Before I became a mother and knew better, I thought I wanted two girls. Instead, God blessed me with a son and then a daughter. I learned to embrace all things boy with JavaBoy and while not holding to purely traditional roles (he cooks, he owns a tea set), I am not one to dress my son in princess costumes – those I saved for my daughter. I had hoped my daughter would share my love all things glittery and glitzy. The screaming over tights in baby ballerina classes may have been my first clue what the future held.
My daughter will look you square in the eye and say, “I am not a princess type of a girl.” Instead her dress-up outfit of choice is the knight costume from LEGOLAND — with its helmet, sword, shield and cape. She is a dragonslayer, running through the house on her invisible steed protecting us from an onslaught of scaly, fire-breathing monsters.
She has many beautiful princess dresses and costumes — gifts from well-meaning friends and family and things I bought before fully understanding her. When we had tickets to Disney on Ice, I made sure her Cinderella dress was in good shape to wear for the evening. Instead, it remained on the hanger. She had no interest in dressing like the princesses — even after seeing hundreds of other little girls doing so.
However, she’s not your classic tomboy either. As much as she loves digging for worms and playing with amphibians, she is quite vain about her fingernails and likes to sport a purple manicure and pedicure whenever possible. She enjoys her glittery lip gloss from a birthday party favor bag and has definite opinions about fashion. She’ll wear beautiful dresses — but only when she feels there is a reason to — for example she believes “fancy” dresses are only appropriate for church on Sundays.
This is perhaps why I have been so slow to understand the complexities of her strong anti-princess-and-the-like conviction. She likes purses and jewelry, enjoys picking out her clothes and trying to “match” things (though we’re still working on the difference between coordinating vs. monochromatic attire).
The social ramifications of her preferences come up more often than one would think. She politely declined to wear a tutu for an Angelina Ballerina party. When her friend was over and wanted to dive into her dress-up clothes and pretend they were princesses at a masquerade ball – JavaGirl finally declared firmly, “I don’t want to be a princess, but I will be a princess’s horse,” and began whinnying while walking on all fours. Upon learning about another friend’s princess party she bargained, “I’ll come as long as I don’t have to dress like a princess!” The girls worked out a deal between themselves and everyone was happy.
As much as I wish sometimes she’d just go with the flow, I have admired her immense self-confidence. When she was four, we entered the beauty salon in the Playseum and I asked her if she wanted to try one of the fun wigs. “No thank you,” she said. “I like my own hair. I like myself just as I am.” Wow. I remember silently praying that she’d always feel that way.
I try to remember that — the importance of liking one’s self — whenever I find myself wishing she’d be more like some of the other girls. And yet, another birthday party came up — a tea party at a tea parlor with a Fancy Nancy theme. I tried to cajole JavaGirl into wearing one of her beautiful dresses and accessorize as crazily as she would like. She’d have none of it. Instead, she got a Fancy Nancy book, paged through, and seizing upon what the character wore for a soccer game, decided to construct an outfit of her own.
She started with a Gymboree sequined whale shirt, because I had told her a few days ago when she had changed clothes for us to pot some plants that the sequined shirt was not “play” clothes and was too “fancy” for digging in the dirt. She added a pair of jeans and a ribbon skirt with jingle bells on the ends. Several plastic necklaces. Finally, as a concession to me, she agreed to wear a rhinestone tiara.
I looked at my daughter and her funky, jingly, glittery outfit and wondered if she’d look like a complete outcast at the party. I couldn’t help but flash back to a time when I made a poor choice of outfit as a young teen. I was in a local beauty pageant (the only one I was ever in) and having won for my town, I was now in the larger competition. I won my title in a very conservative pleated skirt and blouse — something not pageant-like at all. My mother tried to convince me to get a different dress for the next level, something more along the lines of a party dress. But I remained firm in my conviction, feeling like I had won in the first outfit, I should stick with it. I placed fourth — which meant I had no title or duties. First place of course had the title, second and third were essentially fill-ins who made appearances and rode on the float.
It got back to me that I would’ve placed higher had I worn a party dress like the other girls — although we were not judged on our clothing choice, the fact that I was not dressed like the other girls was jarring to the judges.
That is the first time I remember questioning myself and my judgment. So as JavaGirl and I discussed her wardrobe choice, I teetered between not wanting to damage that inner self-confidence and yet also wanting to shield her from a moment of feeling like she should have just gone with the flow. Don’t get me wrong, I was never one to bend to peer pressure and I don’t want her to either, but there are lessons to be learned about getting along in society as well. If we are always swimming against the current, we are too tired to fight when there is a real reason to. If we are always counter-culture, sometimes people are less likely to listen to us when we stand up to say that the current culture is wrong in a particular instance.
I asked her to try on a red party dress “just to see” in the hopes that she’d choose to wear it to the party. It’s a dress that she wore for a Christmas concert and felt quite confident in. But on this day, it merely made her frown. I could see her emotions on her face — she was fighting back tears and though she tried to hide it, the sadness was breaking out all over her face. She was torn between wanting to please me and not wanting to wear the dress. I was equally torn between wanting to protect her from potential scorn and not wanting to make her miserable.
I hugged her and reassured her that I didn’t want her to be miserable. I told her I loved her just the way she was. I explained that she might be the only girl in jeans at the party and asked if she was going to be okay with that. She was.
We arrived early at the party as I was taking the birthday girl’s big brother out to an event with JavaBoy. The birthday girl opened the door and squealed with glee.
She was wearing leggings, a t-shirt, a tutu, jewelry, a boa and a feather tiara. Putting them side by side they had on very similar outfits.
My daughter is wise beyond her years. Some days, I try to learn from her.