the perils of pink

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I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass. — Maya Angelou

1

I bought a girl pen.

I was curious. I was on a pen-buying binge, on Amazon, when I came across this purple thing with Swarovski crystals that purported to be just for me, because I’m a wo-wo-woman, which I guess means that all the other pens, including the pens I’ve been using all this time, are for men. Good to know.

The pen arrived two days later. I had forgotten I’d ordered it – I forget, it’s what I do — so my first thought upon opening it: What the hell is this?

My second thought: If you saw someone using a pen like this – whipping it out, say, at a boardroom meeting, or a book signing, or a conference – could you take her seriously? Perhaps she keeps it by her Barbies, her unicorn posters, her pastel pink notebooks decorated with fairy stickers.

It’s a girly pen. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with girly – except I happen to be a 40 year old woman who would appreciate some other options. The pen’s price tag (34.00) and the description (“The feminine slender body is filled with 160 sparkling crystals, creating magnificent light reflections as you write. It is delivered in a stylish velvet pouch…”) would seem to indicate that the pen is not being marketed to my (non-existent) teenage daughter, but to me.

Someone somewhere thought that this pen would resonate with my sense of who I am as a female.

More than that. Marketers don’t try to appeal to who you are, but who you want to be (or who they think you want to be). The product is a promise: by purchasing it, you close the gap between the real and the ideal, the norm and the aspiration.

This pen strikes me as an attempt to take ‘girly’ and upgrade it.

Because apparently that’s what a woman is: a girl with more money to spend on a more sophisticated version of a glitter pen.

Because the symbols we seem to have for femininity – butterflies, fairies, princesses, unicorns, glitter, pink – those symbols for marketers to try and use in their attempt to turn unisex products into something just ‘for her’ — isn’t for femininity so much as for girlhood.

What kind of symbols does this culture have to suggest an adult femininity? A womanliness?

An apron? A Porsche? A bikini? A briefcase? Animal prints? A baby stroller?

A stripper pole?

2

And many of us never really identified with girl culture in the first place.

I never did. I grew up thinking I had a strong masculine streak – even though I wasn’t a tomboy, even though I was very comfortable in my girlskin, even though, as I got older, I developed a rich, deep, sensual sense of being female that happened to be steeped in books instead of Barbies, black instead of pink, jeans and boots and leather jackets instead of dresses, writing fiction instead of socializing, ambition instead of caretaking, wanderlust instead of baby hunger (the baby hunger came later), hard dance music instead of sensitive singer-songwriters, thrillers instead of chick flicks.

I learned to take a certain pride in this. I learned to distance myself from anything that smacked of the girly-girl, to speak mockingly of mani-pedis and gossip magazines and Lifetime movies and butterfly tattoos and, yes, pink, because these things were weak. To be disdainful of them was to be not weak.

Only when I woke up to what I was doing – buying into a misogynistic contempt for the feminine that remains at the heart of our culture – did I start to look at things differently.

There are so many different ways to express the feminine; the struggle is to not get locked into the limited range of options with which we’re presented. There are so many different shades of pink – including hot pink, which I like to think of as a bold, in-your-face, rebel pink — the kind of pink that works for me.

There are so many different shades of meaning. When my website guy presented me with a butterfly (….a butterfly!…) design as my logo, I tamped down my initial resistance and went online to research the symbolism.

Instead of being fluffy, flighty, weak, the butterfly turns out to represent profound changes of the soul. Transformation, metamorphosis, resurrection. A butterfly is fragile yet fierce – Monarchs migrate thousands of miles through all kinds of weather, including ferocious electrical storms, every year. I also started noticing how freaking beautiful they are, how fascinating in their variations. I went from scorning butterfly tattoos to thinking about getting one of my own, tribal and edgy.

And I realized that by turning certain symbols into symbols of girlhood, these butterflies and fairies and unicorns, we’ve drained them of their original mythological power, we’ve made them cute and cuddly, as harmless (and about as interesting) as a watery pastel. We’ve turned them into things you can’t take seriously, because we have a history of refusing to take girls and women seriously. Less than a hundred years ago, women were taken so unseriously that they were not allowed – allowed – to vote. Femininity was regarded as inherently childish.

