by Deborah Ostrovsky

The Positively Sexist Things People Say About Daughters

"Comme vous êtes pointue, Madame!" Women in my Montreal neighbourhood accost me almost daily on my walks to the bakery, the depanneur and the park. Your belly is pointy, they are saying, nodding their heads with ebullient approval.

The Positively Sexist Things People Say About Daughters

"Comme vous êtes pointue, Madame!" Women in my Montreal neighbourhood accost me almost daily on my walks to the bakery, the depanneur and the park. Your belly is pointy, they are saying, nodding their heads with ebullient approval.

According to a conte de bonne femme (wives’ tale), a pointed belly means you are carrying a boy. I’m not widening around my middle, unlike the proverbial bun in the oven, which rises in all directions as it bakes. Girls do that to you, not boys, they say. I have—for now—expanded frontward. It looks like I have a basketball tucked under my shirt.

When you’re pregnant with a girl, they steal your beauty, they say. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir made some troubling observations about the mother-daughter bond, depicting it as fraught with tension and rivalry. Mothers, she believed, resented their newborn daughters. They were aware of their own oppression, she stated, and looked upon their female offspring with ambivalence, often perceiving them as threats.

“In her daughter,” de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, “the mother does not hail a member of the superior caste; in her she seeks a double. She projects upon her daughter all the ambiguity of her relation with herself. ”

I find sentiments like de Beauvoir’s thinly concealed behind the seemingly innocuous comments at the park. Surely the notion that beauty is stolen by her female fetus is restricted to a generation of Québécois women who were changing diapers before Betty Friedan began scribbling notes for The Feminine Mystique.

But later on, when I arrive for a meeting at an office downtown, a young receptionist tells me the same thing. “Girls suck the beauty out of their mother’s face. You’re having a boy,” she smiles.

In fact, they occur with sufficient frequency that I assume some quantifiable, scientific evidence exists to back up the claim. These remarks underline other worries I’m having about pregnancy, as both a private and a public experience. One day, while walking briskly to catch a bus, a man shrieks at me in front of a crowd of passersby. “Slow down,” he commands. “You’re pregnant!”

In her memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, writer Rachel Cusk describes society’s sense of entitlement to scrutinize women’s reproductive
lives. Cusk says, “it is the baby’s meaning for other people, the world’s sense of ownership stating its claim.” This gets me thinking that, underneath these seemingly unrelated events, are feudal-era attitudes toward the sex of the unborn and the women who carry them.

Even my plumber, a friendly, successful 40-something businesswoman, weighs in. When I am about seven months along, she comes to fix a pipe in my bathroom. She notices my stomach. When we’re alone in the hallway she informs me, while wiping off a wrench, “You don’t want a girl.
They’re so moody when they get their period.”

A famous 1970 study by psychiatrist Inga Broverman, published just before I was born, examined the views of mental health professionals towards the mental health of women and men. Broverman surveyed clinicians about what they believed constituted psychologically healthy men, women and adults. Their results showed that the traits they ascribed to healthy women (more submissive, more excitable in minor crises, more emotional) were not only resoundingly negative, but were also traits that the respondents considered incompatible with being a healthy adult. In Canada, at least, the mental health profession has changed since Broverman’s study, and by 2010 about 61 percent of psychiatrists under the age of 35 were women.

But my plumber wasn’t being churlish or espousing intentionally outdated views about moody girls. “It’s not just a generational thing—the prejudice is alive and well and probably sitting next to you at work,” writes Flic Everett in—of all places—the British tabloid The Daily Express. Among the recent upsurge of articles on the topic of son preference, Everett captures some of the mysteries behind the girl-bashing mood I’m experiencing at home. Everett profiles “Clare,” a British woman who, after giving birth to a son, says, “I felt I’d been given the most amazing let-off.”

