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What It Is Is Beautiful

2012 January 4

This LEGO ad from 1981 has been making its way around Facebook. With LEGO’s recent campaign to market its “girl toys” (very pink and purple buildings sets featuring a beauty parlor, fashion design studio, bakery, convertible and pool party) prompting irate responses (and rightly so) from those who don’t see why play and creativity must be limited by such gender stereotypes, this ad has stirred up nostalgic desires for a different world. While such a stereotype-free world might never have actually existed, this ad with a real girl in blue jeans (and no pink in sight) simply being creative symbolizes a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to find these days. That it once existed in the realm of advertising – which like it or not determines our culture’s idea of how the world works – is both a painful reminder of what has been lost as well as a rallying cry that things need to change.

Parents of real kids know that our girls (and boys) don’t fit any gender stereotyped box. My daughter loves dressing up as a princess and playing with her fairy dolls just as much as she loves imaginative pirate adventures in the backyard and pretend space battles with her Star Wars figures. Assuming any of those activities to be more for girls or boys denies her of her true self. If building spaceships as opposed to a bikini pool party scene is for boys, then girls that like doing so are implicitly labeled as not being real girls. This message assumes there is something wrong with them – which if they are not bullied for they often learn to be ashamed of and hide. Who they are supposed to be is dictated to them by these stereotypes – defining for them what they should look like, what they should enjoy, and what they should do with their lives. Who they really are, the person God created them to be, gets denied as they try to live up to these images. This holds true for boys as well, but it is often intensified for girls.

This denial of the true self was brought home to me as I recently read the poignant blog post, How
Modesty Made Me Fat
. The author honestly tells of how the message that it was her responsibility to ensure that she never cause a man to stumble led her to serious eating disorders and health issues. The message she received was that who she was as a person didn’t matter, all that mattered was how she appeared to the world. She writes –

Modesty taught me that what I looked like was what mattered most of all. Not what I thought. Not how I felt. Not what I was capable of doing. Worrying about modesty, and being vigilant not to be sexy, made me even more obsessed with my looks than the women in short shorts and spray tans I was taught to hate.

Her post wasn’t a call to immodesty (the pressure to be sexy is of course just as damaging), but an attempt to expose the modesty culture as simply being the flip side of that same coin. When women are reduced to appearance, just as when girls are limited to stereotypes, it takes away their true self. The personality, the intelligence, the creativity, and the vibrancy of who they are are silenced as they are replaced with a puppet version of themselves – controlled by the hand of another.

It is easy to get distracted by the debates surrounding these issues without realizing what is happening to actual people. In the debates – Are girls different than boys? Is she dressed too sexy or not sexy enough? – we can miss looking at actual girls and women and seeing who they truly are in all their creativity and emotional depth. To be able to say of any girl or woman, “what it is is beautiful,” we first have to let them be themselves.


25 Responses leave one →
  1. Sheila Stewart Nelson permalink
    January 4, 2012

    I love this. (For one thing, the Lego ad brings me back to my own childhood of constantly building crazy Lego houses.) But also, I’ve been dealing with this whole boy-stuff/girl-stuff thing with my 8-year-old daughter. I hate it. I just want her to be herself and not care about what other people think, but that’s not an easy thing for a sensitive third grader. From the other kids (especially from the girls), she gets the message that there are real differences between what is acceptable for girls and what is acceptable for boys. She told me several months ago that she needed to “decide who she was going to be,” which apparently meant deciding to “dress like a girl,” ie. fancy and pink, or “dress like a boy,” ie. plainer. She’s been exploring the meaning of identity all year. For Christmas, she said she “got some girl things and some boy things.” I said, “But you got all Verity things.” And she agreed. All I know how to do is keep affirming who she is, but I wish she would get that affirmation in more places.

  2. January 4, 2012

    WOW. wow … and ugh. I will be using this at youth group this week.

    I have been thinking a lot about portrayals of feminine because I went to a movie over break (as is my yearly tradition) and noticed that three of movies in the trailers had lead women … who were acting – um – shall we say – not very lady like. It got me thinking about roles and mimicry.

