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 4:06 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
I happen to agree with Renee Zellweger that all the chatter about her face is "silly."
updated 6:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
I have long thought millennials, who expect flexibility in the workplace, would be the group that would bring an end to the stigma that is too often associated with flex time -- the belief that wanting a flexible work arrangement means you aren't willing to work as hard. But now I'm thinking it's going to be men who will get us there.
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Say it with us: Kids today have it sooooo easy.
updated 2:29 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
An Atlanta judge reportedly reprimanded an immigration attorney for bringing her 4-week-old to court for a hearing -- a hearing she asked the judge to reschedule because she was on her six-week maternity leave.
updated 4:18 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Monica Lewinsky tweeted for the first time. She called herself "patient zero" of cyber-bullying.
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Meet Shyanne Roberts, a 10-year-old competitive shooter with something to prove: "Kids and guns don't always mean bad things happen."
updated 10:57 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
"Breaking Bad's" Walter White may have cleverly dodged authorities during his career as a drug kingpin, but his action figure hasn't dodged the wrath of a Florida mother.
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
strawberry ghosts
We love Halloween season. Sweets. Sweaters. Sipping hot cider (maybe spiked). Halloween can certainly get you in the spirit, and nothing warms our hearts like these healthy Halloween treats that help you stay energized instead of stuck in a sugar coma.
updated 3:23 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Does your baby cry during long flights, causing you to want to disappear from the glares of fellow passengers?
updated 10:52 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ask any teen if they suffer from social media anxiety and they would probably tell you no. But the truth is getting "likes" and the fear of missing out are adding stress to teens' lives.
updated 9:13 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Many photographers have taken it upon themselves to document stillborn and terminal babies' precious moments after birth.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
As part of the insurance coverage offered to its female employees, Facebook is paying to freeze their eggs.
updated 2:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Amal Alamuddin was well-known in many important circles long before she snagged the world's most eligible bachelor. But Amal Alamuddin is now Amal Clooney, according to her law firm's website.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Trends in young adult fiction have shifted from wizards to glittering vampires to bloodthirsty "Hunger Games" and now, to teens coping with illnesses and realistic issues.
updated 8:56 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Before he died this year, 14-year-old Martin Romero wanted to do something for his community.
updated 6:33 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
A 12-year-old girl called Dick's Sporting Goods out on its lack of female athletes in the Basketball 2014 catalog.
updated 12:36 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Before he was even born, Shane Michael Haley had already met the Philadelphia Phillies, been to the top of the Empire State Building and shared a cheesesteak with his parents.
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I read the initial comments from Microsoft's CEO on how women who don't ask for raises will receive "good karma."
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
A photo series "From the NICU to the Moon" imagines premature babies in future professions with a series of imaginative doodles.
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
Jessica Dunne and her father Michael P. Dunne
"I don't think anyone is ready for grief. But when it hits you, it knocks you out cold," Jessica Dunne wrote after the sudden loss of her father.
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Most moms will say they long for a day when moms stop criticizing one another, but most of us are guilty of tearing each other down.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When we think of terminal cancer patients, we don't imagine Brittany Maynard -- 29, vigorous, happy. But she will soon take a handful of pills that will end her life.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Wed October 8, 2014
"Back in my day, we used to walk five miles uphill, carrying all our books in the blistering cold and the pouring rain..." Some schools have found a new way to making walking to school safer -- and more fun.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
The death of a New Jersey boy, the first health officials are directly linking to Enterovirus D68, has parents wondering whether school is the worst place to send kids susceptible to the virus.
updated 10:22 AM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
It's a heartbreaking time for three families, football teams and communities after three players died last week. Investigations are under way, but some parents are wondering, is the sport safe for children?
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Here's what some schools are doing to create welcoming environments for transgender and gender nonconforming children.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Nothing could prepare this mom-to-be for what she learned at her first ultrasound.
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A 15-year-old British schoolboy has struck a chord with his eloquent response to actress Emma Watson's United Nations speech encouraging men to join in the fight for gender equality.
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