Growing up, my father was my everything.
I was a very hyper-feminine little girl with a deeply rooted princess obsession, even by today’s standards. While my peers grew out of their princess phases within a year or two, eventually adapting to sports, outdoor play, and video games, mine remains the narrative under which I recall my entire childhood. My memories of being little are of forever lingering under dining room tables or desks, perpetually with dolls in my hands and a bow in my hair. I took to outdoor activities gingerly, but only in the traditionally female context of jump rope. Sports, or activities that involved coordination over fields or dirty terrains repelled me, and I often sought refuge in books that I would read in the shade, the frills of my little socks catching on the pages.
One of my earliest memories with my father was when I was four years old and we were visiting my grandparents. I had seen some nail polish in a drug store earlier that day and, as he normally did with most things I asked, he bought it for me. I remember my little fingers splayed out on the dinning room table while he painted them to the best of his ability, my grandmother’s scorn audible in the next room.
When I started going to preschool, I remember the teachers sending me home with notes that said they were fearful for me on the playground. I arrived always in dresses with shiny dresses shoes, mostly mary-janes. The grownups pointed out that I might injure myself while running, as all the other children always wore tennis shoes of some kind. Looking back, the subtext of such a note was that as the parent, he should have known better than to drop his daughter off in such attire.
When my father suggested perhaps trying different kinds of shoes for school, I remember resisting on the grounds that I didn’t want to wear “boy shoes.” He didn’t push me, and I remember him trying to reason with me on a compromise. Through various exchanges with the school, it was decided that I would bring “boy shoes” for play-time, which then I could change out of when we went back indoors. I recall the other teachers and mothers finding it somewhat ridiculous that a little girl would bring two pairs of shoes to pre-K, looking to my father sometimes as the duped Daddy functioning at his bratty daughter’s whim.
My princess tendencies continued to manifest in other areas of dress too: my hatred of pants. In truth, I didn’t start wearing them until I was roughly ten years old. My reasoning was that I was princess, and princesses didn’t wear pants to the best of my knowledge. My father, forever the patient man, actually endured this — passing the note along to relatives and family friends that should they go the clothes route when it came to gifts, skirts and dresses would only be received well.
By the time I was 11 years old, I only carried a purse to school. When I started having regimented P.E., my early days of wearing dress shoes on the playground played out once again as I would not participate in sports. Changing into the required uniform with the same reluctance as those tennis shoes, I remember wedging my bony seventh grade self under bleachers with the books that I would hide under my T-shirt. Daddy surveyed my report card just like the other parents, but his gaze never halted over my poor physical education grades. On rides to school, my hand to the radio dial, I remember him stressing how much it didn’t matter. My love of books, the fact that I enjoyed reading, that I wanted to be a writer –these things mattered.
But by the time I was thirteen though, I remember my father taking a slightly different approach to conveying the importance of certain subjects to me.
He picked me up from a bookstore once and I had purchased a copy of BITCH magazine. I was drawn to so many different magazines at that age — Seventeen looked just like Girl’s Life which looked just like BUST. They were all the same colorful covers with features on music or clothes or films. Thumbing through the pages at stop lights, he watched a subscription card fall from the inside and land somewhere between us. By the time I found it, he suggested not throwing it away as I had originally intended.
“This,” he nodded as he handed me back the issue. “This is something that you should be reading regularly.”
About a year later, he came to collect me from a different bookstore where I had been loitering with friends. Seated in front of the Women’s Section, I was putting away a copy of The Feminine Mystique when he found me. The title read familiar to me and I remember pulling the white copy from the shelf and reading through it as only a 14-year-old bookworm would. I began to fold up the book and put it back when he caught sight of the cover. He told me that Betty Friedan was an important woman and that he would buy it for me.
After that, he started strategically leaving some other books around the house that he knew would capture my interest. The three box set he purchased of The Bell Jar, Diary Of A Mad Housewife, and Fear Of Flying stands out to me the most. Positioned on the space where the sofa met the window, the bx set must have sat there for days before I asked him where they came from. I remember his face when he said that he thought I would like them and perhaps I should give them a read — nothing more.
I think it was in Algebra class where Erica Jong gripped me the hardest. I was only in the ninth grade, but I recall being hit with the sudden and enveloping realization that women did live under different systematic differences in which sex, marriage, career, and the sheer nature of living were imposed and expressed differently than they were for men. I was already somewhat aware of it a couple of years earlier, as everything myself and my friends did had suddenly taken on the adjective of “slutty” — despite the presence of boys who engaged in the same behavior. But the fiction that my father gave me of women’s voices, the materials that he purchaseed and encouraged me to read at a young age, gave me the vocabulary to quantify my experiences and tie them to a larger narrative about women quite early on.
I was 14 the first time I used the word “sexist” to describe an I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy was again portrayed as the idiot housewife — incapable of balancing a check book or appropriately doing laundry. He had been right there at the dinner table with me, nodding at my observations and confirming that that was indeed so. They would never portray the husband that way.
Even though my father was always fairly indulgent with me, I look back on his approach of parenting with great esteem. From a feminist perspective, it would have been so easy to deny me the nail polish and take the princess dresses away, encouraging gender neutral toys or forcing me to wear “boy shoes” no matter how much I protested. But he never found my penchant for princess culture threatening to my capabilities to eventually embrace feminist concepts. His acceptance and even celebration of my princess-hood has given me a very powerful personal intersection of hyper-femininity and feminist principals that continues to resonate with me as an adult.
In the ways that many daughters are, I’ll always be my father’s princess. But my father’s early nudges and endorsements of feminism give my crown a different fit.