-month-old daughter. Her choices: Mickey Mouse, Diego and "Toy Story" characters for boys, and princesses -- and more princesses -- for girls.

Already fired up, she walked through the toy aisles and saw what she describes as a further gender divide. Girls were offered baby dolls, princesses and sexy fashion figures; the boys section had superheroes, building blocks, science kits and dinosaurs.

"That was it. There was no middle ground. I didn't see any dolls or cooking sets for boys, nor building blocks or fire trucks for girls," writes Atkins Wardy in her new book "Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween."

This new book offers parents tips on fighting gender stereotypes and sexualization of girls.
This new book offers parents tips on fighting gender stereotypes and sexualization of girls.

After that experience, she said in an interview, "Everything clicked and made sense to me."

READ: Too hot for teens: Why some parents dread back-to-school shopping

"I hear parents saying that all the time. They're like, 'Oh, I just had my sippy cup moment' ... They were at a restaurant and the clown came to the table and offered the boys a whole bunch of selections for what balloon animal to make and then he offered the girl a flower or a tiara," said Atkins Wardy, a mom of two.

"The mom's like, 'What if she wants a light saber, too?'"

The birth of a cause

After Atkins Wardy's eye-opening shopping experience, she decided to start a business creating empowering T-shirts for girls and boys. Her company, Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, offers selections such as a girl doctor with the headline "Call me in the morning" and another that says "I'm growing up," and lists words like inquisitive, fearless and daring.

Her business led to a blog and ultimately, a cause: trying to raise awareness about gender stereotypes and how damaging they can be.

Disney sexing up 'Brave' heroine?
Victoria's Secret model? Meh

"One pink pacifier or sippy cup or Lego set isn't a big deal...it's when the lowest common denominators of femininity become the marketing catalyst for every product that's made for females," said Atkins Wardy, who has an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.

The fact that there are "girl" products and "boy" products at all is also part of the problem, she said.

READ: Seeking gender equality in LEGO world

"It teaches children there is only one way to be a girl and one way to be a boy," she said. "When you have a little girl like mine who is obsessed with the ocean and giant squids and insect infestations in homes, she's considered weird or odd or a tomboy when in fact, science and things like that should be considered girly."

As a mom of two girls -- including one who hopes Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos calls her to play on his team in this week's Super Bowl -- I can totally relate. I, along with so many other parents, am frustrated about the definitions of what's girly and what's not, and the separate products and clothing offered to girls and boys.

'Pink and pretty to hot and sexy'

A larger question is just whether this gender differentiation in products and fashion actually leads to another big concern, especially for parents of daughters, the sexualization of our young girls.

Are these sexy selfies too far for kids?
Lingerie ad too sexy for teens?

Atkins Wardy of Janesville, Wisconsin, says there's a correlation.

"You have to connect the dots," she said. "With princess culture and all these pink toys that are almost always focused on fashion and beauty and how a girl can please somebody else, either by keeping a nice house or looking like a perfect princess, that all segues into the sexualization side of the market.

"Once you're done with princesses, if you are growing up in that girly-girly culture, the next thing offered to you are these sexualized dolls and you are growing up too fast," she said. "You are being introduced into adult concepts of sexuality that otherwise wouldn't be present in toys and it doesn't allow a girl to develop on her own, and at her own pace.

READ: Sex, lies and media: New wave of activists challenge notions of beauty

"The pretty princess culture focuses on appearance and that segues (from) 'sweet and pink and pretty' to 'hot and sexy.' There's no room for girlhood in that space."

Encouraging girls' 'personal brand'

So what's a parent to do? Atkins Wardy's book, which she hopes is almost like a "recipe book for parents," offers step-by-step advice.

She encourages us to teach our children to think critically, which can be as simple as watching a television show and raising questions about why girls are portrayed a certain way. For instance, if the girl character is getting rescued by a boy, we can tell our girls the story could easily have been changed so the girl is doing the rescuing.

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace writes \
CNN's Kelly Wallace writes "I, along with so many other parents, am frustrated about the definitions of what's girly..."

"I talk about parents teaching girls a personal brand," she said. "She kind of has this benchmark that ... when these toxic messages come in and out from culture, she can then bounce against (them) or not and say, 'Well this doesn't fit what my mom and dad taught me.'"

There are not enough parents having these kinds of conversations with their girls and boys, Atkins Wardy said.

