March 13, 2012

“I’m a princess,” my two-year-old proclaims as we sit in our booth at Unnamed Family-Friendly Restaurant where N has taken us for a special treat.

At this point, N and I exhibit vastly different reactions.

“Yes, you are!” he laughs, scooping her up in his arms. “You’re my princess. My beautiful princess!”

“Gahhhhh,” I say. “Mmph.”

(To be fair, my mouth was full of caramelized onions and cheeseburger at that particular moment.)

Darling Dot. Best beloved Dot. Dot of my heart. You are not a princess. You are the dragon with sunlit wings. You are the woodcutter’s daughter who saves the kingdom. You are a monkey mermaid. You are so much more wonderful than a fancy dress and a tiara. You are the unique result of millions of choices, loves, journeys and stories, and one of the things this means is that you don’t need an entry in Burke’s Peerage, or a castle, or a fairy godmother to be special.

Not that I wouldn’t give you a castle if I could. I love castles, too.

My girl has been going through something of a girly phase lately, gravitating toward dresses and watching Tangled over and over again until she recites some of its lines out of the blue at the dinner table, pretending to put flowers in her adorable wisps of hair. She likes ruffles and flounces and purses. And I’m torn. I want her to be able to enjoy her femininity, and if she were a two-year-old boy, this wouldn’t bother me at all. But being a girl in this day and age means that she is going to come up against being defined by her appearance in ways that a boy wouldn’t. It means that people will look at her in ways that make my skin crawl long before she is able to understand the blurry lines between femininity and sexuality, between peer approval and male approval and  sexism. I don’t want her to think that dresses and fancy hair are bad, but I don’t want her to think that they make people special, either. I don’t want her to emulate, adore, or despise women based on their money and appearance, or based on who they marry.

This is already something of a hard fight, partly because it’s often a fight against myself. I’m the one who let her watch a Disney princess movie, even if it is a movie where the princess hits her leading man over the head with a frying pan repeatedly. I’m the one who wants to brush her hair in the mornings and who tells her how nice her hair looks after I brush it. I constantly come up against how often my appearance was used as a carrot when I was growing up, and finding ways to do things differently is difficult, especially when we’re running late and she is flitting around in her diaper and telling me she doesn’t want to get dressed. I have yet to say anything like, “This purple shirt would make you look like Rapunzel,” but I’ve come close, and it makes my stomach flip in uncomfortable ways. I don’t want to hold her up in comparison to some other image of a girl, not ever, not even if it means resorting to clothing power struggles and/or bribery with strawberries.

We call her beautiful all the time, because she is. She is beautiful when her Grammy has smoothed her hair and put her into her holiday dress and fancy tights and shiny shoes, and she is beautiful when I pick her up from day care and she has mud all over her jacket and smudges of marker on her face and her hair sticks out like funny little flower petals. She is beautiful when she races across the park for the slides, and when she intentionally makes us laugh by making faces or animal sounds, and when she climbs into her car seat all by herself and when she fights getting into the car seat as if it is some sort of torture device. She is beautiful when she rubs spaghetti sauce or chili into her hair and when she makes herself a bubble beard in the bathtub. Her beauty is a light shining from within her and I’m so scared that she won’t know that that’s what we refer to when we tell her she’s beautiful. I don’t want her to fall prey to thinking of fame as beauty, or model-like-proportions as beauty, or a certain type of hair or clothing as beauty.

For now, if she asks to wear a dress, I let her wear a dress (often with pants underneath because it’s still cold outside). I look at flounced skorts in clothing catalogs and think, I’ll get her a couple when the weather warms up, and I cut flowers out of seed catalogs and tape them to hair clips so she can have flowers in her hair. I sit with her as she watches Tangled and talk to her about what makes Rapunzel so exciting (the nearly-prehensile hair really is pretty cool, as is the pet chameleon). I promise myself that this one movie doesn’t have to be a gateway drug into the princess culture. I find non-princesses who are also fun and have adventures to point to, and am grateful that we read as often as we do because books, even at this young age, give us glimpses of all different kinds of people and places. I make up stories about girls (and ducklings and reindeer and lambs) who are fast and brave and kind. I try not to freak out.

