"calm down baby girl": why are we still infantilising women?
By Niamh Quinn / 24 August 2020
Illustration by Juliet Welshman
Disclaimer: This article details a predominantly cis female experience which is in itself (ironically) privileged. Therefore, a conscious decision has been made to use the term “women” as opposed to “womxn”, to avoid making an intersectional statement without engaging with the entire narrative of female experiences that far outweigh this relatively placid level of oppressive infantilisation experienced by a sector of women.
Whether we’re being told to smile by strangers whilst walking down the street, or facing similar experiences in the workplace like Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan who was told to watch her tone by Matt Hancock in Parliament, the infantilisation of women is relentless and exists in all facets of society.
From our ambitions and personalities to our appearance and how we dress, women are deemed most palatable when we are, in the words of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, “pretty little fools”.
Why oh why does there exist this ghastly standard that demands hairless, baby-smooth, doe-eyed, pert-bottomed, rosy-cheeked, school-girl innocence from every woman who wants to be deemed worthy from the ages of 16 to 35? (Because, beyond that, everyone knows that the media categorises you into one of three parties: MILF, Dame Judy Dench, or invisible.) While women’s scalps itch and burn from the bleach lathered onto their skulls in a last-ditch attempt to squeeze youth from a bottle, men are declared silver foxes once their greys creep in, glorified for possessing dad bods and rugged hairy chests, faces and legs.
Thus, as a socially-enforced construct, infantilisation victimises almost exclusively women. The meaning of infantilisation, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary is as follows:
“to treat someone as if that person were a child, with the result that they start behaving like one”
Seeing this written in black and white consolidated a feeling that had always niggled at the back of my mind during debates on the topic…why do I condemn this societal expectation whilst internalising and even contributing to it? Well, it turns out that as per the official definition, that is the natural result. My commitment to waxing, tanning and blusher and the way the Fleabag quote “I sometimes worry that I wouldn't be such a feminist if I had bigger tits” struck a chord with me is natural. I’m a guilty feminist but that is normal. Phew.
The infantilising demands of society and the media trap women in a relentless cycle of trying to fulfil expectations without appearing to try. At some point we’ve all contributed in a way we’re not proud of, whether that’s by giggling at a man’s joke when we don’t find it funny, “playing dumb” to appease the fragile ego of teenage boys at school, or just applying white eyeliner on the waterline to create big baby eyes/blusher on the tip of the nose to emulate sniffling youthfulness.
In fact, there is method in the madness of the “playing dumb” phase. A study carried out by Dr Maria do Mar Pereira from the University of Warwick’s Department of Sociology concluded that due to societal pressures to live up to traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity, fourteen year old boys feel anxious to be dominant over girls their own age. For this reason, she argues that “girls feel they must downplay their own abilities, pretending to be less intelligent than they actually are, not speaking out against harassment, and withdrawing from hobbies, sports and activities that might seem ‘unfeminine’.” This explanation of the “playing dumb” phase that many girls went through at school shows just how deep-rooted and complex the foundations of the infantilisation of women are.
We buy into these hacks and in turn shoot ourselves in the foot. In an attempt to maintain attractive youthfulness while the men around us are permitted to age naturally, we fertilise the ground that allows for the process of infantilisation to be normalised. It’s a vicious circle but the alternative is darker territory: invisibility, and in further cases this infantilisation contributes to pedophile culture.
The conflation of feminine beauty with youthfulness creates a double standard that requires women to be both natural and sexy, a challenge that is not experienced by men in the same way. An essay called The Double Standard of Aging by Susan Sontag, 1978, describes this theme incredibly aptly:
“The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man… A man does not grieve when he loses the smooth, unlined, hairless skin of a boy. For he has only exchanged one form of attractiveness for another: the darker skin of a man’s face, roughened by daily shaving, showing the marks of emotion and the normal lines of age.
There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat. No wonder that no boy minds becoming a man, while even the passage from girlhood to early womanhood is experienced by many women as their downfall, for all women are trained to continue wanting to look like girls.”
The sexualisation of young girls and the infantilisation of older women exist as simultaneous realities that must be considered as two sides of the same coin. However, this reality goes further for black women who suffer a struggle that is unique, dominated by a narrative that casts them out as the de-sexualised “Mammy” character or hypersexualises them as the “Jezebel”. Here, their identities are similarly reduced to objects of the male gaze, but in a way that is more threatening and dangerous than it is for white women. This dichotomy was condensed by feminist scholar Ann Stoler in 1989, who argued that ‘‘who could bed and who could wed’’ was incremental to the foundations of the colony:
“The social creation of the marriageable (White) woman is based in large part on the social creation of the animalistic, morally lax, dirty, diseased, poor woman of colour. Both constructions require the colonisation of women’s bodies and sexuality – for White and Black women – albeit in different ways”
A report written as part of the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality unpacked the way that this social creation continues to apply to young black girls today. The research revealed that “black girls are not getting the benefits of being viewed as innocent.” In this way, black girls and women are confronted by the cruel irony of an overlapping infantilisation and adultification bias. While the infantilisation of white women is a default setting, black women first have to earn the right to be infantilised. In one of the focus groups for the report a black woman commented, “we’re told to be smaller, quieter, lighter, prettier.”
Meanwhile, Ariana Grande is the ‘poster girl’ for schoolgirl aesthetics, from her bouncy ponytail to her oversized jumpers and affinity with lollipops. She epitomises the sexy/cute trope and reaps success in kitten ears, echoing the tropes of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” era. However, the sinister undercurrent of media-contrived infantile femininity lies in the reality of Britney’s life and the #FreeBritney movement.
Furthermore, despite using Western popular culture examples, the idea that feminine beauty is intrinsically linked to our youthfulness is a universally-acknowledged truth. This can be observed in everything from cosplay, child sex robots, the porn industry and the sexualisation of “barely legal” teens, Disney Princesses (whose waist to hip ratio triggered Toe Aung to write a study titled: Mirror, mirror on the wall: Whose figure is the fairest of them all?) to foot binding traditions in China.
As a society why don’t we just stop forcing women to be girls and stop forcing girls to be women? This minuscule box into which we are being forced to contort our bodies, aspirations and personalities in order to peacefully exist, is exhausting. We’re tired of feeling pressured to fulfil expectations and guilty when we deliver.
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