The first time time I heard the term “bow bootcamp” my daughter was just a year old. A friend, who also had a one year old girl, mentioned that a mutual acquaintance at church had trained her own daughters and many other girls in her care to keep a bow in their hair. I was intrigued. My daughter had a mess of fine, wavy hair that was perpetually finding its way into her eyes and mouth despite my attempts to subdue it with a well-placed alligator clip. But my intrigue soon turned to unease as my friend relayed this older mom’s advice: “Whenever your daughter removes her bow, sternly and consistently smack her little hand and replace it. Consistency with this seemingly small thing will set you up for disciplining in the future and show her you mean business. It’s not about the bow.”
I swallowed my feminist outrage in that moment and managed to extricate myself from the conversation, but it has continued to vex me over the years.
A quick search on Pinterest revealed that this mom was not the originator of the “bow bootcamp” term (although few others advocated for the use of physical punishment as a training method). But since that conversation over three years ago, every time I see a Facebook picture of a little girl with a giant, outfit-coordinating bow atop her head, I wonder who insisted it complete the ensemble. Every time a friend finds out she is having her first girl, I note other well-meaning moms rejoicing with her over all the bows in her future. Every time I see a JoJo bow framing a tiny dancer’s face caked in entirely too much makeup, I cringe. And every time I hear the phrase, “the bigger the bow, the better the mom,” I just about lose it.
Because the other mom was right about one thing. It’s not about the bow.
In a culture that is already rife with troubling body image issues, drawing battle lines over something as trivial and arbitrary as a hair bow teaches my daughter that her looks are what give her value. It communicates that I don’t care about her preferences or opinions. And even worse, it teaches her that her appearance and willingness to please others with her appearance are more important than her comfort and choices. As a former teacher, I am a devout disciple of the idea that consistency, expectations and consequences are absolutely necessary for children. I set very clear limits for my daughter (and son) and have high expectations for behavior. But the popularity of giant hair bows has nothing to do with discipline and everything to do with presenting an appealing, attractive image to others.
In the name of full disclosure, and lest you think I have fanatically banned all hair accessories in my home, let me be the first to say that my daughter actually loves wearing bows in her hair. Most of the time, it is she who suggests adding one to an outfit, and, much like her recent idol, Fancy Nancy, she laments that her mother is content to walk through life dressed so plainly. I know that many little girls love their bows and bonding over accessories can be a joy for mothers and daughters alike.