By Kelli Wallner
Web Exclusive - July 26, 2008
It's a familiar scene: I am working in the kitchen when I hear the clip-clop coming down the tile hallway. In a moment, a princess appears in the doorway. She's short. Her pink sequined heels are on the wrong feet, and she has cookie crumbs all over her mouth. But she is, nonetheless, a princess.
Slowly, and with a shy smile, she approaches. "What do you think of me?"
"I think you're beautiful."
"I'm a princess."
"Yes, I know."
You should know I haven't always been this comfortable with the princess thing. It has been a process. I believe that young girls should not be made to feel that their looks are the most important thing. I believe in equal pay for equal work. I want my daughter's role models to be women who are strong in character.
So when my mother arrived one day brandishing a bag full of princess paraphernalia for my two-year-old Kassia, I nearly died. It was plastic from China meets American consumerism and gender roles: a purple tiara with huge, plastic diamonds; high heels in a very unnatural shade of pink; pink and purple bangles; clip-on earrings. My little girl was about to be transformed into a tiny pink and purple icon of everything I loathe.
I didn't say a word, except maybe, awkwardly and half-heartedly, "How pretty."
The first moment that I began to soften on the issue was when Kassia invited me to dress up with her. We had by then acquired a collection of princess clothes and jewelry that allowed up to four people to join in (my husband has been asked, but always declines). Somewhat reluctantly, I placed a small tiara on my head and wrapped a royal blue, fake feather boa around my neck and shoulders. And to my surprise, my mind returned to the night of my junior prom--the only night that I recall actually trying to look like a princess. The memory was nice.
I had always thought girls gravitate to such things because of the way we socialize them. And while I still think there's something to that, I do note that of all the various toys and activities Kassia has available to her--including a workbench, cars, and a bug collecting kit--it is the princess clothes she likes the most. They make her feel girly and special and wonderful.
Kassia is now three, and on a cold winter day close to Christmas, I invited two of her playmates over to the house for a train cake decorating party. I splurged on a train mold from Williams Sonoma, and Kassia and I had gone shopping for icing and candy decorations to make the most beautiful train cake ever. The train had nine cars, so each girl had three to decorate on her own, and then we would put the train together on top of powdered sugar snow.
As the girls sat on stools around our kitchen island, I passed out the icing and decorations. Before they had even begun, the girls were asking Kassia to see her room. I was pleased, thinking that would be a lovely place for them to spend some time after the train was finished.
Then it happened. The younger and very petite little friend asked, "Do you have princess clothes?" Dear god, it's an epidemic.
"Can we see them?" asked the other girl.
I started to say something about maybe decorating the train first, but in the blink of an eye, three preschoolers were en route to my daughter's room, where clothing flew everywhere as they stripped in preparation for their transformation into tiny princesses. After waiting what I felt was an appropriate amount of time not to seem like I was hovering, I peeked in the room. The trio of three-year-olds, each with a different shade of tender skin, was in full garb: sleeveless gowns, tiaras, necklaces, high heels, and even wands. They were helping each other with the Velcro closures in the back.
As I watched the party, I remembered being a seventh grader in the junior high bathroom, swapping lipsticks with the other girls and talking, of course, about boys. I had done that, after all, hadn't I? And was I any worse for the wear?
There's a passage in Clarissa Pinkola Estes's Women Who Run with the Wolves, in which she describes how much inhibition was required of the women of the World War II era: "Dancing was barely tolerated... self decoration caused suspicion.... Joyful body or dress increased the danger of being harmed or sexually assaulted."
So between my daughter and the wolves, I have come to a new place. I am grateful that we live in a country, and an era, in which she can express her femininity. I am grateful that just because femininity has been exploited in the past, doesn't mean we can't celebrate it now.
At the age of three, Kassia doesn't know Barbie exists. I know this will change. One day soon, she will return from playing at a friend's house and announce that she wants a Barbie, and who knows how many accessories to go with it. And I will try my hardest not to visibly cringe at the thought of the unrealistically proportioned bimbo doll becoming part of our household. I will push away visions of my daughter with an eating disorder at the age of 13. I will remain calm and remind myself that beauty and integrity are not mutually exclusive. They can peacefully coexist. I know this, because I see it in my little princess.