    I have really wanted to ask some questions about this whole thing! Any interest in doing a co-blog with me on the issue? I would ask a question on Homebrewed and you could respond here? -Bo

  3. January 4, 2012

    Sheila – Emma’s so independent that she’s the one calling out stereotypes that confine her. Aidan though is going through the 3 year old differentiation phase and is very strict on boy/girl divisions. We’re working hard to help him understand his world and yet dismantle false stereotypes at the same time.

    Bo – I’d love to co-blog with you on these topics. Email me.

  4. January 4, 2012

    Building Lincoln Log houses and dressing up Barbie as the president of the United States were things I loved as a kid. My parents’ encouragement of modeling the things I was interested in through all kinds of toys was integral to my development of a positive self image of as a girl/person. So true that the actual human is more important than the “debates”.

  5. January 4, 2012


    Thank you for this. As the father of two teenage daughters, this is a constant challenge we have to face in our house. Both of them went to a school where they wore uniforms, and when my oldest transferred to HS, the shock was a lot for her.

    I’m very fortunate that both of my girls are fairly well adjusted and not prone to follow fashion trends (glad that lesson stuck), but it’s still something they see every day.

  6. January 4, 2012

    I agree with your basic point, and also loved the post on immodesty!

    However I’m surprised to see the “things used to be better, and are getting worse” argument in this article. The last place I thought I’d see that idea was in an article on the treatment of women!

    “While such a stereotype-free world might never have actually existed, this ad with a real girl in blue jeans (and no pink in sight) simply being creative symbolizes a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to find these days. That it once existed in the realm of advertising – which like it or not determines our culture’s idea of how the world works – is both a painful reminder of what has been lost as well as a rallying cry that things need to change.”

    While the advert from the 70s is decidedly better than a good deal of advertising today, I suspect it was uncommon, even at the time. But then, I was born in ’82, so I can’t say for sure!

    Things are bad, but one doesn’t have to point to some fantasy past to make that point (though I don’t mean this too harshly. It’s entirely possible you wrote these sentences without devoting as much thought to their chronological implications as I’ve given them on Monday morning).


  7. Amy permalink
    January 5, 2012

    I disagree that it’s worse for girls. The idea of the pink, “girlie” Legos makes it clear that there is something wrong with a boy who wants to build a beauty parlor or make a fashion show. My son has been mocked for taking ballet classes. I was told by more than one person that if I signed him up for dance, I was going to “turn him gay.” A girl might be urged to be more girlie if she wears “boy” clothes, but at least she can wear them. A boy would not only be teased but likely be physically assaulted for wearing girls’ clothes. The issue isn’t that it’s harder to be stereotyped as a boy or a girl, but that any of those boxes exist in the first place.

    • January 5, 2012

      Amy – I agree. My 6YO grandson commented on my wearing a pink shirt with blue jeans. He asked why I was wearing a “girl” color. I tried to impress on him that there was no such thing as girl and boy colors. I am not sure where he is learning that. I know it is not from my daughter (his mom) and I don’t think it is from his dad. My only hope is that I can send a counter-cultural message which sticks.

    • Erika permalink
      January 17, 2012

      Yes, it’s true!! Though I’m sure I would be uber sensitive to this kind of advertising to girls if I had a girl, I’m more concerned with how ads affect my 7 year old son. I want him to realize that he can play house and help me cook, and not label such activities as “girl” activities. And while he mostly does participate freely in a variety of activities, both “boy” and “girl”, I’m most concerned with his influences at school. The boys and girls play separately in the classroom and at recess, and the girls in his class all wear pink and play with dolls, while the boys wear star wars t-shirts and play with action figures and legos. I often wish his teacher/the school would do more to integrate the sexes and open up the discussion amongst the kids. I know my son doesn’t want to be segregated, and would love to play house with the girls, but feels immense pressure from the other boys.

