Family, Gender Identity, Gender Studies, Parenting

Raising Strong Girls in a Princess Obsessed World { Guest Post }

{ This guest post was written by a friend and fellow Star Wars loving mom, Miquela. }

Four years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful little girl. My husband and I had decided we did not want to know the sex of the baby beforehand. We enjoyed thinking about our little baby without the use of gender pronouns, with no ability to have preconceptions based on gender, and making everyone’s life difficult by having to buy gender-neutral clothing.

It took me a few days following her birth to process the fact that I now had a little girl. Even though I didn’t want that fact to change anything about my parenting, I knew it would, in both conscious and unconscious ways. I read everything I could about raising a strong, confident girl, and anything I could do to set her up for success in a world that still does not treat women equally. I refused to dress her in any pink or frills and she was constantly confused for a boy, which didn’t bother me, but seemed to make other people feel very bad for not correctly identifying her. I made sure she had tools and trucks to play with, toys that focused on building and creating. I made sure she watched hockey with us and played soccer in the summer. I made sure to build IKEA furniture in front of her and constantly pointed out that daddy was doing the dishes and the vacuuming.

One day, when she was about 18 months old, a pair of pink pants made their way into her drawer, and that was the end of it. She was obsessed. It took a week of fights in the morning to make her to realize she could not wear those pink pants every day, and to this day, three years later, she still sometimes refuses to get dressed because all her pink clothes are dirty.

And little by little, because I can’t keep her sheltered from the world, she has learned about Disney princesses and asks about them. All. The. Time.

In recent months, I have really had to confront my own thoughts and emotions regarding femininity, princess culture, and gender equality. Through the lens of the Baha’i Faith, I am going to attempt to make sense of what my problem is, what I have made my peace with, and how I intend to move forward.

Why does princess culture bother me so much?

An excessive focus on appearance

Princess culture is fundamentally about appearance: the dress, the shoes, the crown, the jewels, the makeup, the hair. This focus on appearance is not unique to princess culture. From birth, little girls are bombarded with comments about their physical appearance. “Oh you’re so cute!” “My goodness, isn’t that a pretty dress!” “You’re so beautiful!”

It’s not even unique to our modern era. From the dawn of civilization, humans have always given thought and time to their appearance, crafting makeup from ground-up gems and extracts of vegetables, and weaving gold into beautiful clothing. What has changed in our modern era is how aggressively the need to improve or change our appearance is marketed, and how motivated corporations are to make a profit. When we teach girls from a young age to fixate on their appearance, we are setting them up for a lifetime of, at best, a great deal of time spent on their appearance, and, at worst, self-esteem and mental health issues.

A recent study showed that a majority of women spend an average of an hour a day on their appearance. I can’t help but think of all the other things that time could be spent doing. For example, Abdu’l-Baha shares that: “Woman must especially devote her energies and abilities toward the industrial and agricultural sciences, seeking to assist mankind in that which is most needful. By this means she will demonstrate capability and ensure recognition of equality in the social and economic equation….”

Passivity

What does it mean, to be a princess? You are either born a princess or you become one through marriage. It is is not a goal you can work towards, unless you are fixated on finding a prince (more on that below). Boys do not aspire to be princes nor are they often called princes. Why not? Because it carries with it a connotation of being spoiled. Why is this unacceptable for boys but commonplace girls? It implies that it is acceptable to spoil and coddle a girl but that boys are expected to work towards something, to persevere, to achieve. A culture in which a princess is the model for young girls and what they aspire to be is not a culture in which women can attain their true destiny. I want my daughter to follow, instead, this: “Therefore, strive to show in the human world that women are most capable and efficient, that their hearts are more tender and susceptible than the hearts of men, that they are more philanthropic and responsive toward the needy and suffering, that they are inflexibly opposed to war and are lovers of peace. Strive that the ideal of international peace may become realized through the efforts of womankind, for man is more inclined to war than woman, and a real evidence of woman’s superiority will be her service and efficiency in the establishment of universal peace.”

Find your prince!

Thankfully, this aspect of princess culture has not entered my daughter’s world yet, but it will eventually. It is one of the reasons she will not watch any old Disney movies until she is old enough to engage in meaningful conversation about them. Disney has made large strides in this area (think Brave and Frozen) but it wasn’t until 2016, when Moana was released, that there was finally a movie about a girl, the heroine of the story, with zero love interest whatsoever. Prior to that, Disney princess movies either made the love interest the entire focus of the story (think Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid) or the story simply ends when the princess has found her prince (think Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Aladdin, etc…). When I read that this is what Abdu’l-Baha has said about women and their role, doesn’t it imply that we should be providing our daughters with greater storylines than simply “find a prince”?

“The woman is indeed of the greater importance to the race. She has the greater burden and the greater work. Look at the vegetable and the animal worlds. The palm which carries the fruit is the tree most prized by the date grower. The Arab knows that for a long journey the mare has the longest wind. For her greater strength and fierceness, the lioness is more feared by the hunter than the lion. The woman has greater moral courage than the man; she has also special gifts which enable her to govern in moments of danger and crisis….”

Equality

In the end, this is what it all comes down to: “And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is the equality of women and men. The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be.”

Princess culture emphasizes looks over brains, being over doing, and the pursuit of love above all else. And we cannot achieve equality if these are the messages we are inculcating in girls.