But beneath that flighty, fluffy, pastel-pink version of ‘femininity’, there’s something much deeper, richer, complex, bold, fierce. I’ll take my femininity from the goddess Athena, who stood for justice and wisdom and achievement. Or from Persephone, who overcame the trauma of rape to become the freaking Queen of the Underworld and a guide to lost souls. Or – skipping over to another culture – from Kali, who represents life and death, truth and transcendence, an ability to cut through the bull.

Here’s a little bit about Kali:

“Kali’s fierce form is strewed with awesome symbols. Her black complexion symbolizes her all-embracing and transcendental nature. Says the Mahanirvana Tantra: “Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her”. Her nudity is primeval, fundamental, and transparent like Nature — the earth, sea, and sky. Kali is free from the illusory covering, for she is beyond the all maya or “false consciousness.” Kali’s garland of fifty human heads that stands for the fifty letters in the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes infinite knowledge.

Her girdle of severed human hands signifies work and liberation from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth show her inner purity, and her red lolling tongue indicates her omnivorous nature — “her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world’s ‘flavors’.” Her sword is the destroyer of false consciousness and the eight bonds that bind us.

Her three eyes represent past, present, and future, — the three modes of time — an attribute that lies in the very name Kali (‘Kala’ in Sanskrit means time)….

Kali’s proximity to cremation grounds where the five elements or “Pancha Mahabhuta” come together, and all worldly attachments are absolved, again point to the cycle of birth and death. The reclined Shiva lying prostrate under the feet of Kali suggests that without the power of Kali (Shakti), Shiva is inert.”

Destroyer of false consciousness.

Without the power of Kali/Shakti, the great god Shiva is inert.

Uh-huh.

Slap some pink on that.

3

This reminds me of something my therapist once told me, which I didn’t really understand at the time. I was about to turn 40. She told me that I was someone who was going to “be a woman”; she meant this as a high compliment.

“In this culture,” she said, “every female gets to be a girl. But not every girl gets to become a woman.”

This might be because, according to the bulk of pop culture, most of the female species seems to disappear around this time, whisked off to the faraway land of wrinkle cream and mom jeans. When it comes to a woman’s aesthetic sensibility, a woman’s sense of who she can be or still wants to become (other than a good wife and mother) the culture shows a distinct lack of imagination.

So the powers-that-be take a pen, or a car, and turn it pink, and offer it to us as some essential sign of who we are. That’s how they see us, regardless of how we see ourselves.

My own brand of femininity includes pink – hot pink – but also black and midnight blue and rock’n'roll purple. It includes tigers and disco balls and snake rings (which I collect), tribal butterfly tattoos, empathy and wisdom and the power to inspire. It includes lots and lots of books. It recognizes the strength and stamina inherent in all women, the ability to, as Liz Taylor once put it, “pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.”

So I would say to those marketers who think they know me, who think I want to spend thirty five dollars for a glitter pen with a “feminine, slender body”:

You know who I want to be? A fucking badass. A very…womanly…badass.

Market to that.

Nov 7, 2012
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34 comments · Add Yours

curtain closes, applause!

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“…creating magnificent light reflections…” I have to say that I think this happens to describe part of who you are and what you do really well. Through this blog and your brilliant writing, we (your tribe) are able to recognize the light of our own souls reflected back at us in shimmering glory. So I think you can at least own the glitter part. :)

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I don’t have a problem with anything “girly” that might or might not make other people think differently of me. I don’t know what those companies have in mind when they make “girly” stuff. What I do know is that I make my own choice. Sometimes I want something pink, other times I pick camouflage. At 31 y.o. I know that I’m a woman, that I like driving stick shift, that I prefer to wear heels, that I hate cooking and I expect a man to open doors for me. I am Me.

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@Irina Los Angeles Irina, I know you’re You. On an individual level this is no big deal. But it speaks to a larger issue: how this culture perceives women, which certainly affects how it treats women. And when there’s still this disdain and contempt for what’s perceived as the ‘feminine’ — or this lack of deep interest in the female perspective — it’s a problem.