Why such girl anxiety? Is this the long shadow of patriarchal thinking, or something new? If it’s new, it’s entirely incongruous with women’s advancement in modern life. Or have I lived on a small, privileged islet of gender equality for too long?

This is not only a problem affecting people born male and female in the binary sense. There is a disdain for the feminine I’m picking up on, which is harmful for the cisgendered, but also wounding to transgender children and who society
allows them to be.

I fear that, at the same time we can point to external measures of gender equality, a new mutation of unease about womanhood, albeit one tempered or trimmed in subtle humour or even irony, has emerged. Girls may have their own
rock music camps, science programs and boxing clubs to build empowerment and self-esteem. But all these projects seem minor compared to the rise of Roosh V and the manosphere, the death threats against feminist video game critics like Anita Sarkeesian and the sexual harassment of female reporters by male bystanders.

And yet since de Beauvoir first wrote her chapter on motherhood the rule book on the patriarchal family has undergone some pretty radical revisions. Still, as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in We Should All Be Feminists, a slim book distributed to high school students in Sweden by the country’s Women’s Lobby, “We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.”

In his 2003 Slate article, Steven E. Landsberg reported on the findings of economists Gordon B. Dahl and Enrico Morretti. Apparently, having a daughter increases a couple’s risk of divorce in the U.S. by five percent, while having three daughters means a 10 percent risk. “If you want to stay married,” Landsberg wrote, “the most ominous three words you can hear
are ‘It’s a Girl.’”

In the article “The Demand for Sons,” since published in Review of Economic Studies, Dahl and Moretti put the incidence of shotgun weddings under the microscope. They found that fathers who find out during a pregnancy that
the baby will be a boy are “more likely to marry their partner before delivery than those who find out that their child will be a girl.” The authors conclude that “the effect of gender on marriage takes place even before parents have a chance to interact with their baby.”

Research from Europe shows a slight preference for sons over daughters for the first-born child, or in families with an uneven number of children. But there is also a consistent desire for a mixed-gender family (a boy and a girl). In Iceland, Spain, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Portugal, girls are preferred. Writing in the journal Prenatal Diagnosis, Frank van Balen at the University of
Amsterdam found that, while most people believe that using medical techniques to select for sex are unacceptable, preference for boys remains
prevalent in most Western countries.

Son preference even has its own pejorative terminology. In Caribbean Spanish, a chancletero is slang for a man who has only produced daughters. “Better to have a crippled son than eight healthy daughters,”an old Chinese saying
goes. In Arabic, to be called Abu el Banat—a father of daughters—is a tongue-in-cheek expression of sympathy or a term of commiseration. “Blessed are you,” a Jewish prayer starts, “ruler of the universe, who has not created me a woman.”

But none of this affects me so far because my baby’s sex has been determined by the external hallmarks proclaimed by strangers in parks. I don’t confirm it by ultrasound. My last medical appointment before the birth is routine, underwhelming even, if it weren’t for the observation that the hospital is a living tableau ripped right out of the pages of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women. Rosin’s book describes the strides women are making
in many areas of work. She acknowledges the low numbers of women among CEOs and politicians. And yet she demonstrates that there is an indubitable gender revolution in the workplace: Women are outperforming men in some academic fields. Christina Hoff Summers’ work backs this up: In terms of education, boys are falling behind girls. The hospital ward I’m in is almost entirely run by women—from the nurses and doctors to the female medical students in scrubs following behind.

When my labour comes hard and fast a few days later, I return to the city of women and one of its dimly lit birthing rooms. Husband by my side, I look up at the faces of women, including the medical resident, ponytail bobbing up and down, who cheers, “You Can Do This” through my screams, and the friendly doctor on call who greets my doula with a hug. Although on offer, I don’t have an epidural or an IV line. One of the nurses, who is also a midwife, calms me through spikes of pain that come with every contraction.

