Annika got invited to her first non-family American birthday party. She was so very excited, and so was I. The little girl who invited her is in her preschool class, and I had met her awesomely sweet mom before and was already looking forward to talking to her again. We RSVP'd in the positive and checked the details about when and where to show up.
Before I analyze the crap out of this whole thing, I want to start by saying that I continue to be conflicted by the entire experience. While Annika had a GREAT time and we are soo thankful that she got to go hang out with friends and play dress-up and have fun, the feminist in me is still a little pissed that a place like this even exists. This is NOT something that I would have chosen for my kid out of principle, but then I saw how much fun she had.
My initial gut reaction came from the outrageous description on the website of the place where the party was to be held. "Every little girl dreams of being the center of attention." Really? Every little girl? That's a pretty bold assumption and most assuredly does not speak to my own personal experience. I DO NOT want to teach my daughters that their only value is what they look like, and performing the feminine ideal has never really been my forte anyway. Quite frankly, I deplore the values being promoted by this type of ridiculous hyper-commodification of gendered stereotypes and my guts were twisted just thinking about it. But Annika was so excited. I decided to reserve total judgement until I had experienced it first-hand.
Here's how it went:
First the girls all lined up to hear the rules from the guide (on the left).
That's Annika looking the other direction (on the right).
Then they headed to the salon to get the makeover of their choice.
Annika was enthralled watching it all.
Then it was her turn in the chair.
She chose the Rainbow Rocker makeover, and actually sat still while patiently observing everything they were doing to her.
She really enjoyed spinning in the chair.
Yes, she is wearing FAKE eyelashes.
I am 34, and I have only ever worn fake eyelashes once.
I am 34, and I have only ever worn fake eyelashes once.
Then all the girls went to the party room to choose their dress.
They got dressed and had a fashion show.
The "guide" of the party (a lady who worked at the store), showed them all what to do.
Here is Annika doing her turn on the catwalk.
They played with hula hoops, danced, sang karaoke, and played musical bean bags.
Here's Ani tring to hula.
They ate cake and Annika hid under the table while all the posed pictures were being taken.
(That's exactly what I would have done at her age.)
Annika reminded me so much of me at this party that I was AMAZED. That's not usually the case. She typically behaves so much like her father...so full of energy that she can't sit still, but in a big group of just girls, she was just like me. She watched what everyone else was doing, and was trying to figure out what she was supposed to do. She emulated every move that the "guide" showed her and watched the faces of the adults for cues. Yes, she still ran around and did her own thing instead of what everyone else was doing, but most of the time, she was watching. (Did I inadvertently turn my kid into an anthropologist?) She was having a great time, and I wasn't sure what to make of it.
I was really interested in the parents and what they were doing. There was much picture taking and encouraging smiles hardly left faces. Some moms danced around singing the sugary-pop lyrics that we all know and demonstrating dance moves. The small number of dads there were either sitting and holding coats on a couch in the corner or taking pictures too. I tried to flit between conversations with the other moms and helping Annika try to actually participate in the activities that did NOT come naturally to her at all.
She rode the carousel in the Mall after the party, and had a complete sugar-induced melt-down forcing me to carry her out of the Mall when I told her we had to leave. Yes, my sassy 4 year old WAS still under all that make-up. Outside she totally threw down and started pounding the sidewalk with her fists in a full-on rage. She really lost it when her fake eyelashes came off with her tears and I wouldn't put them back on for her. I finally got her in the car after much prodding.
On the way home, I asked her: Did you have fun at the party?
Annika: Yeah Mama.
Me: What was your favorite part?
Annika: Umm, the makeover. I love my rainbow rocker hair. I can't wait to show daddy.
Me: I'm sure he'll like it.
Annika: Can I wear it again.
Me: Sure sweetheart. It's fun to play dress-up.
Annika: Yeah, but not every day.
Annika: Nah, but sometimes it's fun.
Exactly, exactly my dear girl. Sometimes it IS fun. Sometimes being girly is fun, and indulging your girly side once in a while doesn't mean that your value comes from what you look like or what you wear. I would be a hypocrite if I didn't let her explore her girly side, and I am happy to let her sit by my side and experiment with my make-up that I apply once or twice a week. She learns more about performing femininity from me and my everyday activities and actions than she does from a one day party experience. Right? Right???? Because that's what I'm telling myself right now as I try to justify it all in my mind.
Trust me, I fully understand and feel the burden of being the biggest female role model in my two girls' lives constantly, and take the responsibility VERY seriously. I also want to encourage playfulness and playing with gender roles and norms, and consistently do so in our conversations as a family. At least once a week, we have some sort of discussion about gender construction and regulation, at a nice 4 year old level of course. We would do the same if we had boys. Andy certainly thinks I take it a bit far sometimes when I make Annika chant, "gender is a cultural construct." In my defense, I really just wanted her grandpa to hear it...yeah, it probably was too far.
But let me get to my point: Some days I feel that I am trying to teach my kids to stand on the stage of a rock concert with ear plugs and a blind fold. Is it a fool's errand to attempt to buffer the cacophony of gendered messages that they are being inundated with on a daily basis? I want to encourage skepticism and exploration but not to the complete detriment of their social lives, if you know what I mean.
Thankfully, the next birthday party she was invited to is co-ed.