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I suppose toy stores also drive you nuts ? Me too. I want my local large toy store to re-display their ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toys for this reason and more. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/06/harrods-toy-department_n_1747878.html

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Justine,

Sure, I understand what you mean on the whole but I think the only way to overcome this prejudice is not to give in to it. I don’t think there’s a better way to fight against it except for setting your own example of what a 21st century woman should be like – to be that woman. I just saw “Legally Blonde” and there was an example (exaggerated, of course) of a “pink” woman who went about her business and ignored the looks and jokes people made about her. I think it was a fun and lighthearted version of what’s happening in the real world and the best way to deal with it

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Personal expression. Who am I to judge a person by the pen they use? There are bigger fish to fry in this world.

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The “pink” woman adjusted to her environment — she ended up wearing black and ditching the fluffy pen, the heart-shaped notebook.

I agree with you. And the woman that I am is the kind of woman who points out these things — who writes about them.

Bigger fish to fry? Of course there are. Remember, also, that we get at the large through the small. The world in a grain of sand, etc.

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Talk about synchronicity in the universe slapping you upside the face! A podcast that I love listening to had a recent podcast called “What is Femmephobia?” I didn’t know, so I gave it a listen.

And I was stunned! I as it turns out – happen to be extremely Femmephobic! I abhor pink, glitter, skirts, heels, dresses. I am not a nurturer, the thought of motherhood makes me want to spit. Being brutally honest with myself, I look down my carreer-oriented nose at women who choose the life of stay at home mom.

I AM NOT SAYING THIS IS A GOOD THING!!! I am only being honest. I realize that my hatred of anything I consider feminine is just as sexist as any blatant sexism by good-ol boys.

The worst part of it – I am a Pagan. I revere Goddesses, and the cycles of life. Or at least, I’m supposed to. Yet I have so much inner turmoil at the most basic parts of femininity.

What’s a woman to do? I don’t want to be this way; I want to change my behavior. Somehow wearing a pink dress and getting a manicure doesn’t seem to be the trick. Therapy? Hemlock? A Sex change?

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Great post, for starters. The underpinning message the ripples through our society in the second decade of the 21st Century (IMHO) is that most of the things that the collective American (& western) consciousness chose to enshrine in “needless to say,” aren’t, anymore. Everywhere we turn, the paradigms by which we framed our reality are coming down. Some are being replaced by “new” paradigms, but many are simply being replaced with possibility. We live in interesting times, at once perilous and promising.

Just this one’s opinion.

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@Melissa Thank you for that honesty. I’m wondering if femmephobics can recognize more clearly just what it is they hate — the way femininity is codified, packaged, and sold to us by a culture that clearly doesn’t respect it. Why does a black turtleneck in a literary cafe get respect, and a pink fluffy cardigan does not (unless it’s vintage and worn with hipster irony)? And why is one regarded as more distinctly ‘feminine’ than the other? I respect a woman’s right to wear a pink fluffy cardigan, I just resent the price she’s likely to pay for it. You should be able to express yourself without being downgraded.

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@Dirk Let’s hear it for possibility! And yeah, it’s tricky to be in that space between paradigms without getting a little squeezed at times.

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@justine I wonder too, if it is a symptom of self-hate, as the way most bigots go.

They see parts of themselves they feel are lacking/dont like, and project it onto others that they don’t even know. A pretty girl with a pink cardigan may not get true man-world respect, but she’s considered a lady. And the girl in the black turtleneck is trying to be something she’s not.

Personal observations, and may be revealing too much of my own insecurities. But hey, conversation.

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@Melissa Yeah, I think you’re right — that attempt to divorce yourself from what ‘contaminates’ you and self-identify with strength + power (including the power to shape your own destiny instead of being shaped by someone else’s). But when you do that — play that game by those rules — any ‘power’ you get is strictly borrowed, and taken back at any time.

