When Andréa Childs’ daughter Sylvie was 3, she was invited to a knights-and-princesses party. While mum half hoped her usually tomboyish mini-me would dress up in chain mail and offer to slice the birthday cake with a plastic sword, her little girl wore a pink dress, a tiara and played with dolls.
“It was a curious metamorphosis, as I had never actively encouraged an interest in stereotypical girls’ toys,” Childs says. “And although she seemed delighted with the transition, as her mum — and worried about society’s emphasis on female looks — I wasn’t so sure.”
Girls like pink
Girls start to show a preference for pink between the ages of 2 and 3, when they’re becoming more aware of their gender, according to a study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Experts argue about whether this is down to instinct or outside influences. But, whatever the explanation, what they agree on is that, because society generally associates girls with pink and boys with blue, we tend to treat our children differently, whether we mean to or not.
“Studies show that people will play more physically with a baby that’s dressed in blue and that the interaction is calmer when the baby is wearing pink, whatever their sex,” notes education consultant Nicky Hutchinson, who also authored Body Image in the Primary School.
If you walk into any kids’ clothes shop, you’ll see T-shirts with slogans like “Beautiful is my middle name” for girls and “Trouble is my middle name” for boys. Hutchinson adds. “The danger is that it teaches our daughters that their value comes from their looks.”
While most modern mums don’t mind their daughters dressing up and feeling pretty, they do have a problem with them growing up to feel as if being beautiful is the ultimate measure of success and happiness.
“If this seed has been planted in her mind from an early age, how will she learn about the things that really matter, such as being a good person, or having the same ambitions and opportunities that her brothers do?” Childs questions.
Peggy Orenstein was trying to answer that same query when she wrote Cinderella Ate My Daughter after her little girl became obsessed with princesses. “I was sure that it was just a phase because girls aren’t swanning about in their Sleeping Beauty gowns when they leave for university,” Orenstein notes. “But they did mark my daughter’s first foray into mainstream culture.”
And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was strong or smart, but that every girl wants to be the fairest of them all.
Children love pretend play
Maybe it’s because we grew up on a diet of fairy tales, too, but not all mums are concerned about their daughters’ passion for fantasy figures. Vanessa Teng, 38, mum to Libby, 3, has noticed that her daughter is now obsessed with dressing up as a princess. “I’ve no idea where it comes from, as she’s never watched TV or seen a Disney movie,” Teng says. “It’s probably a reaction to having two brothers. It doesn’t worry me as I doubt she’ll still be doing it when she’s 15.”
While Kathy Lee’s 4-year-old daughter Arwen has always loved pink and sparkles, Lee has noticed that this preference has gotten even stronger after her little one started school. “I think children tend to copy each other to fit in,” Lee notes.
Between 2000 and 2009, global sales of Disney Princess products leapt from £300 million to more than £4 billion. But what do little girls find so appealing about role-playing royalty? “More than any other games girls play, such as ‘mummies’ or ‘fairies’, being a princess is about the fantasy of having everything you want,” Hutchinson explains. “It’s about power — people will bow to you and do your bidding.”
Trouble is, it’s a feminised version of power, based on beauty. In a study by the University of Central Florida, called Am I Too Fat to Be a Princess?, girls aged 3 to 6 were asked what they would need to change about themselves to become a real princess. The answers were mainly practical (they’d need a crown) rather than about self-image (having different skin or hair colour).
The researchers concluded that, when they pretend-play, young girls simply enjoy all the pretty accessories. It’s at age 6 and above that girls begin to compare themselves to the idealised image, and worry about not being thin or beautiful enough. So, how do we manage the part in-between — the transition from harmless fun to anxiety about body image?
Allow children to express themselves freely
Hutchinson reckons the answer isn’t to stop our daughters from dressing up as such stereotypes, but to allow their fascination to run its course. “Kids should be using their imagination and forbidding something only makes it more attractive. But make sure she knows there are other options for her,” she explains.
Make princess play constructive by stressing that girls don’t just have to be passive and wait for their prince to save the day. And praise not just her looks, but other qualities such as humour, kindness and generosity. “When she’s finished playing, do some colouring or take her climbing. Show her there’s more than one way to be a girl,” Hutchinson says.
Thankfully, princess culture is progressing. Now, for every fair maiden waiting to be rescued, there’s a gung- ho heroine fighting her own battles — think Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled. And while Childs' daughter Sylvie still refuses to cut her hair or wear trousers, she has also dressed up as a pirate, complete with sash, sword and eye patch. “For now, she’s content playing lots of different roles,” Childs notes. “Princess or pirate, I’m happy just to help her find the one that fits.”
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“Princess or pirate, I’m happy just to help her find the one that fits.”
Nurture your little knight’s sensitive core...
Pirates, action-heroes and knights — the male equivalent of princesses — seem irresistible from the age of 4 to boys as this is when children begin to “type” themselves — defining themselves as a boy or a girl. “It coincides with society presenting them with hyper-masculine role models,” notes education consultant Nicky Hutchinson. Boys play these fantasy roles as a way of finding out who they are, while learning more about physicality and competition. As a parent, you can highlight the best things about, say, pirates, such as their sense of individuality and bravery, while down-playing the negatives that come with these characters, such as aggression. Also, by applauding your son’s kindness and sensitivity and not just their strength, you’ll show him that swashbuckling and jousting aren’t the only options for boys.
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