Elizabeth Bauchner

(WOMENSENEWS)–Shopping for girls during the holiday season can be dispiriting. At least for those who don’t want to buy into gender stereotypes or push girls into a confining fixation on their own reflection in the mirror.

Many of us would like to find presents that help girls engage happily and heartily in the wide world around them. Instead, we wind up in the "pink" aisle, surrounded by Barbie, hermultitude of accessories and the message thatdressing up and having a perfect face, body andwardrobe is the key to every girl’s happiness.

Then there’s the "other" girl-toy aisle. That’s the one with baby dolls for mommies in the making. Here the message is all about girls growing up and providing child care. Of course there’s nothing wrong with encouraging girls to think of themselves providing this hugely important service in the future. As a mother who enjoys all three of her children, I certainly wouldn’t discourage this type of nurturing play.

But if you’ll notice, dolls that are marketed to girls encourage nurturing, while dolls that are marketed to boys encourage play and friendship. Toys marketed to girls encourage them to be pretty and fashionable, while boys are encouraged to be tough, strong and competitive. This only reinforces the social myth that boys and men aren’t nurturing and that girls and women should be.

(It also promotes a false and retro domestic ideal of fathers as breadwinners and women as providers of child care that undermines so many parents today who share child care responsibilities and offer great alternative role models.)

Clothes That Leave Girls Cold

Wander over to the clothing section and check out the girls’ clothing. Never mind how revealing and suggestive many of the styles are. There’s something even more fundamentally wrong here. Girls’ clothes are often made of thinner, softer materials than boys clothing, which is warm and rugged. Must girls shiver in the winter air? Must they be discouraged from going outside to play?

While we don’t know for sure how much the toys themselves contribute to a child’s self-awareness and social development, research by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that children take a keen interest in their sex-based identity. By three they know what sex they are. By four they are acutely aware of "girl" toys and "boy" toys. By five, most will choose toys that reflect their own sex.

But it’s not clear why they do this. Is it nature, or nurture?

There’s no doubt that many girls want to play with Barbie, dress up like princesses and pretend to be mommy. But this only begs the question: If we didn’t have toys that so explicitly divided the playing field between boys and girls, what toys would kids naturally choose to play with and how would that affect their emotional and social development?

Yes, Boys, Girls Are Different

As for boys and girls being different, it’s pretty hard not to see the signs of that being true. Visit any pre-school playground and you’re likely to witness boys dispensing their physical energy in more aggressive or competitive ways and girls releasing their energy in more emotional ways. What we don’t know is how much those differences are influenced by parents, society and the media and how much is innate.

What we do know is that the majority of toys available exploit gender differences in myriad ways. But we also know that we are free to give girls presents that don’t exploit and exaggerate these differences.

So what toys can we give to girls? What clothing options are available?

Well, the toy industry has long ignored concerns that their toys perpetuate such stereotypes for all children. And this year doesn’t offer many signs of change.

Emme to the Slight Rescue

One break-through, however, comes in the form of Emme, a doll built to represent a size-16 woman compared with Barbie’s minuscule size two. But while Emme may be a refreshing newcomer, Barbie and the ultra-thin dolls like her dominate the market.

Released in 2002 by the Tonner Doll Company, Emme is not available in stores such as Marshall Field’s, Target or Walmart. Nor is she online at Amazon.com. Even if gift-givers can find Emme, few would be able to afford her. Selling at Toys R Us for $124.99, she’s extremely expensive compared to Barbie, who has a $16.99 price tag. And Barbie seems to be everywhere, even the grocery store.

But we can do a lot more than shop for dolls.

Books, Art, Sports, Clothes and Time Well Spent

For girls who love books, there are plenty that encourage girls to be themselves. American Girl books, for example, portray the lives of girls in American history through lively, compelling and historically accurate stories. Another series for girls, Girls To The Rescue, offers tales of everyday heroines helping others in realistic situations.

For girls who love art, open-ended art supplies are still gender neutral. And for girls who love sports, thanks to Title IX, there are more role models and more sports options to choose from than ever before. Why not consider a book about a famous female athlete or a gift of sports equipment or lessons?

As for clothing, try festive hats and gloves that will keep girls warm and give them the message that you are thinking about them playing outside. Wool and other warm materials, such as polar fleece, offer comfortable and warm choices, and are available at places such as the Gap, Hanna Andersson and Lands’ End.

And then, of course, there is that gift that is the most important of all: the gift of time spent with a girl. Why not offer to take your niece skiing or sledding for a day, complete with hot chocolate and time to chat? Or offer to take your daughter and a friend to a museum or art gallery? Or simply set aside an afternoon to spend with a girl, make some popcorn and rent "Bend it Like Beckham" or "Whale Rider" and have a "girl’s day in." The possibilities are endless and the girls in your life may end up remembering gifts of time for far longer than anything you could buy.

Elizabeth Bauchner lives in Ithaca, N. Y., with her husband and three children. She writes a weekly column, "Mothering Matters," for The Ithaca Journal.



For more information:

American Girl–Bookstore:

Tonner Doll Company–Emme Collection:

"Bend it Like Beckham":

"Whale Rider":