  8. January 5, 2012

    Julie – Again a great post … and a discussion I hope we can continue. Having raised two daughters, the whole issue of counteracting our culture’s body-image ideal has been a struggle for me as a dad. I love where my daughters ended up (they are now in their late 20s). But I still struggle with all of these issues. A couple months ago I challenged myself to write a piece portraying a friendship between a man and a woman … a stunningly beautiful woman with no mention of anything related to her physical appearance … and a loving, considerate, emotionally-available man who sees and appreciates her beauty in a completely asexual (and hence counter-cultural) way. The deeply intimate friendship they develop is based on a love for who they are, not what they look like. I love where you are headed with this.

  9. amy permalink
    January 8, 2012

    I am part of a group that is organizing around this issue, and we have a petition right now on change. org if anyone is interested.

    Thank you Julie for writing this post!!! My favorite line?– “Parents of real kids know that our girls (and boys) don’t fit any gender stereotyped box” ABSOLUTELY!

  10. Robin permalink
    January 9, 2012

    Julie, on the one hand I understand and identify with what you’re saying here, but please allow me to bring up and alternate perspective….

    I grew up with 4 brothers, and had a total, complete “girly-girl” – who was also “perfect” – for a sister. She was a cheerleader, student body president, was pursued by the cutest boys in school, spent hours curling her hair, doing her make-up, reading romance novels and all the things that girls are “supposed” to do.

    I, on the other hand, hated wearing dresses, hated doing or having my hair done (and as a result was a rather unattractive child), didn’t do well in school (not because I wasn’t smart, but because I was TOO smart, which made me incredibly bored in school and uninterested in doing anything but reading.) I was far more interested in playing with my brothers, watching their cartoons and playing with their action figures than doing anything my sister – or the other girls in the neighborhood – were interested in.

    But, let me go a little farther back… there was a time when I was interested in pretty dresses and pink things, but I also had an uncle that was only a few years older than me that I absolutely adored. He bought me my first skateboard and taught me how to ride it. I wanted to wear my pretty clothes AND ride my skateboard, but my mom decided that she didn’t want me to ruin my nice clothes, so she dressed me in tough skins and chucks (long before chucks were cool for girls). What that told me was that if I wanted to do anything fun, I had to dress and look like a boy – it forced me to choose: have fun or look pretty. I chose to have fun, and that stuck with me all the way into my late 20’s. All the way through high school and college I also did not have any boyfriends, because I was always buddies with the guys, because my childhood taught me I had to choose. It wasn’t that I didn’t WANT a boyfriend, it was that having to choose between having fun with the guys or having to “look pretty” as a child became a choice that continued through adulthood. I also spent most of my life hating things that were pink because pink was the “girl” color and anything pink was generally made for “girl” activities – it wasn’t the COLOR that I resented, it was what it represented – it identified specific ACTIVITIES as being appropriate for girls, while others weren’t.

    It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s that I finally made some female friends that took me under their wing and made it their life mission to get me in touch with my feminine side. I fought it kicking and screaming, but through them I discovered a love of mani/ pedis and massages, pretty dresses and make-overs, party dresses and purses and all things “girly” – but best of all, what I discovered was that I could have it all. I could go for mani/pedi dates with them, and still go to games with their husbands.

    What I love about the age we live in is that there is very little difference between what boys are “allowed” to do and what girls are “allowed” to do, but you don’t have to LOOK like a boy to do them. These days girls play most of the same sports that boys do, but there is all kinds of pink equipment to do it with. There are “girly” skateboards and snowboards and athletic equipment of all kinds – and they are every bit as high quality as the “boy” stuff. There are girl super heroes galore (not just Wonder Woman all by her lonesome) and plenty of strong, powerful female role models. Women on TV are cops and bounty hunters and are capable of kicking serious booty – and no longer required to sit around waiting for some man to come rescue her. What I love is that these days you can do all the things the boys do but not have to completely sacrifice your female identity to do it. Nike, Champion, Underarmour and Reebok all make serious athletic gear for women and not just for pros. Women are no longer required to wear their boyfriend’s gear if they want to participate in “boy” activities.

