Even though women continue to advance in American society, many little girls still get stuck in a world of fairytale princesses and frilly pink dresses. That does not sit well with journalist Peggy Orenstein, who mused about her young daughter’s obsession with Disney princesses and predilection for the color pink in a New York Times Magazine essay.
She reflects on the overwhelming emphasis on this stereotyped ideal for girls in a new book, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." Orenstein is at war with what she describes as our hyper-feminized girlie-girl consumer culture.
"What is marketed to girls is this idea of pink and pretty. It fuses the idea of appearance with innocence, and then presents the interest in appearance as being evidence of their innocence," she says. "But what’s happening is that girls are emphasizing the way they look more and more and more. So, we’re talking about makeup and provocative dresses and all of that kind of thing."
Many parents don’t see anything wrong with their little girls playing Cinderella, putting on make-up and dressing up as cute princesses, but Orenstein wonders about the long-term impact of encouraging that behavior.
"I think parenting is such a present tense thing. When your daughter is 3 months old, you can't imagine having a 6-year old. And when you have a 6-year old, you don’t want to imagine having a 13-year old. You don’t tend to step back and see the context and the arc. I wanted to provide that for parents so they can make their choices more intentionally and really think about whether indulging them in this when they’re three was going to be healthy for them when they were 13."
After speaking to marketers, social historians, parents, psychologists and doctors, Orenstein found there was cause to worry.
"The American Psychological Association put out a report a couple of years ago that said that an early over-emphasis on appearance and play-sexiness can create a vulnerability in girls to the sorts of issues that we as parents worry about such as negative body image, eating disorders, depression and poor sexual choices," she says. "The American Academy of Pediatrics just put out a warning to its member physicians to be more on guard for signs of eating disorders in children under 12 because they’ve been on the rise and under diagnosed."
When girls define themselves by how they appear to others rather than by how they feel internally, she says, it sets them up for disappointment.
"We see 15-year-old girls looking in the mirror with increasing doubt, with increasing anxiety and saying, ‘Am I the fairest of them all?’ and thinking ‘No, I am not, but maybe I will be if I buy this product or that product,’ and never feeling satisfied with who they are."
Orenstein says parents have the power to raise healthy, self-confident daughters. They can provide positive alternatives that counter the influence of the media to buy certain products and look a certain way.
"It’s not good enough just to say 'no' to the things coming at you. You have to find other things that are out there that you can say 'yes' to, that are fun and joyfully connect your daughter to being a girl, that can broaden and enhance and create options for your daughter and how she defines herself as a girl."
Orenstein includes a list of resources she says parents can say 'yes' to on her website. They include children’s books, like "Pippi Longstocking," in which girls stand up for themselves, movies with strong young heroines like Disney's "Mulan," and suggestions for activities like yoga to help girls develop a positive body image.
With all the resources available today, Orenstein says, parents can raise confident young women in spite of the seductive power of the girlie girl culture.