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Growing Girls, Part 1

Your daughter’s invited to a birthday party where she and her friends will be pampered with beauty makeovers. She’s excited, so you agree to a new outfit: She chooses a Juicy Couture hoodie and skirt that, together, add nearly $200 to your credit card bill. She sweeps into the fete, and a crown is placed ceremoniously on her head. She’s 5.

For many little girls today, backyard parties or a big sister’s hand-me-downs have become a thing of the prehistoric past. Instead, from the earliest age, they are being told that they are too “special” for such pedestrian treatment – that they deserve designer frocks, spa pedicures and chandeliers in their bedrooms. That they are not so much little girls as mini-women, and fairly glamorous women at that. Princesses.

The princess culture. Trying to avoid it in 21st century America is like trying not to breathe. But while some parents see the indulgence as a loving way to give their daughters the best, others are beginning to wonder about the message it sends.

‘You’re almost part of a vacuum’

Abbey Robinson, local mother of three girls under the age of 11, finds the trend very worrying. “What our kids are getting out of it is a sense of entitlement,” she says, “and we’re setting them up for disappointment when the world stops revolving around them.”

It doesn’t begin and end with the occasional special event, either. The fantasy lives of the very youngest girls increasingly orbit around appearance-centered notions of (often literally) royal treatment, from the juggernaut that is the Disney Princess machine, to Barbies and Bratz (with their mini jewels), toys like My First Purse (with debit card, lipstick and mirror), toddler-sized clothes that wouldn’t be out of place in a bar, beauty pageants, and on and on. Even Dora – plucky, smart, funny Dora – was finally given a princess makeover.

Phyllis Bisch, local mother of two grown daughters and a licensed professional counselor whose practice is centered on girls, says she’s been doing a lot of speaking lately on the trend. Her immediate first comment about the phenomenon is unambiguous: “It’s sexualizing. It focuses on the physical, and that’s out of balance.”

Ultimately, she says, “I think it’s all about money.” Indeed, you can’t walk into the mall, turn on the TV or even dash into a convenience store without being bombarded with pink, princess paraphernalia.
“You’re almost part of a vacuum,” says school counselor and girl-scout troop leader Roberto Montes, a Richardson father of three, two of them girls. “All of the commercialism pulls at our heartstrings, and we almost can’t get out of it.”

“Whatever marketing they’re doing,” says another local dad, Robert Rodriguez, “they’re just brilliant.” His 9-year old daughter Ariel (named, he stresses, not for the Disney mermaid, but for the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) “is kind of embarrassed by it now, but she was really into [the Disney princesses] … I’ve spent a fortune on all that stuff.”

No ‘Cinderella’s Guide To Responsible Room Cleaning’

Eleven-year-old Leah Hicks recalls her own fascination with all things princess: “I remember, I was trying to decide which one was the prettiest, [but also] which was the one that not everything revolved around her,” says the North Texas preteen. The leading ladies in the Disney movies, she considers, “were good people, and I wanted to be a good person when I got older.”

She has a point: Cinderella is kind to animals, Belle loves the Beast and Mulan saves China (no less). These are all young women we would love to have next door for babysitting purposes.

But, ultimately, it’s harder to market good behavior or intellectual capacity. There’s no “Cinderella’s Guide To Responsible Room Cleaning,” is there? No Libby Lu campaign opposing animal testing or “Learn Arabic with Jasmine” tapes – just a whole lot of dresses and accessories.

Moreover, virtually every princess tale, whether inside the Disney system or out of it, rewards the central character for her goodness with the same thing: the love of a man. In many of the stories, the princess literally does not so much as speak with this man before his love blossoms. He loves her for her beauty – her body.

“I want all little girls to feel like princesses,” Bisch says, “in that I want them to have a sense of empowerment and control of their own destinies.” But the focus on the physical, she believes, teaches girls that “their worth lays in their appearance and in their sexuality.” She adds, “There is a fine line between encouraging self esteem and encouraging narcissism.”

The real danger occurs when fantasy crosses the line into reality — when the tiara becomes literal. Parents unwittingly buy into the princess mentality by focusing too much on extravagant or vanity clothes (think ubiquitous “It’s all about me” T-shirts, in toddler sizes, no less), material excess and special treatment (ironically, by the time girls reach prom, there is little left that is a “special” indulgence for them to experience). A daughter’s wish is her parents every command, and with it comes attitude and resentment when the outside world doesn’t put her up on the same pedestal she sits on at home. In a nutshell, parents need to be prepared to say no, so their daughters can say yes.

Bisch asserts that parents and society need to help girls “process what’s happening in their lives and what choices they need to make … in order to become who [they] want to be.”

