Melissa Atkins Wardy is an author, founder and CEO of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies (PPBB), co-founder of the Brave Girls Alliance, and mother of two. In 2009, she founded her children’s apparel company, PPBB, to help parents fight against gender stereotypes and create an environment free of limitations for their children. Four years after launching PPBB, Melissa joined several other moms to form the Brave Girls Alliance, a gender equality advocacy group dedicated to educating parents on the powerful influences of the media and corporations on children. In addition to the Redefining Girly blog, Melissa has appeared on CNN, Fox News, the Boston Globe, and Ms. Magazine. Through the Brave Girls Alliance, her blog, and her book, Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween, Melissa has become an expert in girls’ advocacy. (Bio from author’s website).
TCJWW: I loved your sample conversations and activities for kids in your book Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. Were these often trial and error experiences of your own or did they evolve from conversations with other parents or experts?
Wardy: Thank you, I’ve heard from many people the sample conversations were their favorite part of the book. The answer is “yes” to both questions. Some of the conversations were real conversations I had with my kids or a child from another family. Sometimes I changed the details a bit to protect privacy, but the majority of them were my own experiences. I also used my vibrant Facebook community for examples, which is something they are GREAT at, as we are known for being a caring community of parents and child advocates who share experiences for other people to draw their best take-aways from.
Recently, I shared a story about being in the grocery store and I complimented a little girl on her baby doll and assumed the doll was a girl. She corrected me that it was a boy and that boys can wear pink. Hello! I gave her a big smile and told her that I tell all my friends that “colors are for everyone.” She was right—I should not have assumed the doll was a female just because most dolls marketed to kids are girl baby dolls, because the doll was owned by a girl, or because it was wearing pink. I should have just said, “I like your baby.”
TCJWW: Why do you believe that children’s clothing is so important in the fight for gender equality?
Wardy: In the big picture that sounds silly, right? Clothing isn’t going to solve the wage gap or campus rape crisis or the void of girls in STEM. But clothing reflects our cultural norms and values. Nowhere is that more evident than in children’s apparel. Whether it is girls’ sizes being cut significantly smaller to fit tighter than boys’ clothing, or garments that carry gendered colors and stereotyped images, our children are learning from all of this. They are learning that gender is their most salient quality, they are learning their roles in society as defined by their gender, and they are learning about what to expect from the other gender. They also learn to police each other should any kid choose to step outside the gendered box system they pick up so quickly. This binary gender system does not allow for children to explore the world and learn in the ways they are supposed to.
The other side of this is that pictures are a child’s first language of literacy, so the images a young child sees are important. Tiaras and kittens all over girls’ clothes is fine, but there had also better be images of girl astronauts and dinosaurs and airplanes… all things that tell girls they can take up space in the world and do things that matter. For boys, I don’t think society will collapse if we stray from big game animals and skulls in order to offer apparel with images of them playing with girls or cooking or having a costume parade.
So if one of the first things many kids learn about themselves is the establishment of their gender identity, then it would stand to reason that the images, messages, experiences, toys, and media we offer children should be as gender inclusive as possible so as to build a foundation of mutual respect and friendship amongst boys and girls.
That is what I try to do with my designs from Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies. Kids love my designs because they see their childhood and themselves reflected in an artistic and respectful way. This kind of inspiring, empowering apparel becomes really important to them. Sure, it is just a T-shirt. But when you are the only boy in your preschool class brave enough to wear pink because it is your absolute favorite color, your pink PPBB tee with the “Colors are for Everyone” design on it is more than just a T-shirt, it becomes your suit of armor.
TCJWW: How do you believe teaching your daughter to feel empowered has helped your son to view women differently?
Wardy: This question made me giggle because my son is one of the biggest feminists I know. He does a great job of calling out sexism and telling people they need to “redefine girly.” He’s a great male ally and a great PR man!
I think the biggest benefit for both kids is being taught to question—literally question everything and think critically about the answers they find or are given. Whether real life or media, Ben is quite adept at reading the messages and addressing gender stereotypes. My son has heard Amelia and me discuss the problems and short-sightedness of the stereotypes aimed at women and girls, but also the stereotypes that envelope masculinity. Media literacy is simply a second language in our home.
I model how an empowered woman lives so that it isn’t just talk for my kids, it is our way of life. I think the number one thing he has learned is that every woman and girl is a complex, layered individual who is interesting and deserving of respect. He has also seen my husband respect the voices and bodies of his mother and sister, and there is enormous power in that.
TCJWW: How has creating this book and sharing it with the world in print form helped you as a parent?
Wardy: Wow, that’s a great question. I think by putting the book in print and putting it out there to the world, this experience has helped me as a parent by steeling over my resolve to live my truth and continue to do work that I know is meaningful and helpful to other families. When you put yourself out there—especially in my field when you aren’t from the world of academia—you open yourself to a lot of criticism. I received massive amounts of praise for the book, yet it was those one or two exceptionally biting reviews that stayed with me the longest. I had to live by my words and that what other people think of me is none of my business and model that for my kids.
My kids were watching me every step of the way and I was reminded that our role as parents is not to please everyone, nor do everything flawlessly, but rather to demonstrate how to act with class and grace when we hit a bump in the road. That space between experiencing something negative and the reaction you choose to give it is really important. The choice you make reveals your character and ability for growth. Keeping my head up, eyes forward, and speaking my truth was the best I could do for myself and my family.
TCJWW: What made you want to publish a written text of your arguments, advice, and experience when you already have a large online presence?
Wardy: Our lives are so hurried and carried out in such a frenetic pace that I wanted something people could physically hold, dog ear, underline, and futz with the pages as they read something that causes an “Ah ha! moment” or paradigm shift. I wanted my work to be in a form people could sit with for some time and easily return to. I read online all day long, huge volumes of material, but I don’t retain nearly as much as I do than when I’m with a book.
The book was written to be a discussion of the issues, but mainly a recipe book of solutions. I wanted this solutions-focused information to be a gift people could give one another at baby showers, birthdays, or holidays. I wanted couples and book clubs to be able to read and discuss it. And, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if I could write a book so I did it just to challenge myself and to be able to say “done that!”
TCJWW: Why do you believe it is important to teach media literacy rather than simply eliminating media from the home completely?
Wardy: The media and its impact on society is omnipresent. There would be no way to eliminate it entirely from a child’s life and that thought process leaves the child ill prepared to deal with the world they will be growing into. There is some media, like violent media, that I ban completely because it is so unhealthy. There is other media, like a princess cartoon or reality TV show, that I find obnoxious, but instead of telling the kids to turn it off, I sit down and grit my teeth through it as we discuss and analyze things. By using media literacy in the home, parents can teach morals, values, and critical thinking skills.
Media literacy is about questioning, challenging, and changing how society represents itself and re-creates itself using various forms of media. Our children need to be able to decipher and understand the messages, as well as how to show respect towards a diverse group of people.
These kids will become the writers, directors, actors, illustrators, producers, signers, etc. who create new media. Media can be an amazing and empowering form of communication and shared experience. That largely depends on the people behind the media, so I want to make sure my generation of parents are raising the best people.