Once upon a time there was a little girl whose passion for pink was so intense that she steamrolled her princess-averse parents and ushered in a period of tulle and tiaras that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. It was so over the top that Cinderella might have pretended to hurl.
But this story has no ending — at least not yet. For a time I (the mother in this fairy tale) worried it would end badly. I imagined that the princess obsession was a prelude to my daughter, Mari, becoming superficial. I feared that as an adult she’d be easy prey for glittery marketing campaigns coaxing her to spend her hard-earned cash on lipstick and face creams and increasingly invasive methods of body hair removal. I was most concerned that she’d base her self-worth on her looks, which wouldn’t boost her self-esteem.
Mari’s proclivity for pink isn’t unique. Across America and beyond, legions of these little princesses shun gender-neutral clothing. They overwhelm their parents with requests for princess merchandise, including ostentatious and outlandish accessories. And they insist on wearing their finest frocks on the most ordinary of outings.
“Wait — I need my crown and cape,” Mari would say as we left the house for errands. We’d rummage through the toys until we located her royal gear — a cardboard crown she’d made in preschool that she wore until it disintegrated, and a colorful scarf she’d fashioned into a cape. Thus adorned, she was a popular sight at our local pharmacy.
There’s nothing new about little girls loving princesses. As originally reported in Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” a Disney executive saw little girls at a “Disney on Ice” show in 2000 wearing homemade princess dresses and realized the company was missing a golden merchandising opportunity. Correcting this oversight brought about the Princess Culture we know today.
A decade-and-a-half later, Disney princesses are a multibillion-dollar industry. Parents of princess-obsessed little girls, who have purchased at minimum a princess item or two (or more likely, dozens), understand this. Their daughters wear Aurora dresses while sipping from Ariel water bottles and nestling in pop-up princess tents with their talking Elsa plush dolls.
Reflecting the newness of the princess phenomenon, research examining its effect is just emerging. A 2009 study suggests that showing princess images to children ages 3 to 6 didn’t impact their self-esteem. A 2011 study observed that girls who favor frilly dresses sometimes grow into sporty adolescents. A 2016 longitudinal study found that “princess engagement was not associated with concurrent body esteem,” but it also linked princess play with higher levels of gender-stereotypical behavior.
I could tell parents of Little Princesses to relax, but of course we’re parents, so that would be pointless. Even if a princess obsession is harmless — and we don’t know that yet — the statistics for girls and body image are dismal. Eighty percent of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. Forty to 60 percent of elementary school-age girls are concerned about becoming overweight. Many girls begin to express concern about their weig-ht by age 6. These are the kinds of numbers that, if you are the parent of a little girl, make you consider moving to a town with no Internet access and little exposure to larger cultural trends.
Most of us, however, will not go to those extremes. So we do the best we can with what we’ve got, which is a hyper-commercialized culture that fills every available crevice with marketing. You can’t really leave your house without seeing a Disney Princess. Sometimes that princess happens to be your own daughter, wearing a beaded, rhinestone-studded mermaid ballgown at the local pizza restaurant.
Mari just turned 6. She still loves dressing up and playing princess. She loves animals just as much though, and she spends a fair amount of time pretending she’s a puppy called Sonia. She can’t pass a large rock without attempting to climb it, and she likes playing games, but only with rules she makes up. In Trouble, pieces can move both ways. In Farm Snap, she must have all the bunnies. While learning how to play chess, Mari introduced a little puppy figurine onto the board who made friends with the opposing king, so the match ended in a draw of sorts.
As my daughter enters this next stage of childhood, I’d do well to remember what her royal days have taught me. All of Mari’s passions and preferences and quirks — like her princess obsession — are truly hers. My preconceived notions of what she should embrace or reject are misguided. My job is not to stand in her way, but to clear the path ahead of her when I can, or to hold her hand as she negotiates it. Once in a while, Mari still decides to wear her cape outside. So we keep it by the front door, just in case.