When I first became a mother, by marriage, to my beautiful blonde adolescent step-daughters, I took my new position seriously. The girls, aged eight and nine, were at a critical period, I thought, where body image woes, wavering self esteem, and the over-reaching influence of peers were gathering just beyond our peak of sunny, carefree childhood and about to move in like storm clouds heavy with preteen angst and disdain.
I decided to take the offensive position. I tossed any women’s magazines with images of unreachable, photoshopped beauty. We chose which TV shows (and attached commercials) to watch more carefully. I made the sweeping declaration that there would be no more negative comments about the sad shape of our collective physiques (real or imagined) and if any one slipped, other family members got a free pass to pinch the offender as a gentle, slightly painful reminder to be kinder to ourselves.
Our time spent together as a family, for a few weeks in the summer and long breaks from school (Christmas, Spring break), we tried to make as active as possible; swimming, hiking, ice skating, walking the dog, wrestling… We never went shopping “recreationally”, we read books aloud together starring strong women, we listened to the least offensive music (mostly country), and had discussions about the sexualized media we did encounter.
It’s hard to say if our efforts at keeping our girls, *girls* for a little longer made a difference. Our daughters are nearing the end of their teens. One is a college student, the other graduating from high school in a few weeks. They have many interests, loads of talent, are involved in their community and are absolutely full of life. Whether our summers and school vacations together influenced any of the outcome will always be an unknown, and in the end, all we can do as parents is assemble the best arsenal against the consumer culture club.
We have two young daughters now. They are 3 and 1–at least a decade away from the preteen storm front I fretted over, well, a decade ago. Or are they? According to Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate my Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, I should already be suiting up for battle. The “gateway” to sexualized media images and the eventual associated risks of depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem? PRINCESSES! Or more specifically, Disney’s animated princess characters. Orenstein argues that the adaptation of the notion that one’s identity comes from how one looks starts slowly and subtly.
“Princesses are just a phase,” Orenstein writes, but they mark a girl’s “first foray into the mainstream culture…. And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants — or should want — to be the Fairest of Them All.”
Now, as a child of the 70′s “Girls Can Do Anything Boys Can Do” “Free to Be You and Me” culture, I already had plenty of finely cultivated disdain for wimpy, whiny, female characters well before reading about the danger they present to my toddlers’ future mental health. I figured steering clear of the movies I didn’t prefer would be easy. I assumed without knowing the story, without any familiarity with the characters, the media images and marketing wouldn’t affect my little girls. Or my boys. WRONG! Even without commercial TV (they only watch PBS), the overarching influence of peers (we homeschool), or the accumulated fast food meal “toys” or movie-tie-in “literature”, they still got the message. My three-year-old squeals with excitement when she sees anything that sickly bright pink ablaze with princess images. My six and five-year-old sons exclaim, “Yuck! That’s for GIRLS!”
I don’t believe the princesses or their stories are inherently wrong. There is great historical and literary value in knowing the tales–the original tales, though, not the watered-down, saccharine sweet Disney versions. I also enjoy the examination of the classic fairy tales, the parodies, the interpretations, the well written and/or illustrated children’s adaptations. So, I’ve begun sharing these with my children. I will consider the viewing of the Disney films at some point. They are part of the culture whether I like it or not. Presenting them as a contrast to compiled prior fairytale knowledge, though, will hopefully encourage critical thinking.
As we did with our older girls, we encourage activity over passivity. We limit exposure to sexualized images. We talk about virtue and choices and truth. Our toys are generally open-ended, gender-neutral, and shared. The children ride horses, ice skate, take karate, cheer for monster trucks and play “house” alike.
What we didn’t know about yet with our older daughters that we know about now is the power of attachment. With the framework of our parenting focusing on relationship and connection, and that supporting the activity choices and experiences we provide, will our kids be able to remain kids while the consumer-minded, gender-biased, hyper-sexualized culture whizzes by? Will it all be enough? As with everything, time will tell. In the meantime, we’ll be here building Lego, playing pretend, and reading Paperbag Princess.