I remind myself that while I can’t recall ever hearing my own dad telling Mom she was beautiful (“You look nice,” was about as effusive as he ever got), N calls me beautiful, in front of Dot, every day. This is both incredibly cool – that I get to be a model of what is beautiful – and incredibly powerful and terrifying. She’s watching me to see some of what beauty is, and because of this I don’t want her to see me frowning at laugh lines or moping about my hair or sighing over my weight. Because of this I try to be kind and patient and fun and brave. I’m not always good at it, but she’s a forgiving audience so far.

I remind myself that, scary as it can be, it’s an amazing thing to be a girl.



  1. So much of what you’ve just shared here today has been occurring to me of late as well. Though Juliet is just seven months old, I have been thinking about these things. I think because I have a niece who is almost two and I’m watching her go through a real “princess” phase as wel. Makes me wonder about Hope as well, of course. I’m also trying to take much better care of myself at the moment, by way of exercise and better diet, as I had let motherhood be my excuse for letting myself get completely run down for far too long. I need to look after me to be able to look after them better, and I want to be someone they can look up to and admire.

  2. I’ve often thought I have it “easier” b/c I don’t have to deal with the whole beauty/princess/please-don’t-grow-up-and be anorexic and/or-hate-yourself thing that girls seem to struggle with more than boys. But then I remember i have an important job too – to raise men who respect women. I will try and do my best.

  3. Have you read “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein? I haven’t yet (in the pile…) but it sounds like it might be up your alley. ; )

    And have you read the children’s book “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch? I love giving that book to little girls, because it sort of turns the traditional fairy tale on its head, especially at the end. ; )

  4. My living daughter is 7 and I’ve struggled with this on and off for a lot of years now. She loves bling and Disney princesses too but she also loves light sabre battles with her big brother, climbing trees and fart jokes. I’ve learned to trust her with her own burgeoning identity – but I still don’t trust the world at large with it and I almost died the day she told me her (very slim) thighs were fat. We discussed the fact that she needs strong muscles there to run and jump and skip and turn cartwheels and ride her bike really fast and I think I got away with it (this time).

    But, then I look at my boys too and I recognise the challenges that they face too – my eldest is incredibly sensitive and academically able and hates all sport and I’ve watched him this year (aged 9) struggle with a lot of Alpha maleness in his class at school – stuff he doesn’t get and my heart breaks for him because I know he will be an amazing man because he’s like his daddy, who is an amazing man – and I realise that parenting is hard, not parenting girls or parenting boys but parenting these little lives who lived – what a scarey privilege.

    Phew – that turned epic. I have never seen Dot but I think she is beautiful – your words here paint all of the facets of her beauty so powerfully.

  5. I don’t know how on earth I missed this when you posted it?! As you know, the ‘princess’ subject is one that I find particularly fascinating. Just marking my place until I have more time and am able to write something more sensible!

  6. I read ‘Cinderella Ate My Daughter’ then I took my daughter to Disneyland and let her watch ‘Tangled’. It’s hard. I tell her that princesses go to medical school and buy themselves a castle. So far, I’m sticking to that.

  7. LOL at Jjiraffe’s comment above. I read a book on finance for women that made the comment (paraphrasing here), “Today, Prince Charming is probably driving a pickup truck instead of riding a white horse. And he needs help with the payments.” Too true.

  8. As usual, I’m ridiculously late to the party here…sigh.

    This is such an important topic for mothers of girls, no? How to navigate the land of bizarre representations of women and girls in media…

    I’m letting it slide for now, hoping that C gets it out of her system– just ride it like a wave until she’s tired of the ruffles–just like she eventually got tired of her other fixations. We went through Rapunzel last year and she’s over it now (except for an obsession with long hair but, I think that’s not princess-driven). We indulged her as long as she wanted to be indulged and she moved on to Peter Pan (and I fretted about the obvious cultural insensitivity included in that story). Last night she dressed up as a viking and pretended to stalk and murder her Elmo doll (which is a whole ‘nother set of issues).

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s important for girls to hear that they’re beautiful from their parents so that they don’t go looking for some sort of messed-up approval from less-qualified judges. And I think you’re spot-on about getting a “comfortable in my own skin” message from mom. I tell C she is beautiful and she takes it at face-value. But when she tells me the same, it’s so hard to just smile and say thanks.

    Great post, btw.

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