As a counselor who often works with pre-teen and teenage girls, I have heard first-hand the challenges of growing up as a modern girl: the mixed messages and the expectations especially about beauty and appearance. I meet with girls who, very confused about their own needs and desires, entered into abusive relationships, developed eating disorders, or otherwise hurt themselves. Needless to say, when I learned we were having a baby girl, I was simultaneously extremely happy, and shaking in my boots.
After reading Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011), I am not sure I am any less petrified, but at least I feel a bit more armed with awareness and knowledge about what is really behind all the “pretty and pink” that is being packaged to girls.
The basic premise of this heavily researched book is that there is an “all pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters” — a market that is grabbing our daughters’ childhood, distorting it, and selling it back to us at a price.
Orenstein interviews dozens of marketing and mental health professionals, visits child beauty pageants and toy expos, and references a variety of old and new literature. She creates a though-provoking exposé on modern girl culture and consumerism.
She focuses first on the color pink as a marketing strategy introduced within the last few decades (ever noticed how you have two buy two sets of baby clothes now: one pink and one blue). Look up the history of pink if you are interested in learning more.
So what’s so bad about pink anyway? Pink was meant to connote innocence, and yet over the years, Orenstein argues, it’s original meaning has receded, “leaving behind narcissism and materialism as the hallmarks of feminine identity…it also discourages cross-sex friendship. Could you share your Pink Glam Magic 8 Ball with a pal who happened to be a boy? My sources say no.”
Actually, it’s all a marketing strategy: the Disney princesses, dolls like Moxie Girlz and Bratz. Even Miley Cyrus from the TV show Hannah Montana and former Mouseketeer, Britney Spears.
All of these toys, celebrities and shows send mixed-messages to girls: be innocent, yet desirable; “Be yourself” –as long as you’re hot and love shopping. All of these brands have one goal in mind: to get girls to associate their self-esteem with their appearance–to buy, buy, buy at younger and younger ages. They are actually disempowering girls:
“What is the alternative to thin, pretty, and hot (regardless of other qualities) as the source of feminine power and identity?”
According to Orenstein, our daughters “struggle with the expectation to look sexy but not feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves. Our daughters…will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized. That is not easy when self-respect has become a marketing gimmick, a way for female pop stars to bide their time before serving up their sexuality as a product for public consumption.”
And child beauty pageants? Simply a reflection of what is being peddled and bought, hook, line and sinker.
What I liked most about Orenstein’s writing was that it seemed fair, thoughtful and level-headed. As I read the book, I felt her confusion as a parent about what to buy for her daughter, Daisy, and how to help her navigate the messages she sees on TV, in the store and at school (when Daisy dresses up as a superhero at school, she feels isolated from the other girls who want to play “princess.”)
In the end, the message is that books, toys, etc are not each inherently harmful–however grouped together, they can be a very dangerous and damaging thing.
The “all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters—and at us—from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price. It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel More than that, it tells them how you look is how you feel, as well as who you are.”
Someone who is looking for a “manual” on how to raise girls won’t find one here. Her writing is more nuanced than that. However after reading this book, I was left with some very practical ideas I’d like to try with my daughter (I think these could equally apply to boys too!):
- Read the *real* fairy-tales to your daughter (the original ones from Grimm and earlier–you know, the ones that don’t always end “happily ever after”).
- Search out strong and realistic models of femininity for your daughter.
- Instead of creating a “forbidden fruit” scenario, sit with your daughter and help her understand the hidden messages behind TV shows and toys, without berating or shaming.
- Be media literate yourself, and don’t be afraid to say “no” to something you feel is inappropriate
Finally, I loved the advice about when or if to tell your daughter she is beautiful:
“There are times when it is important to say it: when she’s messy or sweaty, when she’s not dressed up, so that she gets a sense that there is something naturally beautiful about her as a person. And it’s also important to connect beauty with love. To say, ‘I love you so much. Everything about you is beautiful to me—you are beautiful to me.’”
Now that is some practical advice I think we could all practice more often.