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Tips for raising well-rounded girls in a princess dominated world

BY Peggy Orenstein  May 6, 2014 at 3:15 PM EDT
Illustration by Getty Images

The princess culture can be overwhelming to parents who worry about raising their girls to become strong and confident women. Illustrations by Getty Images

Tutus, tiaras, princess dresses and storybooks selling “happily ever after” line the children’s aisles at every major retailer. The “Frozen” soundtrack from the latest Disney fantasy starring two sister princesses, has topped the charts for nearly three months. The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Belle and Snow White are bound to come calling at your door on Halloween. The princess culture — fueled by Disney’s multi-billion dollar stake in it — has a tight grip on mainstream girlhood and it’s not going away.

parenting now logoParents may wonder how all of this will affect their daughters as they navigate the tricky path through to their teens and even beyond. Will they become fixated on looking perfect? Will they have unrealistic expectations for what it means to be a woman? Or is it all just a phase, leaving little long-term effects on their child’s self-image?

Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” has written for several years about these questions and navigating the princess culture. She will be on the PBS NewsHour Tuesday and she’s shared some tips for parents of both girlie-girls and non-girlie-girls on how to approach the princess culture while raising healthy, confident daughters. — NewsHour reporter/producer Sarah McHaney


Cinderella Ate My DaughterPeggy Orenstein: You will never convince your daughter that you are giving her more choices about how to be a girl by saying no to everything. So while it’s important to limit your daughter’s exposure to the princess culture, you must also find things you can say yes to: books, toys, clothing, activities that will broaden her idea of what it means to be female — and, ideally, unhook it from an obsession with appearance. Obviously, science, music, art and being outside are important. But to directly disrupt the princess industrial complex try some of the ideas below:

  • Take a break from “Frozen” and “Snow White” by watching the early films of Hiyao Miyazaki: “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” I guarantee they will become favorites. You might also try his films, “Nausica,” “Castle in the Sky,” “Ponyo” and “The Secret World of Arietty.”
  • Best Alternative-Princess Disney films: Mulan and Mulan 2, which contains the subversive, catchy, princess-questioning song, “I Want to Be Like Other Girls.” Shrek and its sequels also offer a fairyland world with a distinctly atypical princess.
  • illustration by Getty Images

    Don’t take away the pink tutus and tiaras just yet. There’s nothing wrong with loving the rosy color, but introduce other hues to your daughter’s wardrobe.

    Sick of pink clothing? Have a dye-in with your daughter: Get a package of cheap, white t-shirts and customize them. Dye them a rainbow of colors. Get a fake batik look using Elmer’s glue (look it up online). Extra points for tie-dye.
  • Check out the Laura Ingalls Wilder picture book collection and try some girl pioneer crafts: Melting and pouring soap is easy, not too messy and a big hit.
  • Attitude is all: Express a lot of enthusiasm about the choices for your daughter that excite you.
  • Early media literacy: Without condemning or belittling your daughter’s interests, start asking questions. “I wonder why they never show Cinderella when she’s in her rags or playing with her animals?” Point out that ads are trying to sell something. Children don’t know that. Notice that, at grocery stores, they have the Little Mermaid Dixie cups at eye level to a child in a grocery cart. I wonder why?
  • Have a pow-wow at the preschool: Talk as a community about broadening girls’ interests. Again, this is not about putting down the princess-obsessed. It’s about offering more. Sponsor a parent-education evening about princess culture and media literacy.
  • At the beginning of the school year, suggest that your preschool head send around a friendly list of birthday party ideas that are fun and inclusive of both boys and girls.
  • Got princess-obsessed grandparents? They just want their granddaughter to feel she’s special — and that they are, too. Try telling them in advance what she’d really like (hint: not more princess gear). Maybe a science kit? Or better yet, suggest special time with Grandma and Grandpa — at the zoo, at the beach, or an overnight.
  • Physical activity and girliness: Girls want to do ballet in preschool. And that can be fine. But most of them won’t want to do it anymore once it gets “real.” So in addition to (or instead of) ballet, how about yoga? Try the books “Babar’s Yoga for Elephants” and “Yoga Bear.” There are also some good DVDs for 3-6 year olds: “YogaKids,” “YogaKids ABCs” and “Rodney Yee’s Family Yoga.” Martial arts, especially for Mulan fans, is another option.
  • Praise your daughter for what she does and who she is, not just how she looks. That doesn’t mean you can never tell her she’s pretty. Just balance it out; be sure she knows that’s not the main thing you value.
  • Surround your girl with a wide array of images of women that expand her idea of beauty and strength. We know beauty comes in all shapes and sizes: be sure she does too.
  • Ladies, now’s the time to deal with your own body/beauty issues: Don’t run your own appearance down in front of your daughter (or, hey, how about at all?). If your thighs feel big today? Keep it to yourself. Your girl is watching you.
  • And guys, no commenting on women’s appearance or weight either! The men in a girl’s life have a special role in reinforcing that a woman’s value is in who they are, not in how they look.

Peggy Orenstein is the author of The New York Times best-sellers “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture” and “Waiting for Daisy.” She is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Her commentaries have also appeared on NPR.

Watch Gwen Ifill discuss the the influence of modern marketers and media on girls with author Peggy Orenstein and Angelica Perez of the Ella Institute.