I don’t believe the permeation of attitudes related to princess culture has been a conscious one. In no way am I saying that people are consciously treating girls unequally or intentionally setting them up for a life focused on appearance and a happy ending. These are very subconscious attitudes and unconscious actions, affected in most part by the media we consume and to which we are exposed without even realizing.

Recently I raised this issue at my daughter’s daycare. I had noticed that every single day that I dropped her off, someone at the centre commented on her outfit or her hair. My daughter adores her daycare, but getting her dressed was becoming a struggle and resulted in complaints about her clothes not being pretty enough, or fancy enough, or worse, hating all her clothes. She is four!!! When I politely mentioned this dynamic to the caregivers, they were immediately embarrassed. Even ashamed. They hadn’t even realized they were doing this and had no idea the impact it was having. I was so relieved and grateful for their openness. It also reinforced for me just how unaware some people are of these dynamics. My purpose in raising these issues is simply to make us more conscious and gradually affect change.

Making my peace with it all and moving forward

Over the past year, I have done a lot of soul searching on this matter. I have allowed a few dress-up dresses and crowns into our home. My daughter now has many pink clothes and lots of dresses. And every time we go to the grocery store, we “visit” the princesses in the toy aisle. Fundamentally, I see that she is simply attracted to beauty, and that attraction is a wonderful thing. But it is my responsibility, as her mother and as a human who desires good for our world, to raise her to have “moral courage”, to be “capable and efficient”, to be a peacemaker, and to assist humanity.

I know I cannot shelter her forever. So I hope to give her the tools with which to forge her own path. In our stories and conversations, we focus on how people can be of service. We focus on the many acts of humanitarian work and philanthropy carried out by real princesses all over the world. Her father reads “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls” to her almost every night. A dear friend gave me a copy of “Do princesses wear hiking boots?” so that my daughter can see that she can call herself a princess all she likes but that she gets to define what it means. I do refuse to buy her a doll whose body proportions do not match her own and whose face is heavily covered in makeup (side note: did you know that toys are actually more gendered today than in the 50s? In the late 70s, due to a change in television advertisement regulations, toy companies began marketing more directly to children and realized that emphasizing the blue and pink divide would result in more toys being purchased, hence, more profit).

She can have as much pink clothing as she wants but it must be practical and comfortable and allow her to climb and run freely. We continue to make sure she sees both her parents in domestic roles. We try to discuss physical appearance as little as possible other than to emphasize cleanliness. If she is asking for feedback about her outfit we use the word “fancy” rather than using the word “pretty” or “beautiful”. When I look in the mirror and I start to criticize my hair and the bags under my eyes, I instead try to keep a smile on my face, because I know she is watching and I wouldn’t want her to think those things about herself. And, finally, we pray together. Most nights, she recites a prayer that asks God to make her “a shining lamp and a brilliant star”. Prayer not only provides us an opportunity to stop, reflect and give thanks, but we hope it will help her grow up with a sense that there are greater forces at work in the world and that she is part of something greater than herself. And after all this is said and done, I remind myself to breathe, to love, and to trust.

How have you and/or your child been influenced by princess culture, whether heavily or subconsciously? How do you think we can contribute to building a society of equal opportunity for boys and girls?

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8 thoughts on “Raising Strong Girls in a Princess Obsessed World { Guest Post }

    1. It really is surprising, isn’t it, that this would be the case in 2018, no? A trip down the toy aisles is enough to terrify anyone 😉 Then there are the adult versions of the princess world, including but not limited to prom, wedding, makeup, designer brands, etc.

  1. I have two daughters and have spent a lot of time thinking about princess culture. I do agree that Disney princesses are moving away from reactionary personalities towards action driven ones. I think there are a lot of positive qualities that are associated with princesses that can be emphasized like being kind and being a leader. As for myself, I love pink and girly things. I am also a scientist and have felt almost discriminated against by my fellow women for being too girly and not falling into the stereotype of the geeky female chemist. So I think we need to be sure not to play up the pink princess life too much, but also not go so far that we are making girls feel bad for liking what they like. I prefer the ‘both and’ school of thought on this. You can be a princess AND a strong independent woman.

  2. These are such wonderful thoughts. I hope my daughter learns that everyone is beautiful, you don’t need a prince to be happy, and to be herself. I hope she learns that kindness and love are what makes someone beautiful

  3. I love this I love this I LOVE THIS. Even with raising a boy first (he’s 5 now), I’ve been SUPER cautious about WHAT I say about girls and HOW I say it. He will grow up emulating how he sees his parents treat/talk about women, so we’ve always been very conscious of gender stereotypes.

    When he wanted a ‘girl’ backpack for preschool we just went with it (because THINGS DO NOT HAVE GENITALIA). But, of course, one adult at his preschool wouldn’t shut up about how “Oh my son would NEVER let me give him a GIRL backpack!” I shut it down SO fast.

    Now I have a 2 year old girl, also. I am SUPER concerned about raising her in a way where she feels the pressures of society to be a ‘princess’. To be honest, probably with me as a mom, she’s going to end up wanting to be a politician! LOL

  4. My daughter loves princesses, but I am careful to teach her that princesses do not just sit around having tea parties. Princesses like Kate and Meghan do humanitarian work too and have to follow a lot of rules.

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