The defining moment was when my 4-year-old daughter announced at dinner that she wasn't playing with the girls at preschool because "it is more important to have a boyfriend." Up until then I had been ignoring my nagging, "bad" gut-feeling about what she seemed drawn to: lacy clothes, make up, and high heels. She loves the classic princess stories: Cinderella, Snow White, and all the other damsels in distress, and she wore their costumes most days.
I argued with myself, arguments such as these: I want her to be who she is; I don't want to send the message that there is something wrong with being feminine or female; girls, including myself, have been growing up with these princess characters and Barbies for decades and we "turned out OK."
Besides, what is wrong with loving princesses?
As I have spent time contemplating all of this I now realize that despite the gains that women have made in their freedoms, they are being increasingly held hostage by the messages in the media. Girls today grow up with media portrayals of pencil-thin, scantily clad girls and women, spending massive amounts of money on makeup, clothes and endless diet fads to make themselves more attractive. I would like to think that as a psychologist little can shock me. Then I turned on MTV and watched thousands of preteen girls screaming and imitating a provocatively dressed Britney Spears gyrating with her male dance partner on stage. I wasn't just shocked, I was appalled.
If you think this isn't affecting many girls in our culture, just go to a public park. There you will see young girls wearing mini skirts, tight shirts revealing their belly buttons, heavy makeup and thong underwear peeking out of their tight jeans. They are responding to what our culture is telling them is important: They should be "attractive" and sexual.
So, what is wrong with loving princesses? For starters, princesses are impossibly thin, impossibly beautiful, and remain sweet and passive even in the face of mistreatment and abuse. Their lives don't really begin until a man has saved them. Typically, the man falls in love with them simply for their beauty.
Our daughters are exposed to the "princess culture" beginning in their infancy and toddlerhood. They move onto videos, TV programs, movies, music and videos where young girls are sexualized and objectified. Imagine how their developing sense of identity and self-esteem is impacted.
Boys are affected as well. Research finds that the more boys and men are exposed to women portrayed as sexual objects the less satisfied they are in their relationships with women. This occurs because they cannot help but be disappointed when the "real" girl or woman they are with doesn't look and act as attractive and sexual as what they have seen in the media. And, "real" girls want to emotionally connect and be treated with respect unlike the "one-dimensional" females they have been led to believe exist.
I think of myself as a feminist, but as a mother I can now see that I slipped. I believed that the advances in equality women have made were here to stay. I believed that our family's examples would override these negative messages.
I didn't realize what I am up against. Disney Consumer Products has gone from selling $300 million dollars of "princess" products in 2001 to $3 billion dollars last year. There are now more than 25,000 princess products on the market. Mattel and hundreds of other companies are following their lead and the "girlie girl" market is skyrocketing.
The Nielsen Media Research (1998) estimates that most children are exposed to various kinds of media approximately six-and-a-half hours a day. They estimate that mainstream media portrays girls and women as sexual objects in 23 to 57 percent of their roles.
As parents we need to become more actively involved in protecting our children from these destructive images. Choose toys and media products that focus on personalities of normal-weight female characters. One of the most effective interventions is to educate children about how the media portrays characters in these ways to make money. Get girls and boys involved in co-ed sports, hobbies, organizations, and religion/spirituality where they interact as equals. "Girl empowerment groups" are a growing national trend where girls build a community that values them for their achievements and personality. Most importantly, let your children know that you love them for who they are.
After doing the research for this article I wanted to start a bonfire in my backyard and individually burn every princess outfit and Barbie we have. Knowing my daughter, I knew this would just make her want them more. Instead, I put them in a box in the back of her play closet and brought out more art supplies and Legos. That was three months ago. She has asked where they are once.
• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.
Fresh Ideas aims to start conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues.