January 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm , by Lauren Piro
Last week, I had the chance to chat with Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter (Harper), which went on sale Monday and is quickly becoming a must-read for mothers around the country. LHJ’s February issue contains an excerpt—about girls and body image—but the book is about so much more. In it, Orenstein takes on the extreme “girlie-girl” culture that pervades the lives of young girls today. I was eager to hear more from Orenstein. Could all the princesses, pink and pop stars inundating our daughters’ lives be hindering the development of their identities?
The title of your book suggests that you don’t think too highly of Cinderella. Just what is so bad about princesses?
What concerns me is that the emphasis on appearance and play-sexiness is getting younger and younger. In the last five years the percentage of elementary school girls who feel that their appearance is very important and more important than their schoolwork has gone up. Nearly 40 percent of 6-year-olds regularly wear lipstick and lip gloss and in the last two years the percentage of 8- to 12-year-olds wearing mascara and eyeliner has doubled. I find those to be troubling trends. We know that fixation on those things is unhealthy for girls. It puts them at risk for negative body image, eating disorders, depression and unhealthy choices in intimate relationships.
One of my favorite chapters in the book was about how every item sold to girls these days is pink and princess-y, and how marketing for these toys, games, makeup and more is aimed at ever-younger girls.
It’s true, and this princess culture is so huge that we’ve almost forgotten that it’s only ten years old. Fifteen years ago, there was the occasional movie but you didn’t have princesses on everything from hand sanitizer to diapers. When she was three, my daughter wanted paper cups with Cinderella on them only because they had Cinderella on them. Our daughters should be able to develop the broadest and healthiest possible definition of who they are, and pink and princess everything is not going to get us there. Why do we need a Scrabble set “for girls” that says FASHION on the box? I don’t care if “fashion” is a seven-letter word.
You’ve had some response from Disney recently in the Wall Street Journal.
Yes, they raise the point that playing princess is developmentally appropriate. That is true, because both boys and girls at that preschool age want and need to assert their gender really strongly and they’ll go to whatever the extreme images are in the culture to do that. That’s why girls suddenly snap into this princess thing. But that doesn’t mean you should overindulge this tendency because it’s hitting kids right a point in their development when their brains are most flexible. So there’s an opportunity actually to shift their thoughts to something broader that will last a lifetime. Defining girls so narrowly when they’re three is actually going to affect how they view femininity when they’re 13 and even 30.
I’m a chronic Facebooker and tweeter and I love it, but I also see how it turns your life into a performance for other people and how it shapes your behavior in a weird way.
Of course, kids have always been hypersensitive to what their peers say and change their behavior in response. But it’s one thing when someone comments as you’re walking down the hall in high school, and its another when you’re online in front of 622 “friends” who are voting on whether your identity is acceptable. The research is finding that for girls these social networking sites turn identity into a performance—a performance that’s about appearing sexy and hot, but not too hot. Online, every girl can be her own mini-Miley or mini-Selena. And the idea that this is empowering is a lie.
It seems that moms have this ongoing challenge to help their daughters balance femininity and feminism. How do you help your daughter bridge that gap?
Luckily she’s at an age now—she’s seven—where we can talk about all this and make games out of it. I’m very proud of her—she’s learning. She gets it. But when they’re little, you have to make the decisions for them. Sometimes that means saying “no.” We participate in the consumer culture for sure, but my daughter doesn’t watch TV with commercials other than sports or the Food Network, and I’ve planned other fun things for us to do instead of princess parties.
But just saying no won’t convince your daughter that you’re trying to give her broader choices. So you have to find options both of you feel good about. And that takes work. I hate to say that because I know parents are already totally overwhelmed. Sometimes I would love to just give it all a pass—to say, if the spa birthday party makes her happy, then fine. But I can’t do that.
Which isn’t to say that I’m not a total hypocrite at times. I make mistakes and have meltdowns in the toy department at Target. And my daughter has certainly played with princess toys at other people’s houses—I’m not going to call and say, “hide the princess stuff.”
Clearly, I’m not advocating that we lock our daughters in a tower. We just need to be their guides, know their world and keep an open dialogue with them.
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