The International Writers Magazine: The Princess Syndrome
Not So Pretty in Pink: A Mother’s Angst Over Barbie and Princess Fever
Okay, so my title probably sounds a little intense, but let’s get this straight: I am a worrier. Yes, that’s right. My school nickname used to be The Worry Wart. Everyone called me that-- even the teachers. I worry about BPA in my daughters’ food, and whether it's better to eat salmon from a can or the kind that comes in the expensive aluminum foil packet.
(Can aluminum foil really give you Alzheimer's? Does anybody know?) And yes, I was terrified of H1N1. I made my kids and my husband wash their hands at least a million times a day. Okay, I'll admit it. I'm one of those women who carries hand sanitizer in her purse, just to be safe. Now things are different (sort of). My kids aren't babies anymore. They aren't even toddlers. They're healthy preschoolers who seldom get sick. And yet, I worry. But the worry that's currently bombarding my mind deals less with my daughters' physical health and more with their mental state of being. Don't get me wrong, I'm still torn about the salmon, but it's their all-consuming hobby that concerns me even more. That singular interest that eclipses all others: Namely, their obsession with Barbie and the Disney Princess collection.
I can hear them as I write these lines. My three-year-old, in her high, lispy voice: “I’m the wedding Ariel. (That’s the girl minus the fins.) You have to be Eric this time.”
“No,” quips my five-year-old, sounding annoyed. “I’m not being Eric. If I'm not a princess then I don't want to play!”
And off they go while I try and tune them out. I don’t want to hear. I don’t want to care. Except that I do.
At least they’re playing together, I tell myself. At least they’re leaving me alone. Only I wish they were playing something else. Perhaps an animal puzzle, or a game of house? And it's not that they don't do these things, it's just that most of the time it's princess fever.
Not only is their princess obsession the main focus of their pretend play, but it raises its hairy tresses each morning when we get ready for school. Just picking out their clothes is a nightmare now. They have to wear a dress, and it better be fancy. Something Ariel would wear. Or maybe Belle. Or possibly even Barbie herself. Even shoes are an absolute pain. No sneakers for them-- not unless they’re pink, plastered with princesses, and blink every third second.
“This is a problem,” I tell my husband while watching TV after the girls are in bed.
“I know,” he says. “But what’s the point? If we say no, it’ll only make the whole thing more alluring. Do you really want this to be one of your battles?”
Do I? No. I can't battle Barbie. And I do not, under any circumstances, want to fight the entire princess collection. I'm simply out numbered. They'd trample me with their heels. But am I pleased with the lessons I'm teaching my daughters? No, I can't really say that I am.
Funny story: When given the choice of riding her bike or wearing her hand-me-down, tangle-in-the-spokes, absurdly fancy ankle-length gown, my three-year-old chose the gown. Yes, that’s right. She’d rather wear a dress and watch her sister speed up and down the block, then change and have a little fun herself. Though I guess for her, wearing the gown is fun.
Another bike story: My five-year-old refused to peddle a bike until we bought her a Barbie two-wheeler for her birthday. Now this bike, we had seen no other like it. Not only is it purple and pink with Barbie written on every possible surface, but it has the ancillary feature of a plastic doll-sized bicycle that sits on the handlebars opposite the bell. That way Barbie can come along too, and you never, ever have to be separated from her again!
Well, my daughter was positively thrilled. But I guess that makes sense, she picked the thing out. Better than that, almost inconceivably so, she promised to ride it every day. And she actually did. No more moaning when we hauled out her bike. No more refusing to peddle, howling that it was too hard, amid desperate threats from my husband and myself. She loves the thing. She thinks it's the best bike ever, and the only one I can thank is the pink goddess herself.
Now I have to tell you, my parents were hippies. I grew up on a ten acre lot in rural Vermont. Our nearest neighbor was a half mile away, and my sister and I spent our childhood playing in the woods. And yes, my mother denied us Barbie. Mom feared the doll would give us negative self-images and that we'd grow to hate our normally proportioned bodies.
Now, as a grown-up with kids of my own, part of me agrees with my mom. Everyone knows that Barbie, with her enormous bust and teeny-tiny feet, couldn’t even stand up in the real world. Apparently, she's so disproportioned that she'd have to crawl her way down the street on all fours. And let's face it, the Disney Princess dolls aren’t any better. Strip them of their silky gowns and they could be Barbie’s long lost sisters.
||I’ll never forget when my then two-year-old asked why Ariel only wore a bra. This was after she grabbed the bra I had been drying on the bathroom towel rack, held it up to her chest and began singing “Part of Your World.” At first I found the whole thing hysterical, only the more that I thought about it, the more uneasy I became. But whom could I blame for my discomfort? Barbie and the Disney Princesses certainly didn't waltz into our lives on their own. It was me (sigh). I brought them here. I was the one who rented the movies. I bought the Disney Princess album that we religiously listen to while dancing around the living room together. I even (gasp!) let each girl have a doll.
Yes, me, the hippy child who lived in the woods. I brought Barbie home and introduced her to my kids. Hmm, maybe my husband was right. Maybe deprivation did make her more alluring.
I keep telling myself that it doesn’t matter, that they’re going to see that stuff anyway. At friend’s houses, at preschool-- (they have princess toys there too). And yet, the truth is, I still worry that I'm wrong. So every time my daughters ask me if they look pretty, which is something like a thousand times a day, I always retort with: “Yes, but you look smart too. And smart trumps pretty every time.” I even got my husband on board with this. And he does it. We both hope it'll make a difference somehow.
I suppose that I'm just going to have to pray that my daughters' obsession eventually fades. After all, the nine-year-old down the street doesn’t like princesses anymore. And she recently told me that Barbies are for babies. My five-year-old couldn’t believe either of those. And yet, will this fetish leave permanent scars? Did I destine my daughters to be superficial, image-obsessed drones who care more about what they wear than who they are? I’m not like that, but I was a Barbieless clod. And I predate almost every princess doll there is.
Of course, I looked into the research, and it could go either way. Some studies suggest that Barbie can affect girls' self-images, while others found that it's the mother's own body image that does the most damage or the most good.
So, maybe my mother wasn't right after all. Perhaps Barbie and the Princesses are just a phase. The truth is, I always wanted a Barbie. My mother's denial didn't wipe her existence from my mind. And I was positively jealous when my best friend got one. Although, she recently confided that though her mother let her keep the Barbie she received from a classmate as a gift, she insisted on telling my then eight-year-old friend that Barbie was Anorexic and mentally ill. That you didn’t want to be like her. And you don’t. At least, I don’t. And I don't want my daughters too either. But how do I protect them? How do I keep them safe without making the dolls even more enticing then they already are? Do I ditch the TV? Move to the woods? Write letters to the manufacturers of these toys and ask them to come up with brainier, more normally dimensioned versions? Or do I give up and blame our image-oriented society with its hot pink trappings that are so impossible to avoid. If I do that, I guess I'll just have to pray that my kids don't succumb to an image disorder before realizing that Barbie and her princess friends are idealized versions of what women should be. That they're no more real than the tooth fairy, though far more dangerous for sure.
For me, the answer is none of the above. I live in suburbia; my husband has a good job here. I don't think we'll be fleeing civilization any time soon. And I don't really see myself lobbying Mattel and Disney. I hate to put it this way, but I just don't have the gumption. So I suppose I'm going to have to put my worrying aside and bank on the belief that since I am a strong and intelligent women, my kids will grow up to be like that too. That this really is nothing more than a stage, and that I am a more important role model than Barbie and the princesses combined. That my minimalistic approach to makeup and my simple wardrobe of t-shirts and jeans will overwhelm the Princesses’s lacy charm. I won't banish the dolls, but I'll visit the library and check out as many books on strong women as I can. But facts must be faced, and I accept the truth: Barbie and the Disney Princesses aren't going anywhere. They've been festering in our society far too long to even think about calling it quits now. But as long as I show my daughters other models of women-- better, more interesting, more attainable models, I think their interest in these dolls will eventually subside. And hopefully, when their new obsession arrives, it will be something more intellectual in nature. Something that doesn't send me tripping over its puny, hot-pink slingbacks while trying to decide what I'm going to do.
© Maija Barnett
barnettmaija at yahoo.com
Maija has been published in Literary Mama, The Blind Man’s Rainbow and Desert Exposure.