Book Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

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.

The author with her daughter

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?”

The Disney Princesses. Since when is Sleeping Beauty’s dress pink??

Bratz Dolls, marketed to 6-10 year-olds

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.” 

Hannah Montana then

Hannah Montana? Is that you?

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.” 

Does even little Dora (right) really need a makeover?

Innocent, yet desirable.

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.

–Madelene Pario


8 responses to “Book Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

  1. The saddest thing. Whenever we go somewhere or meet someone new, Nana often says something like “I know they’re going to tell me I have pretty blue eyes.” The first time she said it, I freaked out. She was 5. Of course, sometimes people don’t, and I hope it doesn’t hurt her.

    My favorite advice regarding looks has been to make praise about you and not them. IE–I love your face. And then make it about their actions. I like the way you did your hair today. I like the outfit you put together. That was a nice laugh. . . It’s hard not to slip up sometimes, but I’ve liked it.

    The sexuality aspect of it is very disturbing. We have Netflix. Nana knows how to get her own shows on it. She put on Bratz Babies. Holy Cow. It’s as bad as it sounds. They are babies, dressed up in things that you’d never want to see an adult in (like basically a vest), and they spend a lot of time at the mall. I was scared.

    • Wow Ali– sounds like you are really aware of this stuff. Those are great tips. I am scared by Bratz babies too– basically they are Bratz dolls marketed to even younger girls. Ugh.

  2. The easiest way to make sure these media concepts don’t over-influence your daughter is to limit the amount of TV she watches. Twelve hours a week should be enough. More TV equals more TV influence, and less time for the influence of other life experiences!

  3. I am reading this after a hectic shopping experience. I just went out to find back to school clothing for my six year old daughter, Elena, Apparently she has crossed that nebulous department store threshold which filters attire that is inappropriate (read down right trashy) and I could not find clothes that I liked in her new size.

    Everywhere I went the clothes for six year old girls was a smaller version of what I saw on the racks in the juniors section. Now I admit I am someone who cringes at what teens are wearing anyway but to think that the sexy teen styles are the only styles offered for my first grader was incredibly frustrating.

    I eventually wound my way into my old favorite kids clothing stores, Gymboree, Crazy 8 and the handful of boutiques I have come to love over the years and found what I was looking for… Clothes that allowed my daughter to be the little girl she still is. But I realized as I wandered through those racks of clothes that I had started on a new adventure, a new battle, the fight to teach her that flashy isn’t always pretty, that trendy rarely really works for everyone, and that spandex, glitter and none too subtle flashes of bare skin do not necessarily equate femininity.

    Thank you for the post. It sounds like a book to add to my collection.

    Lots of love… Rebecca

    • Thanks Rebecca–I am worried about when my daughter hits 5 and 6 as well. It is so worrisome what is being sold for kids— marketers actually have a name for what they are doing: KGOY: Kids Getting Older Younger. Funny that as adults, we are supposed to stay younger, older. Pretty soon, we will be the same age as our daughters!

  4. Madelene – Just in case you are interested in reading more about marketing to kids and KGOY you should read “Buy Buy Baby” by Susan Gregory Thomas. I read it last year and was kind of horrified.

    In some ways though, I think reading this type of literature only confirms my own bias of wanting to believe that the world is getting more awful for young women. There have been some *wins* in the gender equality world over the last 20 years, and no entirely sure that clothes/ princesses are *that*much worst than 15 years ago – which is like half a century in advertising, right? j/k. I’m interested in reading this book too though – thanks for posting!

    • Hey Beth–I think you have a point. I think some things today are the same old stereotypes and gender biases repackaged in a different way. And I do a enjoy a good Disney film (the book really picks on them!). I think maybe the key here is awareness so you can laugh at–rather than give in to–the subliminal messages? 🙂

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