At your library: How the princess image damages girls
special to the daily
When I was a little girl, I was often called a “tomboy.” My parents encouraged my boyish natures, buying me trucks, bikes, and a most treasured toy – an erector set – in which I built a motorized robot that I proudly drove down the street. The only doll I showed a mild interest in was Skipper – a spunkier version of Barbie – because she had freckles and wore pants. In 1990, I gave birth to a boy and had no problem knowing how to raise him. Then I had a girl. The first words out of my mouth were, “No daughter of mine will ever play with dolls.” Try as I might to shelter her from girlish stereotypes and encourage non-gender-specific toys and activities, it seemed that the forces of the world were against me. In the second grade she proudly pulled out of her backpack an invitation she had received from her teacher. In gold letters it announced the forthcoming Cinderella Ball. My mortification turned to fury as I learned that other mothers were spending upwards of $300 on princess dresses for their daughters. The Cinderella Ball started the ball rolling for our move from Denver to Summit County as we searched for a healthier environment wherein to raise our children.
My daughter is 19 now, but recently I came across a book entitled “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” that I wish had been written 20 years ago. As I read it, I had to marvel that the authoress, Peggy Orenstein, had the same dilemmas raising her daughter as I did. When Orenstein first brings her daughter home, she also repeats the sentence, “My daughter will never…” a million times.
“I was committed to raising her without a sense of limits: I wanted her to believe neither that some behavior or toy or profession was not for her sex nor that it was mandatory for her sex. I wanted her to be able to pick and choose the pieces of her identity freely – that was supposed to be the prerogative, the privilege, of her generation.”
In the beginning Orenstein succeeds, until a little boy in preschool tells her daughter that wearing an engineer’s striped outfit while playing with Thomas the Tank Engine is not something little girls do.
Current culture has made the battle against gender-specific play even more difficult for parents of little girls. Orenstein exposes the bloodthirsty marketing vampires of Disney and the phenomena of Disney princess paraphernalia. The princesses are Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel and Belle. Mulan and Pocahontas do not join the ranks of popular princesses. (You can guess why.) These megastars are a marketing dream, with products bringing in a profit of $4 billion in 2009 alone. So what is wrong with dress-up or playing princess we ask? Orenstein asks the question herself and provides evidence of the damaging effect it can have on our daughters. Princess-play “presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price. It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel as well as who you are.” The American Psychological Association discovered that emphasizing only beauty and play-sexiness increases girls’ susceptibility to eating disorders, depression, hatred of body image and dangerous sexual behaviors.
Digging deeper, Orenstein discovers that Disney isn’t all to blame. Other companies are banking on “KGOY – Kids Getting Older Younger.” When 6-year-olds find Barbie babyish, there is a sexy Bratz doll. Big sister has a Bratz doll, and little sis wants one too; so Ty designed Girlz dolls – a stuffed version of big sister’s doll. Orenstein’s daughter begged her for one. “I took in the Angelina Jolie lips, the heavily shadowed eyelids, the microscopic skirts, the huge hair – and I kept right on walking.” When her daughter asks why she can’t have one, Orenstein wants to yell, “BECAUSE THEY’RE SLUTTY, THAT’S WHY!” Her point is, why should a parent have to be put in a situation of having to explain inappropriateness to a 4-year-old?
In the chapter “Pinked” Orenstein describes “The Pink Factor.” Products for girls are typically pink; so if a manufacturer makes a baseball bat pink, parents will buy one for their daughter. If girls are taught that only pink things are for them, is that not limiting?
Ever since the JonBenet Ramsey murder, beauty pageants for children have drawn a bad rap. In the chapter “Sparkle, Sweetie” Orenstein delves deeper into the underbelly of this seemingly demented display of grown-up glamour. While observing the filming of the show “Toddlers and Tiaras,” Orenstein watches a 5-year-old contestant, with a French manicure and spray tan, prepare with the help of a makeup artist who slips her into a $3,000 cupcake dress and pops in her “flippers” (false teeth for toddlers).
“Cinderella Ate My Daughter” is a book about how media and culture are teaching young girls that appearance is everything. That is why the chapter “It’s All About The Cape” broke my heart. Orenstein’s daughter’s best friend has a weight problem. She was a fat baby, a fat toddler, and is now a fat little girl; so it is probably her destiny to be a fat teenager. Her mom is preparing herself for the forthcoming battles she and her daughter are apt to face. Orenstein points out that in our culture, weight and looks matter a lot. Whether a girl is thin enough, pretty enough, or hot enough, her appearance has become the single most important factor in her self-esteem. “Even as I wish it were otherwise – even as I fight for it to be otherwise – I, too, know in my heart that how girls look does make a difference in how the world perceives them, and the more progress they make in other areas, the more that seems to be true.”
I wish Orenstein had been around to offer moral support when I was raising my daughter. That is why I feel it is important to bring this book to the attention of today’s parents, who can find strength through the sound advice that she offers in the battle against current “girlie-girl cultures.”
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