READ: When kids play across gender lines

Moms on Facebook might see something inspiring such as a new ad by Dove encouraging women to love themselves, no matter what. "They all click like and they love it," she said, "But are you taking that second step and sharing that with your kid and really talking about it ... and just being conscious of the media you are taking in?"

Parents can also make their voices heard, Atkins Wardy said, whenever they see a product, ad, or clothing that they believe stereotypes and sexualizes girls.

When Disney gave Merida, the heroine from "Brave" a makeover, more than 250,000 people signed a "Keep Merida Brave" online petition. Disney ultimately backed down from changing the character's look and dress.

READ: Helping teens build a positive body image

"Once you aggregate these parents' voices and the tens of thousands of voices, you really can start to make change," she said.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

'Once you see it, you can't unsee it'

Atkins Wardy often tells parents in her community that once they become aware of the stereotyping and the sexualization, they won't be able to look away.

"Once you see it, you can't unsee it," she writes.

It's also never too late to start doing something about it, she says. That includes letting our girls know they can be whatever they want to be.

READ: Is Sinead's advice to Miley good for other girls too?

"There are many ways to be a girl and 'Redefining Girly' is about giving girls the space to show us who they are," she said.

So if the Broncos needs an extra player Sunday, I'll be sure my 6-year-old gal is ready!

What do you think we can do to fight stereotyping and sexualizing girls? Chime in below in comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter and CNN Living on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Sarah McLachlan, the Grammy Award winning singer, was barely out of her teenage years when her first album came out in 1988. Now, she's a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls touring the country to promote her seventh full-length solo album called "Shine On."
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain -- not only in an "I'm traumatized!" kind of way, but also in an "I literally have less gray matter in my brain!" kind of way.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park for hours while she worked at a nearby McDonald's has sparked a robust debate online about whether this mother should ever have been arrested and how young is too young to leave a child on his or her own.
updated 11:15 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
CNN's Kelly Wallace reveals 5 common parenting mistakes that many parents admit to making.
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Is it a bad idea for parents to let kids drink underage at home, or does an early sip make drinking less taboo? Studies are divided on the subject, which is a tough nut for parents to crack.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cellphones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night
updated 2:40 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
Professional photographer Timothy Archibald uses his camera to connect with his autistic son.
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Do you wish you could outsource the summer cooking, cleaning, and camp planning associated with kids? Here are 5 ways to do it -- and why you shouldn't feel guilty about it.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
The death of a Georgia toddler in a hot car raises the question: should government or automakers get involved to prevent accidental deaths from heatstroke inside a car?
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
It's not just the 'baby blues.' Postpartum depression affects about 15% of new mothers. Here's what one 'warrior woman' is doing to fight it.
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
What does it mean to run "like a girl"? A new viral video points out that the answer changes depending on whom you ask.
updated 5:22 PM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
CNN reporter Moni Basu lived in the U.S. nearly 30 years before becoming a citizen. Here's what it meant to pledge her allegiance.
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
Her daughter was cut from the team. Her son didn't get into that coveted honors class. It was hard but also helpful. Here's how one mom learned to find lessons in failure.
updated 11:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
The presence of transgender and gender nonconforming youth at NYC Pride March is latest effort to increase visibility of the transgender community.
updated 6:27 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
A new ad by the hair care company Pantene asks why women are always apologizing and raises the question of whether women say "sorry" more often than men.
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The American Academy of Pediatrics announced new guidelines this week urging doctors to tell parents to read to their infants and toddlers.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Sat June 28, 2014
David Martinez grew up thinking he was just an average American kid. When he learned he was undocumented immigrant, it made him re-examine his beliefs about Mexican identity.
updated 1:47 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
A new survey says that working fathers, like working mothers, find it hard to balance work and family.
updated 6:29 AM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
Jenny Mollen has no issue tweeting her breastfeeding. The new author talks motherhood and having a (more) famous husband
updated 5:20 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
Experts say "mean girl" behavior begins as young as elementary school. Here's how to prevent raising a mean girl.
updated 6:40 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
While dads today don't get the same respect and attention as moms, and are often depicted as clueless, they've come a long way, baby.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
North West, the 1-year-old daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, is already a social media darling due to her mom's active presence on Instagram. Now the child's new look is sparking some controversy online.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
In this celebrity mecca, where the issue usually is "Who's your daddy," actor Jason Patric is engaged in a court fight that raises an even thornier question: What is a daddy?
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
If you weren't part of the "cool club" in middle school, you may have an extra spring in your step after hearing about a new study, which could be titled "Revenge of the Nerds."
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT