Journalist Peggy Orenstein had made a career out of writing about the parenting of young girls. But when Orenstein had a daughter for herself, the experience put all her perceptions about femininity and her thoughtful advice about gender identity to the test. As a mother, she found herself at war with a culture that emphasized physical appearance to her daughter over pride, strength, resilience and intelligence. Here’s an excerpt from her new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.”
Why I hoped for a boy
Here is my dirty little secret: as a journalist, I have spent nearly two decades writing about girls, thinking about girls, talking about how girls should be raised. Yet, when I finally got pregnant myself, I was terrified at the thought of having a daughter. While my friends, especially those who’d already had sons, braced themselves against disappointment should the delivery room doc announce, “It’s a boy,” I felt like the perpetual backseat driver who freezes when handed the wheel. I was supposed to be an expert on girls’ behavior. I had spouted off about it everywhere from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from the TODAY show to FOX TV. I had been on NPR repeatedly. And that was the problem: What if, after all that, I was not up to the challenge myself ? What if I couldn’t raise the ideal daughter? With a boy, I figured, I would be off the hook.
And truly, I thought having a son was a done deal. A few years before my daughter was born, I had read about some British guy who’d discovered that two-thirds of couples in which the husband was five or more years older than the wife had a boy as their first child. Bingo. My husband, Steven, is nearly a decade older than I am. So clearly I was covered.
Then I saw the incontrovertible proof on the sonogram (or what they said was incontrovertible proof; to me, it looked indistinguishable from, say, a nose) and I suddenly realized I had wanted a girl — desperately, passionately — all along. I had just been afraid to admit it. But I still fretted over how I would raise her, what kind of role model I would be, whether I would take my own smugly written advice on the complexities surrounding girls’ beauty, body image, education, achievement. Would I embrace frilly dresses or ban Barbies? Push soccer cleats or tutus? Shopping for her layette, I grumbled over the relentless color coding of babies. Who cared whether the crib sheets were pink or glen plaid? During those months, I must have started a million sentences with “My daughter will never ...”
And then I became a mother.
Daisy was, of course, the most beautiful baby ever (if you don’t believe me, ask my husband). I was committed to raising her without a sense of limits: I wanted her to believe neither that some behavior or toy or profession was not for her sex nor that it was mandatory for her sex. I wanted her to be able to pick and choose the pieces of her identity freely—that was supposed to be the prerogative, the privilege, of her generation. For a while, it looked as if I were succeeding. On her first day of preschool, at age two, she wore her favorite outfit—her “engineers” (a pair of pin-striped overalls)—and proudly toted her Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. I complained to anyone who would listen about the shortsightedness of the Learning Curve company, which pictured only boys on its Thomas packaging and had made “Lady,” its shiny mauve girl engine, smaller than the rest. (The other females among Sodor’s rolling stock were passenger cars — passenger cars — named Annie, Clarabel, Henrietta, and, yes, Daisy. The nerve!) Really, though, my bitching was a form of bragging. My daughter had transcended typecasting.
Oh, how the mighty fall. All it took was one boy who, while whizzing past her on the playground, yelled, “Girls don’t like trains!” and Thomas was shoved to the bottom of the toy chest. Within a month, Daisy threw a tantrum when I tried to wrestle her into pants. As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colors of every Disney Princess — I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. She gazed longingly into the tulle-draped windows of the local toy stores and for her third birthday begged for a “real princess dress” with matching plastic high heels. Meanwhile, one of her classmates, the one with two mommies, showed up to school every single day dressed in a Cinderella gown. With a bridal veil.
What was going on here? My fellow mothers, women who once swore they would never be dependent on a man, smiled indulgently at daughters who warbled “So This Is Love” or insisted on being addressed as Snow White. The supermarket checkout clerk invariably greeted Daisy with “Hi, Princess.” The waitress at our local breakfast joint, a hipster with a pierced tongue and a skull tattooed on her neck, called Daisy’s “funny-face pancakes” her “princess meal”; the nice lady at Longs Drugs offered us a free balloon, then said, “I bet I know your favorite color!” and handed Daisy a pink one rather than letting her choose for herself.