Many times parents are unsure what to do when confronted by the social pressures of princessdom. “It’s scary,” Montes says simply of his 9-year-old’s recent Libby Lu experience. “And it’s our job as parents to say: Sure, that was fun – but to keep [our daughter] grounded.”

The question he asks himself, he says, is: “How do I delicately allow them to become positive, strong, admirable girls, and to aspire to become positive young women?”

‘It’s really hard to be yourself when everyone’s telling you not to’
Sarah Graubard grew up in Dallas; today she’s 19, and a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Speaking of her own princess phase, she sounds uncomfortable. “The princess culture always made me feel sort of out of place.”

She sees a clear link between the Cinderella/Bratz craze and America’s broader obsession with celebrities. “I think the princess culture – the culture of movie stars, of being thin and beautiful, or what they call beautiful – it’s really draining on girls.”

She adds, “It’s really hard to be yourself when everyone’s telling you not to.”

“We are a nation obsessed with appearance and thinness that is not realistic or achievable for most of us,” says Dr. Susan Sugerman, president and co-founder of Girls to Women Health and Wellness, a Dallas multidisciplinary medical practice dedicated to the physical and emotional needs of girls and young women ages 10-25. Estimating that the current ideal body image is attainable for some two to five percent of the general population, Sugerman says that today “it’s almost impossible for a young woman to know what good eating is.”

“I see girls who are in the 8-11 year old range who are very comfortable with their bodies … and I see girls in elementary school who are concerned that they may be fat,” she shares.

Parents find, though, that the pressure is there even for girls who would otherwise not be interested. Donna Arceneaux, a Metroplex mother of 10-year-old Anais, who loves science and catching frogs at the creek, says, “She’s never really liked any of that stuff. But [some family members] really pressure her to fit into that princess identity. She feels like she’s being pressured to be someone she’s not, to be a certain kind of girl.”

‘Fantasy play can be over-interpreted’

The princess preoccupation “does seem to be expanding exponentially,” says Angela Sheely, assistant director of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas, but she cautions: “[Fantasy] play can be over-interpreted.”

“Play provides children with this opportunity to pretend to be someone else. It’s freeing. You grant in fantasy what you can’t have in reality.”

Essentially, it comes down to sensible parenting. “Parents are a stronger role model than anything depicted in the media,” assures Sheely.

Like Montes, Sheely stresses that it’s up to parents to set boundaries and help their children realize the wealth of options before them. Defining unconditional acceptance as “one of the pivotal philosophies,” Sheely believes one of the most important things a parent can offer is stability and “consistently validating children as who they are and how they are” vs. how they look or what they have.

Pattye Hicks, Leah’s mom, sees her role in the same terms. “Parents have an incredible job to teach young children, especially young girls, to learn to love themselves and to learn to have confidence within themselves,” she says.

“I want [Anais] to develop into her own person,” Arceneaux adds. “I’ve always exposed her to all kinds of beauty and all kinds of people.”

Rodriguez, a school counselor, is unfazed by his daughter’s Disney fascination, which recently evolved from the cartoon princesses to live-action characters like the Cheetah Girls and Hannah Montana.

Asked if he’s concerned that her interest in these figures has stimulated an overemphasis on her appearance, he sounds thoughtful. “I haven’t seen it yet,” he says, “but it has really sparked her interest in singing.” He pauses. “I would cut it off faster than anything if I saw that happening.”
And, that’s the key; parents giving perspective to their princesses. “Never underestimate the power of parenting,” Sheely confirms. “The power of the parent-child relationship is astronomical.”

Unknowingly underscoring Sheely’s point, Graubard speaks glowingly of her mother and father, calling them “the best parents.”

“They were down to earth and kept [me] grounded,” she recalls. “It makes for a better childhood and a better life experience, knowing where you’re going and who you’re going with.”

Even young Leah – who now dreams of someday making her high school volleyball team – echoes Sheely when she says that her role model today is one very specific person: “I look up to my mom.”
The consequences, of course, of not providing those boundaries to expectations or role models beyond the physical, can ultimately be deeply troubling – being taught to expect the world on a platter, while simultaneously being told to hew to very strict expectation of female beauty and worth, can become a toxic brew. Just ask Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton.

Next Month, Growing Girls Part 2: From Princess to Perfectionist.
Girls struggle to navigate the conflicting messages they have been absorbing, if not from their parents, then from the culture, since preschool. The first message: You’re a princess and deserve anything you want (looks are important). Second message: You have to work hard to attain anything you want (looks are even more important). As they get older, girls face increasing pressure to be high achieving, ambitious and confident … as long as they’re perfect (and beautiful) while they are at it. It amounts to profound anxiety and issues that can lead to out-of-control behavior (eating disorders, cutting, no boundaries a la Lindsey Lohan).