Janesville author Melissa Atkins Wardy encourages parents to reject stereotyping of girls

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, January 18, 2014

JANESVILLE--Melissa Atkins Wardy began her journey as an activist when she bought her 6-month-old daughter's first sippy cup.

Wardy expected to find baby items in bright primary colors. Instead, the new mom found cups adorned with Toy Story characters or princesses.

“No princes, just pink and purple Disney princesses,” Wardy recalls.

She finally found a plain yellow and blue cup without any characters on it.

But as she walked through the toy store aisles, divided into pink and blue, she noticed that the themes for girls included sexy fashion dolls, beauty and makeup kits and play cooking and baking sets.

Themes for boys included monsters, action or war figures, superheroes, building blocks and kits, guns and weapons, scientific experiment kits and dinosaurs.

“There was no middle ground,” Wardy said. “I didn't see any dolls or cooking sets for boys, nor building blocks or fire trucks for girls … If a girl wanted an action figure or a Lego set, she very clearly had to walk into the boy aisle to get it.”

Wardy had trouble understanding why the toys for girls were so focused on domesticity or looking sexy.

“I did not yet have the words to describe what I was looking at, but I knew it wasn't healthy for little girls,” she said.

Later, Wardy learned a whole new vocabulary, including the word “sexualization,” to describe the things she saw. Sexualization is the imposing of adult concepts of sexuality and sex onto children before they are ready to understand those things on their own.

“Sexualization leaves the subject, usually a girl or a woman, objectified in a way that makes her sexual appeal the most important thing about her,” Wardy explained.

She quickly realized that she and her husband needed to be gatekeepers for the media and products entering their home. They needed to reject toys and clothing with sexual overtones being pushed on younger and younger girls.

“I was seeing it everywhere,” Wardy said. “My eyes had been opened.”

She reached out to experts, already working on the issue, and believed that other moms and dads must share her concern.

Now, the Janesville woman has written a new book, “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween.” The how-to guide for parents, teachers and family members offers clear strategies on how to help girls define and decide what being a girl means to them.

Wardy wants to fuel awareness about how to raise confident girls in today's “too fast, too soon” culture.

“We give birth to whole children,” Wardy said. “Not far into their childhoods, we allow them to be segregated into these stereotypes. Girls have to be sweet and docile or a fashion diva. Parents need to start rejecting the messages and let kids be what they want to be.”

Today, Wardy's daughter is 8, and she also has a 5-year-old son. A few years ago, Wardy founded Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that sells empowering and inspirational children's clothing and products. She has been featured in national media for her work and campaigns against brands and retailers that resulted in the removal of sexist ads and products.

Wardy also writes a popular blog, where parents can learn, talk to each other and be energized, she said. The blog caught the attention of an editor with Chicago Review Press, who suggested that Wardy write a book to help parents fight gender stereotyping.

“What feels best about the book is that I am not attached to any large nonprofit, nor am I a professor at a university,” Wardy said. “I have done all this myself with the support of colleagues and my online community. It feels good to get it all down so parents don't have to reinvent the wheel.”

She doesn't understand why there is not more of a push-back against marketing and products that tell girls to focus on beauty and sex.

“I don't get it,” 36-year-old Wardy said. “Women in their 30s and 20s would have been raised by mothers who are part of the Women's Rights Movement in the 1970s. All of it seems opposite of where I would have expected society to be when the time came for me to be raising my children.”

She worries about the impact of marketing adult products and attitudes to children.

“It goes far beyond what is the big deal between pink and blue,” Wardy said. “The early sexualization of childhood is linked to negative body image, low self esteem and self harm among girls.”

It also negatively affects boys, she said.

“What is my son learning about girls from these messages?” she asked. “I want him someday to treat women as equals and as valuable colleagues. We are actively teaching boys that they need to be separated from girls. We are taking away their ability to have cross-gender friendships and to understand each other.”

Wardy has spent the past four years speaking with thousands of parents. She also interviewed a couple dozen parents of “tween” girls to find out what is ahead for her daughter.

As a child, Wardy received a doll of Amelia Earhart, which she keeps on her home desk. The doll is a reminder to Wardy of what she wants for her daughter and others like her: the chance to grow up smart, daring and adventurous, like the famous aviator.

“There needs to be a monumental shift in the way our society thinks about girls,” Wardy said. “There are thousands of us who are pushing back, but it needs to become a national conversation.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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