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I’m about to make what is probably an awful comparison that will totally offend someone, BUT, there was an episode of New Girl (Jess and Julia) that addressed this in one of the better ways I’ve seen in pop culture. One of the main characters, Jess, is talking to a character who obviously doesn’t take her seriously because of her girliness and says the following:

Jess: I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird, and it freaks me out. And I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something to make it just slightly cuter. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.

There’s other issues with that episode (here’s a write up: http://www.vulture.com/2012/02/new-girl-recap-season-1-episode-11.html) but I liked that bit of dialogue in particular.

It’s really interesting to me because at varying points in my life so far, I was very “girly girl” (early adolesence), then very “tough girl” (16-20), then back to being overtly femme, and now I’m kind of an odd mix (short rainbow hair, tattoos, nose ring, and a penchant for dressing pretty femme, albeit in a dark/jewel-toned color scheme usually). I’ve noticed differences in not only how other women treat me but how people in general treat me as I dress differently.

The sad thing though, is that really, we get the short end of the stick either way. Whether people read me as more femme and assume that I’m not intelligent and well-read, or read me as “tough girl” and assume that not only am I not intelligent (although not intelligent in a different way – street-smart but not book-smart, as opposed to an incredible ditz in general), but I’m some kind of a sexual deviant to boot, I still wind up being treated as less-than and not worthy of respect, which gets old.

Anyways, great post Justine.

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@Amara Graps I love the snake too! And yes, toy stores annoy me because that division between male + female is so rigid. Boys can’t like glitter pens and girls can’t like Star Wars Lego (which isn’t girl lego).

I mean, c’mon. Please.

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@Michelle I had my own version of that. When I was the wife of a wealthy man, I rocked the blonde, the designer clothes, the high heels and sexy dresses. And I *liked* it. And I noticed — particularly as he became more successful, more known — how I was treated. Like an arm ornament. Like someone who couldn’t have much to say. A friend once told me that she “enjoyed” watching people first meet me and start talking to me — “the way their faces change,” as she put it, “once they realize you’re intelligent, and they have to completely revise their impression of you.” What’s interesting is why they had that pre-existing impression in the first place: arm ornament, golddigger, bimbo. You’re guilty until proven innocent. (And always in the shadow of suspicion.)

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Justine,

Do you think she adjusted because she had to or because she became part of a certain group, so it was just a natural transition? I’ve seen a lawyer with long hair, wearing Hawaii short. He wasn’t any less successful than his colleagues. On the contrary, he was actually very hard to get to work for you. But in general I see it only natural when people become more like their environment. “You are what you (eat, read, watch, wear, do etc.)…”

So my question here is what do you think we, as women should do about this? Or not do? You raised the question so what is your answer, as a woman, as a person?

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In a group like that, dressing unconventionally becomes a sign of power — you do it because you know you can get away with it. In Silicon Valley, for example, it’s the guy in shorts and flip-flops in a room filled with business suits who is the billionaire CEO.

I really do agree with you…I think we should express ourselves in an authentic and powerful way, be aware of these undercurrents in our society, and become truly excellent at whatever it is we do, self-promote ourselves appropriately, refuse to be invisible, create genuinely supportive networks of sisterhood (without rolling our eyes at the word ‘sisterhood’) and get ourselves seated at the various tables of power so we can see ourselves reflected more fairly and accurately in the society at large. I would love to walk into a boardroom one day and see an ultra-feminine woman and realize, She must be the alpha.

And we are doing all of that, as the election yesterday demonstrated…

But I think we got too wrapped up, as individuals, in the ‘personal’ part of ‘the personal is political’ idea. When we do that, we get isolated, and when that happens we think everything is our burden, our fault and our responsibility instead of recognizing some of the larger trends, cultural patterns, that have made things the way they are — and that we can change. But only by acting as a group, recognizing ourselves as part of that larger community again. Which is made all the more important by the fact that women in other, much more oppressive countries are watching us, to see just what we do with our freedoms and how that might impact them.