    So, here’s the thing. I don’t have a problem with “girl” toys being available in pink that represent traditional girl activities. Thing is, lots of girls actually LIKE to cook and bake and participate in traditionally “girly” activities – and why shouldn’t they be allowed to have those things in pink? My beef is when those are the ONLY options. In fact, lately I’ve been noticing a lot of pro sports clothing in pink and I’m all for that too. Lots of women are football and basketball fans, and why should they have to wear men’s oversized jerseys to be a fan? These days women have the option of women’s sized clothing in traditional team colors OR in pink, and I am ALL FOR THAT!! As long as you make skateboards and snowboards and mountain bikes and BMX bikes and basketballs – and whatever else a girl’s little heart could desire – in pink, then I’m all for it. I don’t think I have to look like a boy or a man to enjoy all the same activities that boys and men do, and I don’t think any other girl or woman should have to either! So, that’s the other side of the “pink” coin!

    • January 11, 2012

      Robin – I’m not sure how your story is an “alternative perspective.” I could be wrong, but you seem to be saying the same thing Julie intended.

  11. January 11, 2012

    When my younger son, Cameron, was about five he asked for a doll for his birthday. Not long before we had checked out a book from the library, “William’s Doll”, by Charlotte Zolotow. (I see that a song based on the book’s story line was included in “Free to Be You and Me” and sung by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas.) So we were not at all surprized by his request. We got “Cam” an “anatomically correct” boy doll, which he cared for and played with for a year or so. His older brother (age 8) did not harrass him but looked on all this with a certain ammusement.

    The early 70s was an unusual period of time, the launching of environmentalism, organic agriculture, passive and active solar power, as well as feminism. Although most of these movements toward freedom went underground during a backlash in the 80s, many 90s men and thus, dads (and grampas) were shaped in that period when it was publically permissable, for a short time, to be freely “you and me.” So, I understand why you look back on a good paradigm which briefly shone and wasthen snuffed out by forces of reaction.

    Cameron did not grow up to be gay. He is a fine father of two beautiful young girls with whom he has taken an active fathering role in spite of a job which causes him to travel frequently. He probably changed more diapers in a month of their infanthood than I did for all three of my children combined. Of course, he could have been gay. An anatomically correct male baby doll — where would you get such a thing today? — would have had nothing to do with that and his mother and I would have loved him just the same.

    Clearly, it is in this broken world that Jesus calls his Body to love, to reconcile to transform. In family theory they say the more disfunctional a family is, the more rigid are its roles. Freedom and the power to TRULY BE are very frightening in a world built on lies and systems designed protect the lies. Sin is deep and wide. Grace and love, however, are deeper and wider.

    Thanks again, Julie for raising another important issue.

    • January 11, 2012

      Trace again. I sent my comment, above, to my busy son, Cameron and got this reply (which I asked his permission to share with Julie’s blog):

      Yes, and I don’t at all mind being the subject of your example! In the larger arena of Nurture vs. Nature debates, sexual preference is one topic I feel has very little, if in fact anything to do with how one is raised or that environment – exactly what most conservatives are so concerned about. To your point, where the environment does have a powerful influence is on how freely we are allowed to be who we are created to be. What if you and Mom had responded differently to my request (as many parents might today)? Would I have grown up to feel it was “OK” to be as involved and affectionate as a Dad if I had been told indirectly that these were “feminine” roles? Don’t know.
      Good for me to keep in mind – I hope that I’ve stayed as open to the girls’ requests. I hope that this comes through in my reinforcing and involvement with their math homework, encouraging them in their interest in scientific questions, getting out and playing with my old space LEGOs over this past Christmas break (yes, I still have them), kicking around a soccer ball with Lindsay or working on pitching and throwing with Allison, etc.
      Love you, Dad – have a great day as well.

  12. January 11, 2012

    I have no idea why my son’s age (eight) came out as a smiley face. O well…

    • Eavan permalink
      January 19, 2012

      Trace, it’s because the 8 followed by a ) is automatically converted by this little text editor to a sunglasses-wearing smiley. Same way : plus ) is a smile.

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