Early last week, as I was dropping Niko off for a morning of preschool, a dark-haired little girl rushed up to us and stood in front of Niko, swishing her long purple princess costume dress back and forth. “Hi, Niko!” she gushed. “Do you think I look pretty? I feel soooooo pretty!”
The little girl was familiar to me. I knew her due to her adoring Niko so much that she’d once tackled him to the ground for a hug. I’d noticed that she’d been wearing the same princess costume the last four times we’d seen her — that’s over a week, since we do preschool just three times a week. The first time, Niko was upset because she’d worn the dress “with just underwear!”
“You’re supposed to wear clothes FIRST,” he’d told her. I could tell this was a serious infraction in his mind.
“I have clothes,” she insisted. “I have UNDERWEAR.” This did not satisfy, even when she demonstrated the presence of the underwear, at which point their teacher hastily intervened.
That day, as she swished her dress in front of Niko, she held out one leg. “Look, Niko,” she said. “I’m wearing pants with my costume.”
“Oh,” said Niko, a little flatly. “You look so sparkly.” He seemed a bit puzzled by the whole thing, but willing to admire anyway.
After the two walked away, his teacher, laughing, whispered to me that the child’s mother had explained the reason for the princess costume. “She dresses herself every day. She wears that costume for Niko! She calls herself Niko’s princess.“
I laughed too, shaking my head. But even though it was funny, it bothered me a little. Not the insistence on one particular garment — we’ve been fortunate enough to escape that battle so far, but I understand it. No, what triggers a little alert light in my mind is the idea that she’s choosing her clothes based on what Niko likes… or what she thinks he likes, anyway. It’s a little worrying to see a small child so fixated on another person that she adapts her clothing choices to suit his preferences.
I somehow feel that I’d like to blame society or the media or a faulty family model for this willing sacrifice of a girl’s preference for a boy’s. I feel strongly about a woman’s right to her own body, including what she puts onto it. It’s possible that this little girl may be witnessing a situation in which an adult in her life is modeling some kind of self-imposed personality smothering, or being actively smothered. Or maybe she sees it on some grown-up TV show. It ruffles my quietly feminist feathers to see this tiny girl already changing her entire approach to clothing based on what she believes a little boy likes. If I were more committed to social justice, or a more aggressive champion of women’s rights, I might find myself writing an impassioned plea to society to free our little girls from the burdens of male expectations.
However, while such scenarios are entirely possible, life is rarely so easily categorized. It’s not always feminists against the world, no matter what it sometimes feels like. An equally likely explanation for her extreme behavior is that maybe she just really, really likes Niko and wants his attention. In her little mind, wearing what he likes could be a perfectly logical method of attracting and holding his typically fleeting interest. After all, her mom seems like a confident, self-possessed woman, not a timid, self-effacing mouse; it’s doubtful that she is modeling being stifled by the patriarchy.
In fact, despite my puzzlement over her daughter’s obsession with my son, I sympathize with her mom and feel that we might have a bit in common. I’m holding to a tiny bit of hope that she might be my very first preschool parent friend. Unfortunately, this may have been jeopardized by Niko’s reaction to his friend’s attire last time we saw them. The two were being dropped off at the same time, and Niko and I walked in to see her dressed in a charming outfit featuring sparkly leopard print — the first non-princess clothing in, I believe, three weeks. I recognized the gargantuan effort the mom must have expended to get her into a different garment. It was apparent that a pinnacle in parental persuasion had just been reached; I knew I was looking at a milestone of mothering achievement. My mouth opened to compliment the little girl on her pretty outfit, reinforcing her mom’s triumph, but Niko was too fast. His eyes widened in outrage as he demanded indignantly, “WHY AREN’T YOU WEARING YOUR PRINCESS COSTUME?” Little girl’s head and mom’s shoulders drooped simultaneously, and though the teacher and I both rushed in with positive reinforcement, I fear the damage was done.
I can hardly wait to see what Niko’s princess is wearing today.
(The featured photo is not mine, but since I grabbed it from an anonymous eBay posting, I don’t know who to credit for it. Sorry.)