So it all connects. Pink pens + global sisterhood. :)

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So I think this has been out for 3 weeks, Ellen on Bic Pens for women! Enjoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCyw3prIWhc

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I remember, in high school, my (tobacco-chewing, horse-riding, long-distance runner) best friend making some sort of mocking comment about my purse. (That’s what we called them then.) And I (nice, polite, cheerleader wannabe) felt instantaneous rage, told her to fuck off and then sat in my next class, trembling and bewildered.

I knew it wasn’t really about the purse, but I didn’t know what it was about. I know now that it’s what I see in this post and comment thread. Yes, we get at the large through the small, and we judge each other, and what we wear and purchase and tattoo upon our bodies and lives does really matter.

I can still see that purse, remember its color and decorative stitching. And I still have that friend. We have lived very different lives, both worthy in their own ways, and came to love in each other the things we also feared.

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Thanks for the post Justine. You always make me just a wee bit uncomfortable- which I think is a great spot. When we are uncomfortable. we must confront that which makes us that way. I too have rejected glitter and puffy pens. I also have the unique perspective of shifting from elementary educator (very female dominated culture) to helicopter pilot (very male dominated culture). The transition was quite painful at times- and I was steeped in gender bias and harrassment. Now, though I feel I’ve swung back to mid-line and more into myself- able to be feminine and yes, even sexy, at work while still being professional. I thik only once we are comfortable in our own skin and not so worried about trying to please those around us or “look the part” can we finally embrace our true authentic selves. Thanks for posting and I’m looking forward to the next one. :)

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Butterflies are also the symbol of thyroid cancer survivors and cancer survivors are pretty bad-ass people.
As a cancer survivor I rocked the pink boa during radiation treatment, as a vet I always had my toenails as girly as possible, better than dog tags for id ;-) and as a mom of girls I taught them to be yourself and not worry what the over-culture thought.
Scientist, artist or parent, any of them were good choices for girls or boys. Be who you are, do what you want.

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I think a lot of us Femmephobes might see the pink cardigan or the fluffy pen as a type of trigger symbol for the trauma of first discovering, as girls, that our culture puts girls in boxes. I look at my 7 year old daughter and she is the boldest, most powerful, chaotic, force of nature wrapped up in beauty and cleverness and zest…but I see glimpses of containment sneaking in–the messages she gets from social situations about how girls and women are expected to act and behave and think. And I see her rebel in the form of outbursts directed at safe adults (like her parents) and the testing of boundaries.

And I remember my own rebellions against that same awareness–nothing I could articulate at 7, but the raw feelings of simultaneously being captivated by pretty things–shiny clothes, sparkly stickers, accessories, or whatever–and being aware that having or wearing those things came with definitions. Limits. I couldn’t wear the cowgirl outfit and not be a cowgirl, and then switch to the dressy dresses, or put on cardboard wings if I’d managed to figure out how to make them not flop. I wanted to be everything at that age, embrace everything.

But to me, that pink cardigan represents the things I was *allowed* to be. It might be the most comfortable, warmest, funkiest, favorite thing I’d ever put on, but some part of me will always feel just a little…enshackled by it. In order to make peace with it, I’ve got to consciously reclaim it and redefine its symbolism.

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Dear Justine: Regarding the pink and blue and Barbie and Lego divisions in toy stores, I have the impression that such divisions are pervasive in the world. US- yes. Latvia, that’s where I’m living now, and it’s certainly here. A friend in Brazill told me of the same. So then at a child’s earliest age they are ‘guided’ to one set of preferences or another by their cultural environment, and their fresh curiosity about the world-at-large is subdued by their cultural environment. I’ve seen the confusion in my little girl when she entered one of those stores: She liked some of the items in the pink section, but loves to build legos too, and that’s where she ended up: in the blue ‘boy’ section. What about the little boys who want to play in the kitchen section? And then what happens when the child expresses those preferences to their friends and other adults outside of the toystore? We know how cruel kids can be to anyone different, if they don’t have experience to be tolerant and haven’t developed empathy yet. Disrespect for differences is present for these little ones at the earliest times of their lives and it’s reinforced as they grow older, with toy store displays having their role. I want to convince the large toy store in my neighborhood to change their displays, and I think I know how to convince them.