Then, shortly after Daisy’s third birthday, our high-priced pediatric dentist — the one whose practice was tricked out with comic books, DVDs, and arcade games — pointed to the exam chair and asked, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “Do you have a princess drill, too?”
She looked at me as if I were the wicked stepmother.
But honestly: since when did every little girl become a princess? It wasn’t like this when I was a kid, and I was born back when feminism was still a mere twinkle in our mothers’ eyes. We did not dress head to toe in pink. We did not have our own miniature high heels. What’s more, I live in Berkeley, California: if princesses had infiltrated our little retro-hippie hamlet, imagine what was going on in places where women actually shaved their legs? As my little girl made her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her preschool classroom, I fretted over what playing Little Mermaid, a character who actually gives up her voice to get a man, was teaching her.
On the other hand, I thought, maybe I should see princess mania as a sign of progress, an indication that girls could celebrate their predilection for pink without compromising strength or ambition; that at long last they could “have it all”: be feminist and feminine, pretty and powerful; earn independence and male approval. Then again, maybe I should just lighten up and not read so much into it — to mangle Freud, maybe sometimes a princess is just a princess.
I ended up publishing my musings as an article called “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” which ran on Christmas Eve in The New York Times Magazine. I was entirely unprepared for the response. The piece immediately shot to the top of the site’s “Most E-mailed” list, where it hovered for days, along with an article about the latest conflict in the Middle East. Hundreds of readers wrote in — or e-mailed me directly — to express relief, gratitude, and, nearly as often, outright contempt: “I have been waiting for a story like yours.” “I pity Peggy Orenstein’s daughter.” “As a mother of three-year-old twin boys, I wonder what the land of princesses is doing to my sons.” “I would hate to have a mother like Orenstein.” “I honestly don’t know how I survived all those hyped-up images of women that were all around me as a girl.” “The genes are so powerful.”
Apparently, I had tapped into something larger than a few dime-store tiaras. Princesses are just a phase, after all. It’s not as though girls are still swanning about in their Sleeping Beauty gowns when they leave for college (at least most are not). But they did mark my daughter’s first foray into the mainstream culture, the first time the influences on her extended beyond the family. 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.
It was confusing: images of girls’ successes abounded — they were flooding the playing field, excelling in school, outnumbering boys in college. At the same time, the push to make their appearance the epicenter of their identities did not seem to have abated one whit. If anything, it had intensified, extending younger (and, as the unnaturally smooth brows of midlife women attest, stretching far later). I had read stacks of books devoted to girls’ adolescence, but where was I to turn to understand the new culture of little girls, from toddler to “tween,” to help decipher the potential impact — if any — of the images and ideas they were absorbing about who they should be, what they should buy, what made them girls? Did playing Cinderella shield them from early sexualization or prime them for it? Was walking around town dressed as Jasmine harmless fun, or did it instill an unhealthy fixation on appearance? Was there a direct line from Prince Charming to “Twilight” ’s Edward Cullen to distorted expectations of intimate relationships?
It is tempting, as a parent, to give the new pink-and-pretty a pass. There is already so much to be vigilant about, and the limits of our tolerance, along with our energy, slip a little with each child we have. So if a spa birthday party would make your six-year-old happy (and get her to leave you alone), really, what is the big deal? After all, girls will be girls, right? I agree, they will — and that is exactly why we need to pay more, rather than less, attention to what is happening in their world. According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior. In one study of eighth-grade girls, for instance, self-objectification — judging your body by how you think it looks to others — accounted for half the differential in girls’ reports of depression and more than two-thirds of the variance in their self-esteem. Another linked the focus on appearance among girls that age to heightened shame and anxiety about their bodies. Even brief exposure to the typical, idealized images of women that we all see every day has been shown to lower girls’ opinion of themselves, both physically and academically. Nor, as they get older, does the new sexiness lead to greater sexual entitlement. According to Deborah Tolman, a professor at Hunter College who studies teenage girls’ desire, “They respond to questions about how their bodies feel — questions about sexuality or arousal — by describing how they think they look. I have to remind them that looking good is not a feeling.”
