As a staunch feminist, it frustrates me when statements come out of my 4-year-old’s mouth that are so anti-woman. Declarations like “that’s for boys” or “girls can’t be the leader” are frequent occurrences. But what bothers me even more is when people say I shouldn’t worry about it- that it will work itself out.

While I don’t doubt that, I’m still going to waste my time worrying about it. Because it’s not only important to feel like you matter when you’re a grown up. How my daughter sees her place in the world right now is pretty important, too.

It might not alter her life in the long-term if she doesn’t have the capacity to be a raging feminist at the age of 4 — I don’t expect her to. But messages from books and media — not to mention comments about her appearance — affect her. It all changes the way she perceives herself and what it means to be female. And that alters everything from games she plays, to how she interacts with the opposite sex, to desires and goals she has right here and now.

My child is a girly girl by anyone’s standards. Just recently, we enrolled her in ballet lessons. But she had made up her mind long ago that she was going to be a ballerina when she grows up. I think it’s a great discipline, a wonderful way to learn rhythm and to use her body to express herself. I fully support her decision to take lessons, one she made when she was no more than 2, the same age she decided that she was going to get married to 3-year-old boy named Emile.

But was my daughter destined to be a marriage-obsessed, pink ballerina? Or did it come from someplace else? Did she learn quickly that marriage is a female priority of the utmost importance, or was it somehow ingrained in her since birth? And does her taste for ballet simply run in her veins, or does it have something to do with the fact that nearly every book for girls seems to have a tutu-clad, pointy-toed dancer sashaying across the cover?

I’d be happy to shoulder the responsibility for her outlook on life, but these things really didn’t come from me. For one, I would’ve been content to never get married and simply live with my now husband, which likely has more to do with not wanting to be the center of attention and perhaps being a child of divorce than anything else. When I did tie the knot, I was already a mother to an 8-month-old and I planned the intimate gathering in less than a week. While I also took ballet as a small child, I’m not graceful. And I almost never wear the color pink.

My concern is not that my child will never understand that women don’t have to succumb to stereotypes, though sometimes they have to fight to be seen and heard. I believe she will be a force to be reckoned with as an adult woman, as she already is in our house. But I feel like many of the things my daughter has decided that she loves and that she is didn’t come uniquely from her own soul. If she truly loves pink, princesses and wearing dresses everyday because that’s how she was made, then I’m all in. But of course I sometimes wonder if certain parts of her are the world’s reflection, which is obsessed with what women should and should not be. It is limiting and it is anti-female.

She is told over and over again that her blonde head of hair and deep blue eyes are gorgeous. And while of course I agree, how can all this attention not also tell her that these things are deeply important, if not the most important things about herself? Likewise, how can images of made-up toddler princesses, razor thin dolls and nearly every show and toy marketed to girls emphasizing beauty over just about everything not do the same?

In the world, I’m raising my daughter to believe “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top,” but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the more common vision of perfection — the magazine “perfect” that doesn’t really exist in real life. But to my daughter, it does exist. It’s everywhere. My child can’t see beyond make-up and advertising and dumb-as-rocks toys. She isn’t capable of identifying what is true and what is not. She takes in what the world gives her but she can’t yet decipher what is of value and what should be overlooked. Not yet.

Every trip down the aisles of Target, every “I bet you’re the prettiest girl in your school,” every make-up or bra advertisement makes its mark. Some wash off in the bath and run down the drain along with the other-worldly amount of sand she brings home from preschool. But some of it sticks to her bones.

It’s my job as her mother to set a good example for her and show her that women can be every bit as tough, smart and ambitious as men because that’s what I believe. I did it when I grunted out her baby brother out in a pool of water while she lingered nearby. I did it by showing her that moms work and can also feed babies from their bodies. And I did it when I chose to be a stay-at-home mother.

There’s only so much I can do to help my child navigate her way. But you won’t find me grabbing my postpartum belly and waving it at her, telling her how dissatisfied I am with my appearance. You won’t find me obsessing about how I look or things I can’t do. You won’t find me putting down the color pink, either. But I know I’m up against something fierce.

I can teach my daughter what is important to me. I can make choices that reflect empowerment. I can limit the negative media that comes into our home. But I still wonder if that’s enough. No, my daughter doesn’t understand feminism. But I do. And I get to care fiercely when her belief system is manipulated by sources that shouldn’t exist, at least not in such extreme capacities.

I don’t need my daughter to be a feminist at just a shade under 5 years old. But I do need to believe that she is able to be who she is, unabashedly, without worrying about who she should be.

Sarah Bregel is a writer, yoga teacher, feminist and deep-breather who lives with her husband, 4-year-old daughter and baby boy. She blogs about the endlessly terrifying journey of motherhood at Join her on Facebook and Twitter @SarahBregel

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