And there is a lot of pain. And pushing. Then a final push. And then it’s over—or just beginning, depending on how you look at things. My little boy is almost planet-side. “Congratulations. ” The doctor puts the baby on my chest. “It’s a girl. ”

In A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, Rachel Cusk writes that she “arrived at motherhood shocked and unprepared.” She felt stunned by how the birth of a child, like a boulder suddenly blocking a roadway, displaced her life’s path into a disorienting universe, frozen with dread and isolation. But the “closed regime of motherhood” she describes bears little in common with my own postpartum life. Writer Sarah Manguso discusses motherhood as a “shattering” of one’s old self. “The point of having a child,” she writes in celebration of the chaos, “is to be rent asunder, torn in two.”

For me, there are tearful days, sleepless nights and panic-stricken hospital visits when the baby has the croup. But the challenges are often shared with my spouse, who is thoroughly involved. And yes, I have read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s now-famous Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” about the forces that still preclude women with children from maximizing their professional advancement. It’s a problem in my own life that still hasn’t been resolved. But I live in Quebec, where I have a year’s maternity leave. There is also a short paternity leave for my spouse. For two months, we are home together.

In our diverse neighbourhood, filled with high- and low-income residents, community involvement is de rigueur. There are breast-feeding drop-in centres a block away, part-time daycares for five dollars an afternoon, clothing swaps and a local indoor playroom to mitigate the winter’s deep freeze. My daughter will make friends with a child who has two working moms and with another whose dad stays at home while maman, a financial analyst, frequently commutes to New York.

Recent literature on women’s work and family conflicts supports observations like Slaughter’s, and also those of Cusk, whose experience of modern motherhood assailed her sense of mobility and freedom. Lately, however, it also reflects some of the positive, varied experiences of an increasing
number of women around me whose careers have flourished despite the challenges of raising children. Many mothers in my community are the
financial heads of their households, while others are primary parents for the time being. This mash-up of roles would have been unthinkable in Quebec society only a generation ago.

But it is in the most open space in my community—a local park, which, by spring, becomesa sanctuary for parents desperate to kvetch about
colic and potty training—that the comments start again.

“Your daughter is so cute,” a mother says as our children play in the sand. The new mom is covered with piercings and tatoos. “But no offence,
I’m relieved I have a boy. Girls have so many problems. ” She mentions girls sharing photos of their breasts on social media and cyberbullying.

A few days later, a father whose twins often play with my daughter makes a confession. The way he whispers it to me in the playground is kind of creepy. He sounds like the chastising mother in Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, “Girl, ” whose fear and anger about her daughter’s budding sexuality
lapses into a derisive stream of consciousness.

“I’m so lucky to have boys,” the playground dad says. “I don’t want to have to deal with teen pregnancy, all that sex stuff.”

At a New Year’s dinner party, a guest describes how she breathed a sigh of relief when her ultrasound revealed male genitalia. A daycare worker tells me that she prefers teaching boys to avoid the “drama.”

Finally, I start to talk with other parents about the sexist remarks that are tossed my way. When I do, one mother confesses that she is quietly struggling with subtle reprimands from in-laws for having produced only girls.

“From the time she is born—in truth, well before—parents are bombarded with zillionsof decisions, made consciously or not,” says journalist Peggy Orenstein, “that will shape their daughter’s ideas and understanding of her femininity, her sexuality, her self.” Orenstein should know. Her 2011 book, Cinderella Ate
My Daughter
, opens with a confession. In the chapter “Why I Hoped for a Boy,” she describes how, after years writing about gender and sex discrimination, she was “terrified at the thought of having a daughter.”

The fears Orenstein once had about raising girls provide insights into some of the plausible reasons for this anxiety. Cinderella describes the ways in which the pink, princess and hyper-feminized girlie-girl culture endangers girls with
furious intensity at a young age. She describes the powerful forces of marketing and capitalism that fuel pressure on girls to attain idealized notions of beauty, instead of aiming for intellectual goals and independence.

