Two Sides of the Dress

I have been engaged in a multi-year, multi-faceted, multi-media conversation about parenting, kids, culture, and gender with my fellow momblogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser. Much to my delight, Sarah, mama of four kids ranging in age from three to 16, has agreed to be a guest poster on my blog today.

Sarah and I have long marveled that for some parents (parents like us, anyway) it was somehow easier to accept a pink, frilly boy than a pink, frilly girl. While the first put us in contention with popular culture, the second put us in contention with our own feminist selves. What we’ve both found over time is that in both cases, our kids—their essential selves—are the winners in this particular battle.

I’m pleased to be in this ongoing conversation with Sarah, and pleased to be sharing her writing with you.

Two Sides of the Dress by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

The pretty—by which I mean things that sparkle and twirl—has captivated the imagination of my nearly four-year-old daughter, who just this morning was in dancing, singsong mode: “I am a princess but I wish I were a ballerina.”

The holidays are upon us. Our fourth child is getting a pink, shiny fairy wand and a dark blue dress with silver flowers and ample skirt for satisfactory twirling. Things she might like to play with—puzzles and train tracks and games and dolls and trucks and art supplies—are already on the shelves.

Like anyone who has read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I fear the behemoth of princess culture. I abhor the billions of dollars poured into cosmetics for tweens or diets for females of all ages. I believe deep down to the soles of my small, square feet with not enough pinky toenail for polish that commenting upon little girls’ appearances feeds the notion that how you look as a girl is more important than what you feel or think or know. I want my confident monkey of a scrappy, loud girl to value every bit of her feisty, creative, smart self—not only her long hair or big dark eyes or ability to rock a miniskirt and faux biker boots. I’d even be content for her to rock the clothes if she knew style mattered only a tiny, little bit—and the other stuff, way more so.


Funny thing is, when I went through the same thing with her eldest brother I was unconcerned about his preoccupation with pretty. If anything, I was charmed by it. 

First, he pined for a fairy wand. Then, at his great uncle’s wedding, he sobbed because the flower girls’ dresses were beautiful and made for twirling—and his pants were not. A doting mama, I searched high and low to find him a perfect wand. When it so happened we had a cousin’s wedding to attend a month after the great uncle’s wedding, and he desperately wanted a dress in order to twirl at the reception, his papa and I thought long and hard and aloud about whether to let him wear one. Eventually, we did. It never occurred to us that no one would realize a boy was wearing the dress; in a room filled with mostly strangers, the cute whirling little person with shaggy hair and big green eyes would be greeted as a girl.

Although fairies and swirling skirts seemed reasonable to like, I didn’t realize before raising him that being a sparkle-loving boy was radical. Everyone we knew had an opinion. Some admired our supporting him to be his most authentic self. Others firmly believed we were ruining him. Either way, many were certain the preschooler was gay.

No wonder buying him that dress felt subversive and a little bit brave.

Browsing the dress rack all those summers ago, I remember a tiny rush of pleasure at finding something he would love. Especially after the endless assortment of dinosaurs and stripes and balls emblazoned upon the boys’ shirts I routinely sifted through with disdain since my boy didn’t favor dinosaurs or bold stripes or any sort of ball, that spin around the dress rack was like a little visit to the other side.

Here on the other side, the one that allows me to buy dresses without sneaking, I’m intensely aware that buying a little girl a dress isn’t at all subversive. It is, in fact, the opposite. Thus, my enjoying her beautiful dresses feels like a guilty pleasure. When the boy loved glitz, I remember thinking there shouldn’t be anything wrong with sparkly or twirl-y. Soft and dreamy, even a little bit flirty, the pretty stuff can be fun.

My boy outgrew his penchant for pretty. With the girl, pretty feels tough to navigate at three—and could well only get more challenging. Determined not to put too much attention into what she looks like, lest I feed the Disney mouse-eared princess-y beast or veer in some Toddlers and Tiaras- leaning direction, I try to refrain from commenting much about her clothing or hair or ballerina slippers. I also paint her toenails whenever she requests a coat of pink. There will be no bans on dresses or tights, no hard and fast rules on hair length. I’m trying to play it cool. When she puts the dress with silver flowers on and begins to twirl, she’ll be gorgeous. And I’ll tell her so.

Check out Sarah’s blog, Standing in the Shadows, where she writes about parenting, politics, planet, and pop culture.



  1. says

    Kids change their minds and their tastes all the time. My bro-in-law was so distraught when his daughter was a girly girl who wanted to wear pink and makeup as a child. Now her favorite color is black. Layla has been the same. She only wore pink for a while and now she prefers blue and green. One of my parenting principles is not to react to any particular phase because it will most likely just be a phase.

  2. says

    Great post! I was just talking to my husband a few days ago about the “princess issues” that a lot of mothers have with their daughters. He wasn’t really aware of it, so I’m definitely sending him this post and the Peggy Orenstein link for reference.

    We have a 16-month-old boy. Right now he’s into having dance parties with scarves, playing chase, shiny purses, balls, cars, playing dress up with a fireman hat, LOTS of books, knocking down blocks, and going to brunch. Seems pretty well-rounded to us. :)

  3. says

    Great post — about both the bravery it takes to accept and encourage a boy to enjoy whatever kinds of toys / clothes / etc. he likes AND the importance of not getting too freaked out about your girl wanting to be girly, even when you have reservations about the princesses-in-pink and early sexualization of girls that pervade our culture these days. (I can certainly relate on the latter point.)

  4. mark says

    Interesting, since you are coming from a feminist viewpoint. The majority of women today though really don’t get what the earlier Friedan’s were talking about but love the freedoms they derived from them. So they’re just along for the ride really. Many of these women will continue to insist their mate be a “manly-man” whatever that means and they have no clue that they are being so conditioned by the media and culture as much as what you are trying to avoid with your Cinderella girl. I mean no offense at all. What I am trying to say is that until you can get this across to the public that the media is controlling all of our cultural thought process we as a whole do not have a prayer of getting to the point where we are free to be who we want to be.

  5. says

    I took the word feminist out of this essay, but obviously it is more than implied. Sometimes I wonder if the labeling repels people from thinking more broadly. Trying to walk that fine line of free range & free think & free spirit while fending off the gargantuan cultural freight of commercialism & much more (patriarchy) is impossible–& yet we keep trying. As we must. I’m glad though that this strikes a chord!

  6. Zsa Zsa says

    I certainly admire your bravery and confidence. Most parents find it hard not to be affected by the opinions of ‘well-meaning’ relatives and friends.

  7. ashleyorpixie says

    I’m a grown family man who takes care of business in the traditional sense, but I was and am different. I am completely known by my chosen mate (some call her role that of a wife), and I can say, there are sooo many worse things in life than wearing a dress on occasion, but I can’t think of many better. Allowing people to live on the continuum is far better than medicating our contorted selves with stuff bought on credit…

  8. says

    I happened upon this blog with no connection to the subject matter. But one thought you had makes me understand perfectly your perspective as a mother. Of course you want to buy any offspring, be it girl or boy, something that makes them happy. Kudos to you for not being afraid to share your love for your child in a way that is truly selfless.

  9. Trish says

    I just loved the wedding story. I was like your little boy, only I didn’t get the chance to wear a dress even though I desperately wanted to hundreds of times when growing up.
    Today I am in a male body but my entire inner being is female. If I could change my body to match who I really am, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Now, every waking hour of each and every day, I’m aware that I can’t be who I really am.
    I’m so happy that your son got to experience the joy he wanted at the wedding. Kudos to you and your hubby. =)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *