Personal Essay: Good Girl Raising / by Bear Guerra

I'd always pictured having an only child: a daughter. Maybe that's because I was an only child to my mother, too. No offense, but quite simply, there was no room for a baby boy in my imagination. So we felt great relief when we went to the five-month doctor's visit and he took a look at the ultrasound and said, "You see the genitalia right there? It's a girl." What genitalia? We could barely distinguish her arms and legs from the little amoeba-like image floating on the screen. But we were happy. We'd gotten our fifty-fifty chance to raise a girl. 

Right around the time of our big news, a friend gifted me "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture", a really great book exploring the pink marketing machine aimed at little girls, and the ways that parents buy into the princess fad. "Children as young as twelve to eighteen months can recognize brands," Peggy Orenstein writes, quoting recent research, "and are 'strongly influenced' by advertising and marketing." I must admit I wasn't surprised to read about how invasive marketing could be. But after reading Orenstein's book, I suddenly found myself hyper aware of how pervasive princess culture really is and of how hard we'd have to try to expose Camila to other options as she grew up.

These days, on the eve of her second birthday, Camila seems to fortunately be way less susceptible to these influences. She is more interested in trucks, machines, horses, and in digging up the worms in our front yard, than she is in Hello Kitty. She doesn't watch TV, so fortunately, she can't yet distinguish between Dora The Explorer and Minnie Mouse. But the otherwise kind and thoughtful teachers at her daycare seem to have different plans for her and the other kids.

Two months ago, Camila came home one day with hot pink painted nails. We quickly took the polish off, without saying a word. Then, after another kid's birthday party, she was given a "goodie bag" full of cheap plastic knickknacks: A miniature iron, two tiny purses, and a set of bracelets. 

But last week we got a big surprise. We'd been asked to dress Camila as a "Quiteña Bonita" -- a pretty girl from Quito, in honor of the city's independence celebration. What did they possibly mean? That morning, we dropped her off at school in a white dress and pink sneakers. When we showed up to pick her up from what we thought was going to be a kids' party, we found Camila wearing a beauty contestant sash across her chest, a crown with hot pink feathers above her head, and holding a tiny embroidered umbrella. All around us, little girls between two and four years old wore miniature prom dresses. They stood on stage, waving their arms to the beat of the music and blowing kisses with lipstick on. We'd just missed Camila's own performance on stage, one of her teachers said to us as we walked in a few minutes late, with a hint of reproach. 

That same afternoon, we opened an invite for the daycare's upcoming Christmas party. "Bring Camila dressed as the Virgin Mary," the note said. I dreaded having to dress her up as a virtuous girl in a set of white sheets. Plus, why should our non-religious family have to play a part in this, costuming her as the mother of Jesus?

Fortunately, Camila seems to be showing a few signs of rebellion. This week, the daycare principal apologized by remarking that she "may not be the best Virgin Mary" after all. When she hears the music for the Christmas play rehearsal, Camila apparently begins to cry. "She gets emotional," is how one teacher described it to us. And, she's refusing to dance on cue. Maybe she's not as outgoing as the other kids, I suggested. Maybe she shouldn't have to perform? "Maybe," said the principal. "Go ahead and dress her up as an estrellita -- a little star -- instead."

--Ruxandra Guidi