While articulated in a more sensitive way, her worries are not so different
than the confessions made by parents in my local playground. But Orenstein’s work shows the vicious, circular nature of this girl anxiety, which stems not from the lot into which female children are born but from how they are groomed by a culture that attempts to diminish their value. It also seems to be making a lot of parents nervous about raising female human beings.

Aminka Belvitt shares these worries. Belvitt is a Concordia University student and the founder and program director of For Us Girls, a Montreal program that confronts negative attitudes toward girls, including attitudes within the Black community, where the effects of racism play a pernicious role in gender-identity formation. Belvitt gives an example of the destructive behaviour that can result from the devaluation of Black girls.

“I was puzzled and frustrated that, in the Black community, many girls are not practising safer sex, family planning and goal planning,” she says. “I was seeing the continual pattern of Black girls getting into unhealthy relationships that were taking control over their life choices.”

Published in 1994, psychologist Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls described the problems facing female youth before the dawn of topless selfies and Facebook bullying, although her book is highly applicable to Belvitt’s work in Montreal. And, while Orenstein’s book describing princess culture is a prelude to today’s sexting teens, Pipher examined the deeper roots of misogyny, where many of these problems live. She looked at the ways in which girls, once they hit adolescence, become aware of their lack of power while simultaneously being hit by an onslaught of media messages that perpetuate their sexual objectification.

This only feeds society’s girl anxiety, an anxiety often fuelled by girls themselves. All of this makes my feminist blood boil, and I’m not even finished with toilet training and chicken pox.

“I too have a daughter, but I’m not worried for her,” Tatiana Fraser says. Fraser, named in 2010 as one of Canada’s most powerful women by the Women’s Executive Network, is one of the founders of the Girls Action Foundation. She has been a tireless advocate for flipping the negative script about girls. Soon, her book, Girl Positive, co-written with Caia Hagel, will be published by Random House. The book will feature a survival kit for parents and educators on topics like the media, sexuality, the Internet, self-esteem, self-harm, racism and violence. It will also summon people of all genders to be agents of change.

“I think, when we arm girls with critical thinking, media savvy and awareness, we can support them to navigate growing up,” Fraser says. “There is a lot we can do, as mothers, to role model strength and empowerment for girls.

Part of this is taking ourselves to task and being honest about the contradictions we hold. Our perfectionism, our approval-seeking, our lack of self-worth—[we need] to work on transforming these in ourselves.”

Back at For Us Girls, Aminka Belvitt helps girls between 13 and 17 to develop healthy, positive views about their sexuality. “Actually, it is important to reach girls even younger regarding healthy self-esteem, healthy and safer sex choices [and] the pressures of media in regards to body image and beauty,” she says. “We, as humans, go through changes in our identity, life choices and
behaviours, but what helps us are the foundations we build earlier on in life. This is what I want to empower the girls with: a healthy foundation
of self-esteem, confidence, sisterhood and the importance of community.”

Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia argues that the crucial time to combat rigid sex-typing is early in adolescence. “That’s when the gender roles get set in cement,” she writes, “that’s when girls need tremendous support in resisting the cultural
definitions of femininity.”

As the mother of a daughter, it’s reassuring to know that these strategies exist. However, a far more powerful approach is needed—one that involves all parents and non-parents, too—to uproot damaging beliefs about innate gender and sex attributes and expectations. Ultimately, we must work collectively to build a society where being female or having feminine attributes isn’t a curse.

Children will also be part of the change. After all, as Fraser reminds us, “Kids are smart. And, with education and support, they can make sense of what is going on. Our daughters will continue the work of healing and transforming
the world.” 

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Herizons. Click here to see what else is in the new issue including "Six Ways to Kick-Start the Equality Agenda in the new Trudeau Era" by Canadian legal expert Shelagh Day. Buy a single copy for $5.99, or better yet subscribe to Herizons and get four issues for $27.50