Princess in Pink

My Girl has always been fairly balanced, gender-wise. If I hadn’t had a second baby– a very boy boy whose first words were, respectively, ‘ball’ and ‘truck’– I would have smugly thought that kids just respond to the gender influences around them. My Girl liked fancy dresses and dolls, but no more than anything else. Her pretend play usually centered around some kind of animal family– walruses on an ice flow, baby birds hatching out of their egg. From the comfort of my own situation, I advised my dear friend with a princess-obsessed daughter to just roll with it, allow her daughter to experiment. So long as her real life was filled with strong female role models, she’d be fine in the end. I myself was a very girly little girl. I adored dresses with frills, lace, puffy sleeves and played with B*rbies for years, and look how I turned out. I laughed at my friend for hiding certain dolls and cutting the princess insignia off of gifted play dresses. Her daughter would be fine, she just needed to relax! I felt surprisingly at ease about the whole thing.

Until recently.

There was no pivotal moment, just a steady influx of pink, a steady movement toward all things ‘pretty.’ Now I am suffering the torture of feminists all over our angsty modern world. My daughter wants to be a princess.

There was a scene at the drugstore recently. I don’t often go there, but I needed to get cockroach poison (as the New Orleans summer has heated up, our kitchen has gotten entirely out of hand.) I decided to pre-promise the kids doughnuts, hoping it would make the experience smoother. When we walked in, and all the product hit our eyes at once, My Girl looked up at me and said, “Mama? Can I get something pretty?”

I explained that we only had so much money, but if she wanted to she could get a small something instead of a doughnut. Assuming there would be no contest, assuming doughnuts rule. “Okay!” She said brightly, and started browsing the pretty things. There followed a torturously long episode of me chasing the boy through the aisles and My Girl picking first one thing then another that were too expensive. My eyes seized on a big display of $1 finger nail polish. For some reason I have never had a problem with her using the stuff, it seems so entirely childish to me that I can’t believe grown women wear it without irony. I pointed to the display and suggested that she could get a bottle of sparkly pink fingernail polish.

I hadn’t thought to notice the other item on display.

“Mama! Can I get that stuff that makes your lips a color?” She asked breathlessly.

Oh my god. Lipstick? How did she even know what it was?

She had already had fingernail polish and a little box of eyeshadow that I got out of a give-away box which she applied like face paint. Why did I balk at lipstick? She’s just a little kid playing Fancy Lady, what’s the big deal?

I realized later that even though she probably has only ever seen her grandma apply the stuff, I associate lipstick with looking like a prostitute. I cannot separate lipstick from sex appeal in my mind, and I was suddenly downright terrified that already, at age four, my daughter felt the desire/expectation to look sexy.

So, I told her no. What else could I do? I felt like I had to fight for her life, for the preservation of her childhood.

But My Girl recognizes a fight from ten yards off, and she set in with her own army. She started to cry and wail in almost 2yo fit fashion, except much sadder. In fact, she was tragic. All attempts to distract her towards any other kind of ‘pretty’ item were useless. She said she wanted something she didn’t have already. It sounds silly now, just a little girl trying to get what she wanted. But my heart hurt for her. My head hurt too, I just wanted to get the hell out of there, but regardless any lipstick morality I don’t give in to crying fits. I was trapped.

I ended up telling her that because you put lipstick on your lips, you end up eating a little of it and that the kind at that store wasn’t safe for kids. This was in fact a small part of my hesitation. I could see no entrance point for a conversation about my real fear. As we left the store, finally, some silly unwanted barrets in hand, I had the sinking feeling that I had just made the desire for lipstick an indelible part of her emotional psyche.

Talking this through later with My Man, I came to terms with my over active fear of lipstick. Although I do believe it is undeniable that men find lipstick attractive because it makes the lips look wet and ready, the fact is that it is so normal to wear lipstick in our culture that it has become almost completely dissociated from the underlying sex appeal. In fact, when My Man and I tried to think of who even wears lipstick, the main image was of old ladies with absurdly pink lips and perpetually surprised eyebrows.

The next week, during a trip to Whole Foods, I detoured down the rarely attended cosmetics aisle and picked up a tube of all-natural mineral pigment lipstick. “Look!” I said, handing it to My Girl, “They have lipstick here that’s okay for kids!” I hoped that remembering this all on my own, to her surprise, would somehow redeem me.

Two days later, she lost that $6 tube of all natural red lipstick at a restaurant. She was only vaguely disappointed.

This lipstick event has certainly defined a shift for me, and doubtlessly for her as well. But the overall situation is much bigger. She talks about princesses more and more often, plays princess, picks out insufferable princess books at the library (Disn*y Princess Ballerina? Are you fucking kidding me? That was when I stooped to hiding things under the couch).

