Missing a Teachable Moment: The Purple Dress by Marilyn R. Freedman

Intelligent and impish eyes took in my approach, and the little girl moved away from the post office doors. But not before I saw her sweet face with round cheeks still full of baby fat squished against the glass. With slightly messy, curly blond hair and wearing a shiny, deep purple, ruffled dress-up dress, she looked pretty, happy, and confident. This was her world, wherever she was. When I smiled, though, she turned away, shy of a stranger.

I got into the long line with my kid and listened to the little girl’s dad discuss gift card values with her older brother. The boy named an amount, and the dad commented about how expensive it was. “What a great way to teach a little economics and finance,” I thought.

I heard a new voice behind me, but I didn’t turn around to look. An older man coming into the post office, like me, admired the little girl in her purple dress. He told her how pretty her dress was and asked if she was getting married later in the day. Not like me, after all.

The dad continued talking with his son about the gift cards. Maybe he didn’t hear what the man said, or maybe he thought it wasn’t worth responding.

If she had been my daughter, I would have talked with her about the different things she could do in a pretty dress that don’t involve getting married. She could go to work as the CEO of a big corporation in a pretty dress. She could code in a pretty dress. She could invent something in a pretty dress. She could teach, write, be a doctor, or be mayor of a major city in a pretty dress. You might not be able to fly to the moon or drive a race car wearing a ruffled, purple, taffeta dress—yet. But wearing a pretty dress doesn’t limit your options to getting married.

When I turned around and looked, I confirmed my guess. The speaker was an older, grandfather-aged man. I guess he was trying to compliment the little girl. At the same time, I wonder why he was perpetuating a cultural myth that limits women’s options. I’m sure he wasn’t doing this consciously. I hope he wasn’t. Regardless, I find the unthinking, unconscious nature of his teaching alarming.

We tell ourselves and each other stories all the time. These stories create our culture, reinforce it, even give it a reality and power beyond what is useful.

If women are going to have more opportunities and the ability to recognize and reach for those opportunities, we need to tell ourselves and our little girls new stories. And we—women and men, moms and dads, community elders of both genders—need to tell those stories in the face of elders perpetuating the old myths. Yes, even at the post office.



Marilyn R. Freedman is a freelance developmental editor and writer who practices Conservative Judaism and whose spiritual life is influenced by Buddhism. She holds a PhD in Experimental Psychology from Ohio University and a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo. She embraces a self-empowered approach to working with life challenges and most recently wrote I’m the Boss of Me: A Guide to Owning Your Career with author Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn. Marilyn blogs on social justice and spiritual issues on Medium @mrftr1.

Categories: Activism, Community, Feminism, Gender, General, Marriage, Patriarchy

Tags: , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. The older man probably wasn’t even thinking, just expressing a thought about “what women do” that was common when he was younger. You’re totally right–we need to retell these old stories, even at the post office. I hope the little girl was happy in her purple dress. Thanks for writing this little story.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brings back memories of my childhood when I was dressed in frilly dresses which were not very practical for playing baseball or building “forts”. It was lovely reaching adulthood and wearing what was practical for my choices.
    Thanks for the story, Marilyn.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think you’re right that the older man wasn’t thinking. I wish I knew a good way of getting people to think before they reinforce these stories. I think Disney did a good job with Moana, but it took them awhile to figure out (after Mulan) how to change their methods.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this insightful post. It is the accumulation of all the thousands of comments like this that little girls and young women hear over the years that make us limit our options in our own minds without even realizing it. Thank you for showing how these stories inside us get created and what we can do about them for ourselves and generations of women who come after us!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ugh. Isn’t there something creepy about asking a little girl if she is getting married? OK in his script he could have asked if she was dressed up to go to a wedding or if she was going to be a bridesmaid. But getting married at age 7 or so? No that is not nice!

    Liked by 1 person

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