All of that does not suddenly kick in when a girl blows out the candles on her thirteenth birthday cake. From the time she is born — in truth, well before — parents are bombarded with zillions of little decisions, made consciously or not, that will shape their daughter’s ideas and understanding of her femininity, her sexuality, her self. How do you instill pride and resilience in her? Do you shower her with pink heart-strewn onesies? Reject the Disney Princess Pull-Ups for Lightning McQueen? Should you let your three-year-old wear her child-friendly nail polish to preschool? What’s your policy on the latest Disney Channel “it” girl? Old Dora versus New Dora? Does a pink soccer ball celebrate girlhood? Do pink TinkerToys expand or contract its definition? And even if you think the message telegraphed by a pink Scrabble set with tiles on the box top that spell “F-A-S-H-I-O-N” is a tad retrograde, what are you supposed to do about it? Lock your daughter in a tower? Rely on the tedious “teachable moment” in which Mom natters on about how if Barbie were life-sized she’d pitch forward smack onto her bowling ball boobs (cue the eye rolling, please)?
Answering such questions has, surprisingly, become more complicated since the mid-1990s, when the war whoop of “Girl Power” celebrated ability over body. Somewhere along the line, that message became its own opposite. The pursuit of physical perfection was recast as a source — often the source — of young women’s “empowerment.” Rather than freedom from traditional constraints, then, girls were now free to “choose” them. Yet the line between “get to” and “have to” blurs awfully fast. Even as new educational and professional opportunities unfurl before my daughter and her peers, so does the path that encourages them to equate identity with image, self-expression with appearance, femininity with performance, pleasure with pleasing, and sexuality with sexualization. It feels both easier and harder to raise a girl in that new reality — and easier and harder to be one.
I didn’t know whether Disney Princesses would be the first salvo in a Hundred Years’ War of dieting, plucking, and painting (and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results). But for me they became a trigger for the larger question of how to help our daughters with the contradictions they will inevitably face as girls, the dissonance that is as endemic as ever to growing up female. It seemed, then, that I was not done, not only with the princesses but with the whole culture of little girlhood: what it had become, how it had changed in the decades since I was a child, what those changes meant, and how to navigate them as a parent.
I’m the first to admit that I do not have all the answers. Who could? But as a mother who also happens to be a journalist (or perhaps vice versa), I believed it was important to lay out the context — the marketing, science, history, culture — in which we make our choices, to provide information that would help parents to approach their decisions more wisely.
So I returned to the land of Disney, but I also traveled to American Girl Place and the American International Toy Fair (the industry’s largest trade show, where all the hot new products are introduced). I trolled Pottery Barn Kids and Toys “R” Us. I talked to historians, marketers, psychologists, neuroscientists, parents, and children themselves. I considered the value of the original fairy tales; pondered the meaning of child beauty pageants; went online as a “virtual” girl; even attended a Miley Cyrus concert (so you know I was dedicated). And I faced down my own confusion as a mother, as a woman, about the issues that raising a girl raises in me about my own femininity.
As with all of us, what I want for my daughter seems so simple: for her to grow up healthy, happy, and confident, with a clear sense of her own potential and the opportunity to fulfill it. Yet she lives in a world that tells her, whether she is three or thirty-three, that the surest way to get there is to look, well, like Cinderella.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back and begin where all good stories start.
Once upon a time.
Excerpted from "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" by Peggy Orenstein. Copyright (c) 2011. Reprinted with permission from Harper Collins.