Teaching Girls to be Girls: Do We Have It All Wrong?

I’m guilty. I dress my daughter mostly in pink and I tell her over and over again how cute she is. I dress her primarily in tights with flowers, shirts with cute animals, and frilly skirts. I am finding myself socializing my daughter to be a “girl” in ways that I never thought I would.

Outside of what she wears, many lessons to her include how to be a good caregiver, how to cook, how to pick out a matching outfit, and at times even how to charm the opposite sex! It was a shock to me when she started thinking that the blue socks or blue jackets I bought for her belonged to the little boy who lives with us (he is 4 months younger) and not to her. I guess the fact that I have always picked out her clothes in pink may have something to do with this. I just can’t help it! She’s so darn cute and so are the clothes.

This does not mean I do not value other lessons of course. I am also teaching her to be a compassionate human being, to solve problems on her own, and to follow her own lead. I encourage her independence and allow her to spread her wings. It’s just that the male/female aspect of socialization is so strong in our society that it’s practically impossible to avoid. (And if you think about it, these societal expectations of women and beauty have been going on for thousands of years. Think about foot binding in Asian cultures, traditional dress for men and women, etc.)

I have to add, what happened to Ellen Degeneris? Is that the media’s way of saying we can take the most “butch” of women and transform her into a “real” woman? Ellen never wears skirts, sports super short hair, but is now a spokeswoman for Cover Girl. Ellen, you caved. At the price of large paycheck you bought into society’s idea of what it means to be a woman.

So, how does this all tie into toddlers and make-up? Well, let’s look at some of the input that was provided about why make-up could be a slippery slope for the self-image and confidence of our young girls.

Based on the discussion we had I will start with some theories about make-up in general and why we as a society find it necessary to alter ourselves to please others:

  1. The cosmetics industry (and the media in general) have a great deal of culpability. They target women and overtly (or covertly) convince them that make-up will make them more beautiful, more desirable, more perfect and more like all of those movie stars who are so idolized. By the way, have you ever seen pictures of some of the movie stars out on the streets running their errands without make-up? You would never know they were rich and famous and beautiful. They look like regular people.
  2. The socialization of men is also part of the problem. Some men request that women wear make-up. In response, some women cater to men’s desires to be what is expected of an attractive woman and attempt to fulfill that role; others do not.
  3. There may be some underlying feelings of deficit that drive women to wear make-up. This may be due to something a young girl did not attain in childhood or to other feelings of insecurity.
  4. Some women do not feel comfortable showing their unpainted, natural face in public. Society dictates that a more beautiful face, as defined by the cultural norms, is acceptable and that raw beauty is less desirable.
  5. Being deliberate about wearing make-up may be one way to allow women to regain power. Instead of feeling like one is wearing make-up just to please a man, it may be helpful to have some intentions for oneself when wearing make-up.
  6. Commentor Liz states it nicely when she says that by not wearing make-up women can “take back our confidence in our inherent value and beauty and walk around together knowing that we are pretty, among other excellent things.”

So, those were some of the theories about make-up wearing in general. Now how about those little children that are dressing up and playing with make-up?

It’s natural for a child to imitate his or her mother. The question is: what lesson is being taught to the child when a mother allows her young child to imitate the applying of make-up? For some mothers, the lesson is not one she wants to teach her children. One solution to this problem is that women stop wearing make-up!

  1. Most parents do not have a problem with children playing dress-up or playing with makeup, as long as the ingredients are safe. Again, the emphasis here is “dress-up,” not going out in public with make-up on. These are two very different things. However, even in dress-up are we teaching our children to engage in practices that will likely carry through to adulthood?
  2. What a mother models for her daughter will play a strong role on her child’s development. Mothers teach their daughters how to be women, mothers, sisters, and spouses. I think about this type of modeling, especially when I watch my child playing with her dolls. She holds them affectionately; she pats them on the back; she gives their “owwies” kisses. She is imitating the behaviors that I exhibit when I am caring for her. I find pride in this because I feel that the way I nurture my little girl is preparing her to be a good, caring, compassionate mother. If my little girl were to start playing “make-up” as a result of watching me, what have I modeled for her? What will she take from that into adulthood?
  3. A parent’s job is to draw a line between child activities and adult activities by setting boundaries. Just because a child wants to do a certain activity doesn’t mean it should be allowed. A parent can tell her child “Only mommy leaves the house with make-up on.”
  4. Liz asks the question about what children would play with if they weren’t playing make-up or dress-up. She states: “How would little girls play then, and what would they be fascinated with? My guess is, bigger things!”

Given all of this, here are some interesting questions to sign off on:

  • Instead of applying make-up what might be a more meaningful bonding experience for mothers and daughters?
  • Does the feminization of young girls need to occur in order for them to be happy, healthy young people?
  • Is it “natural” for girls to play with make-up or is learned?
  • If we do model make-up wearing for our children, what lesson is being learned?
  • What other lessons could we teach them instead?



  1. 1st, I am really enjoying your blog. I have some thoughts about this post. In a nutshell, I like pretty things, & makeup (I feel) makes me a prettier thing 🙂 sort of an “ars gratia artis” mentality I suppose. I think when Rosie gets older, I will encourage her toward the activities she shows proclivity and talent for, whether they are typically feminine or not. Also, I think it’s all about balance. I think we should tell our daughters they are pretty and beautiful, but we should balance these compliments with praising intelligence, kindness, and other meaningful attributes. And I thank my own mother for modeling that behavior.

    1. Hi Shelley – I’m so glad you are enjoying the blog! I think it’s so wonderful that you thank your own mother for modeling those behaviors and parenting skills that you will then pass on to Rosie. Thanks for being part of this on-line conversation and for sharing your thoughts. Love you!

  2. Oh so many good questions! I don’t have a daughter but for now I think if I did, I wouldn’t allow makeup play. To me, makeup is something that is a bit seductive, and it doesn’t seem right for little girls to wear them. There are exceptions of course, like for special events or even performances on stage, but not as a common occurrence.

    Probably the most girly I got as a kid was having my nails painted clear when my mom had hers done. Even that was a rare occasion. I just wasn’t big on makeup, and only got into it in high school.

    Now I love makeup and hands down I can get done up and look so much more polished when I wear it. At the same time I know I can also rock it without any make up. I suppose the message I would send my imaginary daughter is that makeup isn’t a big deal, doesn’t define who she is, isn’t needed to feel great, and is more appropriate for women.

  3. I really like your point #3 about setting boundaries between adult and childhood activities. I think in our culture we seem to have gotten away from that idea. It’s ok to tell our children that certain things are ok for us, but not for them yet. At least I think it’s ok :-). Great blog and thoughtful insights!

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