Sexism and birthday parties

I had a most interesting experience today trying to book a party for my soon-to-be-four-year-old girl. It could have been simple. I knew where she wanted to have the party, who she wanted to invite, and when we wanted to book it; with lots of flexibility for working with whatever dates happened to be available. Her birthday is Jan. 17, so we were planning it with some notice. She wanted to have a party at a local day spa and store for kids. They have many amazing, inexpensive spa services, such as sparkly tattoos, manicures, make-your-own lip gloss, haircuts and styling, and so much more. To make it even better, they are more than happy to provide all services, including manicures and temporary tattoos, for boys. Their birthday parties are expensive, but, in my opinion, very much worth the cost. The experience the kids have during the themed parties is amazing, and they are sent home with all kinds of neat, party-themed presents. So, with all this in mind, it seemed to me that booking my daughter’s fourth birthday party there would be simple; a piece of birthday cake.

First obstacle: boys. My daughter is a rough-and-tumble girl. When I asked her dance teacher what dance class would be most suitable for my daughter, she recommended a hip hop class with mostly male students: “It has a very boyish energy, and so does she, so it will be perfect for her!” Most of her friends are boys. She also has an older brother who is seven years old, and two stepbrothers ages six and 12. When I showed the woman at the front desk my daughter’s party-invite list, she refused to book the party. She called her boss. Her boss also said no. They explained that they had a maximum number of 3 boys allowed to join a party. I explained that my daughter really wanted her party at the day spa, but excluding her brothers and best friends wouldn’t be okay with either of us. I was directed to call the owner myself, which I did as I sat at in the spa/store.

Next obstacle: Glow-in-the-dark vs. Princess party. My daughter wanted a glow-in-the-dark party. It involves glow-in-the-dark face paint, nail polish, and games. I was informed that this would not be okay for a four-year-old girl, because she would be too scared. The room, I was informed, would be very dark. I let them know that playing with glow-in-the-dark-toys in the dark was an activity my daughter already engaged in, and that she would not be scared. I did not manage to convince them. The answer was a firm no.

All of the women I spoke to at the business told me that most parties were designed for girls, and that they had no parties designed for boys. I could see that they had many services for boys, so a lack of birthday parties was unexpected. I was told that there were no boys’ birthday parties and that there was a maximum of three boys allowed at a party because “boys like to run and play more than girls” and “would take over the party.” I told her that my daughter’s male friends and brothers would be happy to have their nails and faces painted and engage in all of the birthday party activities.

The woman behind the front desk recommended a “Princess party.” I said that while the boys do love having their nails painted, I would feel strange inviting them to something called a “Princess party,” which is overtly feminine. They reminded me that their parties are designed for girls. I responded with, “Yes, but the ‘Rock star party’ and ‘Glow-in-the-dark party’ are not overtly feminine. They include some stereotypically feminine activities, ones that I know the boys will enjoy, but the names of the parties are not as overt as ‘Princess party.’”

There are a lot of assumptions here about what girls enjoy and how that differs from what boys enjoy. Seeing these assumptions made by an amazing, fairly gender-progressive day spa for kids really took me by surprise. I think it’s time that we re-examine what it means to celebrate a child’s birthday and what role the child’s gender plays in the type of celebration that is organized to honour that milestone.

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