August 19, 2006

Tomboy Princess

I have only brothers, so girls were, and probably still are, a mystery to me, but I always preferred the tomboys. I admired their pluck and their deft, athletic manner of carrying themselves. They spoke confidently and behaved alike in the company of other girls, boys, or even adults.

Early in my adolescence I lost interest in the the more feminine girls. I never knew what to make of them, made-up and giggling, whispering to one another behind turned backs. When I finally dated some tomboys, they put me in my place often enough for me to appreciate their verbal directness.

My wife, Camille, is a knockout, but a plain-spoken, tomboy knockout. Her unequivocal dealing ranks high on her list of attractions.

Now my daughter, like many six-year olds of unroyal lineage, wants to be a princess. A couple of her aunts share this ambition, but I'm resisting it.

And I'm losing.

Jessica's femininity will not be subdued.

Our landlady outfits her hair with exotic braids. High heels, boas, and rhinestone tiaras keep making forays into the toy box. I once worked for Mattel and learned firsthand not to tolerate Barbie, but the Disney Princesses (TM) have effected a deep incursion into our home.

Jessica's clothes, mostly presents from female relations, tend toward the pink and are equipped with flower patterns and lace. (Camille succeeded in repelling both halters and hip-huggers before they secured a beachhead.)

When a stranger once called her "cute," Jessica smiled benevolently, flipped her hair, and tried to sashay off like a runway model—until Camille spun her around and prompted her to say "Thank you."

Her daintiness does not extend into the kitchen. She loves her food and burns it fast. I remember how proud she used to be when her one-year old belly would balloon after a meal, protruding over her diaper. I miss that belly. I once overheard a mom tell her cookie-eating toddler to “watch your figure.” We don't believe that six-year old Jessica has a figure, let alone that she should watch it.

We try to encourage sports, but fail—probably because we're not sports fans or athletes ourselves. Jessica enjoys running races, but not football or baseball.

Jessica's first inclination when she skins her knee at the playground is to scream for attention. Her dignity more injured than her leg, she demands to be coddled, then works herself into a pique. At the risk of being callous, I've learned to make light of these scrapes and bruises. Usually a hug and a “Can you bend it?” are enough to restore her composure and set her on her way.

We try to encourage her interest in making things: Legos and crafts and such, but Jessica's engineering aptitude doesn't currently extend beyond coloring.

Her big brother inadvertently does more to steer her towards being a tomboy than I do. Outside, she aims to keep up with him physically. Inside, she'll find herself playing dinosaurs or knights more often than “Dress Up” because older Nathaniel steers their play.

That's another struggle. We try to encourage her to stand up for herself—not to let Nathaniel dictate what she does all the time, not to stand by helplessly while some bully on the playground mistreats her or another child.

Our results are mixed. At times Jessica makes us proud, at times she plays the victim, and at times she even becomes the bully. She has been guilty of decidedly un-princess-like shoving.

Pretend boyfriends pose the worst challenge to my tomboy designs. Any older boy whom Jessica meets is a potential sweetheart. I can't recall when the word “boyfriend” invaded her vocabulary, but it was a dark day. For months we were likely to overhear this sort of monologue from the next room:

Oh, Luke. You can't be my boyfriend anymore because now Scott is my boyfriend. [A pause.] Okay, you don't have to cry. Scott is very handsome, but you can be my boyfriend, too.

We tried ignoring this behavior, disallowing it, framing it as babyish in order to make it unappealing, and even asking her blankly why she wanted a boyfriend (or two).

At last boyfriend-play seems to be on the decline . . . but has she abandoned her imaginary beaus or just learned to make-believe more quietly?

I used to worry about those feminizing aunts. I recall the party when they shuffled baby Jessica into a back room and she emerged vaunting lipstick and rouge. I remember how they lobbied to have her ears pierced. Visits from the aunts always left a trail of clinquant costume jewelry behind.

Now I'm starting to worry about peers. Her aunts, confident adults themselves, want what's best for Jessica and respect us, her parents. I'm afraid her peers won't be so benign. At six, Jessica and her friends don't scrutinize each other's appearances, judge each other's fashions, or compare real boyfriends. At sixteen, I suppose they will.

Ultimately I know I can't make my daughter a tomboy--but can't I at least nudge her in that direction?

I had one early victory, and the memory of it gives me hope. Jessica was about three, a huge Christmas party was in full swing, and both children were trying hard to consume a month's worth of desserts amidst the chaos. When Camille realized how much they had eaten, she insisted the kids have no more sweets. Pretending not to have heard, a guest sneaked Jessica another chocolate. I saw.

“Did Mommy say 'No more desserts'?” I interrupted.

Jessica nodded, putting the chocolate back onto the tray.

“Oh, all right,” said the guest. Then she turned to Jessica. “You want to keep that nice figure anyway.”

Jessica, only vaguely sure of what was being said, lifted her shirt and threw back her shoulders, beaming.

“I have a BIG belly!” she exclaimed.

You won't hear that from a Disney princess.