Although she has definitely begun to pick up on the subtle cultural determinations of what is and is not ‘pretty,’ and once told me she thought her voice wasn’t pretty enough (be strong, my heart), I have to remember that her definitions are still relatively open. As far as she understands it, ‘princess’ means dressed in a fancy dress. It is purely aesthetic, it is in not otherwise limiting in any way. There is no reason in her mind that a pretty princess cannot slay a dragon with her bare hands, and so far I can still get away with little tricks like suggesting that one princess save the other princess before both attending a celebratory party. There is no subversion like assimilation, right?

I know this issue is just opening for us, and honestly I feel completely terrified. On one hand, I believe all the standard feminist lines about girls being taught to be weak, about the devastations of impossible body image and over-sexualization. On the other hand, I feel like much too much is made of it. As my friend’s husband said once after we’d had a good long bitch session about it, “Why wouldn’t she like princesses? You talk about them all the time. They must be the most interesting things around.” I know that restricting something is the best way to increase it’s appeal. As the mama of a red-headed firecracker, I know that starting a fight, on any level, is always a bad idea. Even more importantly, I know we need to step back and let our girls discover the world, on their own terms, and respect who they choose to be in it. Kids are constantly experimenting. The world outside exerts plenty of influence on them, but I believe nothing will ever strike as deep as the home and family they come from.

Obviously I’m going to have to get over my fear that she can’t handle it. How better to communicate to My Girl that I have faith in her as a strong and powerful growing woman than to believe that she will find her way through the princess maze?

Now that I think about it, she is one hell of a force of nature. I wonder where she gets that from?

16 thoughts on “Princess in Pink

  1. This too shall pass. My daughter went through a makeup and ‘pretty’ stage. It made me a bit nauseaus, but I played along as best I could. She’s 7 now, and maybe it’s just luck, but she no longer wants to be a girly girl and wants to be more like her mama. Surprisingly, I’m having issues with that as well. Sigh, maybe some day I’ll just let her be herself.

  2. ‘How better to communicate to My Girl that I have faith in her as a strong and powerful growing woman than to believe that she will find her way through the princess maze?’

    A-men. I think that line captures it all and gets to the crux of this whole parenting gig. Reminds me of the perennial parenting book favorite Whole Child / Whole Parent by Polly Berrien Berends.

  3. My girl is now 22. When she was that age she drove me insane, playing princess, walking the plank with her hands tied behind her back, wanting make up and nail polish, you name it. Now, she is an ardent feminist and art student, with a creative and distinctive sense of style. Relax.

  4. I agree with Erica, the Paper bag Princess is the most awesome of princess books ever, so much so that it was my daughter’s first princess book. You will love it, I promise. I especially like the last page, it gives me great joy.
    Another book that you might like to read her, which I did with Ethan is called I’m Gunna Like Me, and is written by Jamie Lee Curtis. I got it from the library when we had a stage where there was some school bullying about the way we were dressed or appeared. It did wonders!
    But yes, girl, I hear ya on all above fronts. Princess crap pisses me right off!

  5. Oh, I laughed out loud at “I had the sinking feeling that I had just made the desire for lipstick an indelible part of her emotional psyche” – sorry, is that rude? It was in sympathy (Oh how I’ve been there!), if that helps :)

    I don’t worry too much about the whole princess thing in terms of helplessness and passivity – I think my girls have plenty of strong role models and like you I think what happens at home is always going to be more important than elsewhere, BUT it’s the ‘pretty’ and appearance focussed stuff that worries me more.

    So yes, I have banned b*rbies in our house (though I haven’t actually said that to my five year old, I just keep saying no, which I say to just about everything so she’s used to it, LOL), and I’m very conscious of the d*sneyfied princess bodies that are *everywhere* but she is already in love with them. It hurts my head and I am simply at a loss of what to do except to try to provide other images and not talk about my own weight/appearance issues in front of her.

    She is a very, very pretty little girl (and this is not just my opinion), and I really worry that she is going to hear that so much that it becomes an essential part of her identity – as if that was hard in our culture anyway! – and then when she hits puberty and, if she’s true to her genes, get’s a least mildly bad acne (if not cystic acne which my husband and 3 of his 5 siblings had), and puts on weight, its going to hit her really hard.

    Then on top of that my 2 year old daughter already seems to equate the word pretty with good (but she knows it means pretty) – how did that happen!!?

  6. I can so relate to this!!
    When my eldest wanted a barbie I was mortified. What had I done wrong? The more I resisted the more she wanted one until I created a full on obsession from her. She has barbies now-and they aren;t even her favorite thing.