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btw, Kinder eggs (banned in the US, easily available outside) is trying to market pink versions and seeing some backlash: http://www.thelocal.de/society/20120824-44547.html I haven’t seen the pink versions here, Latvia; Latvia gets theirs from Poland I think. It is an interesting social experiment. I’m curious how it will play out.

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Hi Justine,
I love that you embraced and transformed the watered down symbol of the butterfly little girls are handed by toy companies and popular culture (Our little girls are watching us, too..) and made it your own and completely badass. A real butterfly. They are amazing and tough creatures. You never cease to inspire!
In an earlier post, you mentioned searching online for images of strong women. I thought the art of Edie Vonnegut might interest you.
http://www.edithvonnegut.com/index.html

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Incredible post! Thank you. As a 40-something female attorney/writer, I am struck most by how much progress women in general have made. Twenty years ago, when I graduated from law school, the only women I could talk to about this subject were other women lawyers. Everyone else (male and female) just stared and said, “Why can’t you wear pink?” And it wasn’t only pink. I can remember arguing with a career counselor while I was still in grad school and she was furious that I wanted to wear a dark raspberry blouse with my navy wool suit to an interview. Anything other than a white or ivory blouse was considered “risky.” Several years later, I bought a salmon pink blazer. I could only wear it on “casual Fridays” but when I wore it, I knew I was pushing the envelope. It is a strangely powerful moment when a woman begins to embrace the feminine things she once avoided and transforms them into something, well, badass. Like many of the women responding to this post, I have never been a girly girl, but I no longer limit my clothing choices to what is deemed “appropriate.” I now wear whatever the hell I damn well please.

One of the truly incredible things about having a daughter with autism is that, for the most part, she is blissfully free of any feelings of constraint. She has no problem at eight wearing whatever she wants. (It took me four decades to reach that point.) Often it is a combination of feminine and masculine: skirts with biker boots, a super short pixie cut (self-inflicted) with lots of glitter and bling. The other girls in her class have no idea what to make of her. I suspect they attribute her clothing to me. I have never dressed like a “typical mother.” But really, my daughter’s clothes are a reflection of her personality. If it were up to me, there would be far less glitter and bling! But I hope my daughter’s clothes give permission to the other girls to bend some rules of their own.

Perhaps that’s what this is really about: first we embrace the “rule” that says a girl must never wear pink if she wants to be taken seriously in what is still, in so many ways, a man’s world. Then later, in our journey towards becoming women, we take those so-called rules and decide how to turn them on their heads, transforming them into a symbol of power.

Thanks again for an awesome post!

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Thanks for another great post about womanliness. Chalk me up as another who’s been feminine without being particularly girly. Like others here, the issue isn’t so much with individual women wanting all the glitter and sparkly pens or Hello Kitty hair clips they want, it’s with the marketers, because all this glittery girliness encourages the infantilization of women. For example, the “Mommy’s Little Time Out” brand of wine makes me furious. I’m an adult woman. If I want a glass of wine, I will have a glass of wine. It’s an adult beverage. Why do we have to make it all cutesy and momsy and cartoony in order to make it acceptable? Happily, nobody has tried to serve me a glass of it or referred to wine, as such, in my presence. I’m not sure of my ability to be kind.

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Hello Justine-just discovered ur blog & couldn’t agree more. It’s refreshing to find others of a similar mindset. I have to stop myself from pre-judging girly adult women or those that choose to oversexualize themselves. Whatever floats their boat- me I’d rather be a badass! And that is how I’m raising my tough, kick-ass daughter who has more confidence & self-worth than any adult woman I know. She knows the origin of her name “Rhiannon” and lives up to it every day. Couldn’t be prouder. Looking forward to reading future posts.

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Somewhere, a marketer is laughing up their sleeve at this post. Say all you want, you still paid $34.00 for a girly pen!

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True, james, but you missed the part where i wrote this entire post about how stupid and lame the product is, which will be on the internet forever. That is what they call bad word of mouth.

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