October 31, 2014. Halloween. Sienna dressed as Snow White. Yellow skirt. Blue top. Red bow in her hair. A plastic jack-o'-lantern in her hand, waiting to be filled with candy. She's 2 1/2 years old. She still doesn't quite get the trick-or-treating concept, but that's OK. Mommy and Daddy are proud. So proud. Mommy missed trick-or-treating last year, and she's super excited.
We knock on the door of a nearby house. A man opens it. He's 50-ish. Salt-and-pepper hair. Taller than me. He hands Sienna three mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. And then, he says it: "Don't eat all of that tonight, or you're gonna get sick and fat and you'll never get married."
Excuse me? Seriously?
My wife and I exchange a glance of anger and surprise. I grit my teeth through a smile.
"Don't worry," I say. "She's not eating any of it. That's our job for now."
My head swirls. My daughter, my little Snow White, just experienced the first crush of societal pressure heaped on girls and women about body image and marriage. I'm just so thankful she didn't have a clue as to the negative and destructive power behind this man's words.
But I did. My wife did. And I wanted to throw this man against the wall and scream at him:
"How dare you? YOU are what's wrong with this world! YOU and people like you!! Do you work in advertising, perhaps? Film? Television? Do you enjoy spreading this propaganda? This societal sickness that steals female empowerment, wrecks self-esteem and replaces it with a desperate need for women to compare themselves, bodily and matrimonially, to one another? To starve themselves to death, to sit in therapists' offices bemoaning the fact that they're 30 and not yet married? WHAT THE EFF IS WRONG WITH YOU? Here's an idea... read something about female body image disorders. Jean-Paul Sarte wrote that 'words are loaded pistols,' and you just pointed one right at my beautiful little girl. HOW DARE YOU?"
Instead, I made a joke and my wife laughed, but as we left his door for the next, fury bubbled in us and the joyful playfulness of Halloween felt tainted. Our innocent Snow White had just experienced the evils of the world, even if she didn't realize it.
Sienna's still too young to feel the backhanded sting of slings and arrows, still too young to study herself in the mirror, tearing herself to shreds because her future 12-year-old waist is thicker than Mary's or her belly's too flabby so she needs to diet, diet, diet. She's not yet 28 and crying that no one will marry her because she's too ugly or too fat, despite being positively gorgeous. Right now, it's just "green day" at school and she needs to wear a green shirt and bring in a green toy. Right now, the world is an abundance of wonders: "I want to touch the moon! I'm taking my flying carpet to China! Leaves are falling! Leaves are turning yellow!"
And that's the way it should be. That's the way it should be for everyone. Society has a deeply-rooted, systemic sickness, a hatred towards girls and women with even an inch of extra meat on their bones, a brutal "tsk-tsk" for unmarried women. Society, thanks to unrealistic portrayals on magazine covers, and in commercials, print ads and media of all forms, causes females to turn on and rip each other and themselves apart rather than band together as the beautiful people they are, and it causes men to objectify them. Sienna's going to face it. There's nothing I can do to stop it except educate her as best I can, but what is one voice against the relentless, insidious media? The always-present, but never necessary, taunts in school; the comparisons, the scale, the mirror? How much can I do?
She's 2 1/2 years old and the pressure has already started.
That's why we need sites like A Mighty Girl. That's why we need female superheroes. That's why we need podcasts such as this one by City Dads Group, in which Jeff Bogle of Out With The Kids and Mike Reynolds of Puzzling Posts discuss "the uphill climb our daughters still face in the 21st century and the role that we as dads can play in challenging the long-held beliefs and stereotypes that are foisted upon women and girls." That's why we need things like Christopher Persley's column, "Advice For My Daughter," in which successful women provide advice for his 3-year-old girl as well as the world at large.
I will educate my daughter as best as I can. I will raise her to avoid the societal pressure and pitfalls that have led to my own battles with depression and anxiety (different pitfalls, of course). I will raise her to be strong, to fight back, to be herself and be proud of who she is. I will raise her to realize how ignorant a 50-ish man with salt-and-pepper hair can be.
Who's with me?
A version of this post first appeared on www.raisingsienna.com