  7. While my husband was horrified, I embraced the princess stage. She’s now 10 and has totally outgrown it. We also made it through the want to play with make up phase just fine.
    I second all the calls for the paper bag princess.

  8. “it seems so entirely childish to me that I can’t believe grown women wear it without irony”

    That made me laugh. I totally hear ya. My almost 5 year old daughter has all sorts of different layers of thickly-applied weird colors of paint on her nails at this moment.

    She also has a sign on her door (that she wrote with my spelling help) that says “Rose’s Salon: massages, haircuts, nails.

    I get my hair cut less than 1x/year; meant to, but forgot to wear lipstick to my own wedding; don’t shave nothing and get my clothes as hand-me-downs from friends because I rarely have patience for even thrift store shopping.

    So. Where did my daughter’s love of pink prettiness come from? I have no clue. But I am sure it will go the way it came just as swiftly and mysteriously someday.

  9. I second Erica from Northwest Edible life!!! My favorite story as a kid was “The Paper Bag Princess”. It’s about a dragon fighting, ass-kicking princess who decides that she doesn’t need the superficial prince after all because she’s pretty damn great and who is he to try to bring her down? I kind of feel like every parent of daughters should read that one to their girls. :)

  10. O yes, I have been wondering and worrying how long this princess thing could go on…One day, it all changed. My daughter decided that princesses wore beautiful clothes all day and then couldn’t actually “DO” anything because it might mess up their dresses.
    I put on my gravest Momma face and agreed.
    I was doing cartwheels and dancing on the inside.

  11. I think its really important to embrace this phase. She is just starting to sort through our societies mixed messages about women. Its gonna be a long hard road (we should know!) I think its very important not to make her think that what she views as “pretty” and feminine are not bad things. That being beautiful and feminine are things that she should feel bad about emulating. Instead try to gently broaden her views of them.

    I decided very early on that Princesses were worthy of nothing but scorn because they never seemed to be able to save themselves, and all the girl super heros always got knocked down first and never really helped out. So I decided that being a girl meant you must be weak. So I strived to prove myself all the time. I wasn’t “girly” I didn’t even like “girl” things, I was “just like a boy”.
    It took me a long time to realize the message I was really trying to convey about myself. That I felt powerful as the girl I was, and always will. I was TOTALLY shocked to come across some books about princesses throughout history that kicked some serious ass. Princesses and Queens! I think the best thing you can do is give her some real life powerful role models. You could even make costumes! and encourage her to pick a real princess when she is playing.
    Even D*sney princesses aren’t powerless. I mean cummon, Nala? Talk about a force of nature! Even if Disney does seem to leave her out of ALL the marketing for some reason.

    And just speaking from experience here, but….lipstick makes some pretty nice war paint ;)

    1. i’m so glad you brought this up. i wanted to get into this, but it was such an entire other subject and i just didn’t have the time. i also have felt hemmed in by my princess-hating need to be Strong and Powerful, at all costs. and you are absolutely right, i have to be careful not convey the message that wanting to be beautiful and feminine is bad, especially because on some level i still believe that. i am still sorting through my own conflictions. as i have written here before, i think this intense need we all feel to be so bad ass is very male, very patriarchal. but obviously i don’t go in for the weak woman thing either. a quiet, flexible strength, a self-born feeling of beauty?

  12. The way I deal with my 3 year old’s preoccupation with everyone pink and princessy is to focus not on the way she looks but on the way she ACTS. We focus on encouraging her to eat healthily to run fast and be strong. She loves holding up her puny biceps to show how big they are, like her brother (who’s are also pretty puny given he’s only 7!) This is not very princessy :) We encourage her to be feisty, to stand up for herself, not let herself be pushed over by older kids. We encourage her to express her needs. She is incredibly caring and sharing which is wonderful, but we don’t want this to be taken advantage of. This is how we deal with the princess thing and we feel she feels accepted all round this way!

  13. My girls are (unthinkably!) old compared to yours (14 and 18) but I still sympathize. We definitely hit a princess phase, but it seemed to happen at the same time as a pirate phase and a tea party phase. So we had pirate princesses having tea with bears and going out to plunder and bury treasure with impeccable manners. Eventually it all passed.

    While I second the Paper bag Princess, I would also nominate Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. They follow a princess who refuses to be proper and volunteers to be a dragon’s princess. They are cheerful, feminist, exciting and subversive. I love them. Both my kids love them, but the younger one actually imprinted on the princess, and is (still) making academic and extracurricular choices according to what might get her hired to be a dragon’s princess (Latin, cooking, fencing, basic circus skills, and bike maintenance and repair).

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