November 16, 2011

{Princess Redux} Disney Princesses: Part Three

[excerpt from upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride]

In June 2008 a national report, “Real Girls, Real Pressure,” commissioned by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund was released, revealing a “self-esteem crisis” in the United States that “pervades every aspect of a girl’s life.” It showed that “seven in ten girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members.” The highly respected study, embraced by Oprah Winfrey and others who used the findings to inspire their own work, also showed that “75% of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in negative activities such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking, or drinking when feeling badly about themselves.”  Conducted online among 1,029 girls between the ages of eight and 17, the study found that “the top wish among all girls is for their parents to communicate better with them, which includes more frequent and open conversations about what is happening in their own lives.”

How can we encourage little girls to let their imaginations play on their way to become more centered and grounded adults? How can we support little girls’ dreams of being a princess or a rock star—or become president of their country or a mother of five (or both!)—when they grow up and keep their self-esteem growing as well? Orenstein reported that, according to the American Psychological Association, “the emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness at ever-younger ages is increasing girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: eating disorders, negative body image, depression, risky sexual behavior.”

While magazines geared toward teen and pre-teen girls have cover blurbs that shout “get thinner, be sexier, have the perfect hair!,” they also feature articles on “embracing the beauty of differences and relishing imperfections,” writes a post on Off Our Chest blog about Seventeen magazine. “But the industry and its players can do so much more good. They just have to choose to.”

“Little girls” have always had an infatuation with beautiful “big girls”—admiring and looking up to a teacher or their big brother’s girlfriend or a bride or Miss America or a movie star…or a real life princess in the news. I certainly did. It’s just natural. I recently saw a video of Chelsea Clinton visiting school children as part of her father’s Clinton Foundation initiative. This was a year or so after her wedding where she truly had been like an “American princess bride,” radiating warmth and love. Little girls at the school looked on adoringly, seeming to hang on Chelsea’s every word; perhaps some had seen pictures of her as a beautiful bride. And I had the thought: “This is the positive side of the ‘princess myth’ where a real person—who just happens to be a pretty blonde woman—is making a real contribution by helping to shape little girls’ lives through her love and concern—and yes, her celebrity. So if it’s something sparkly and cute, or a princess gown, or being a “pretty blonde woman” that gets little girls attention—great! It’s just up to us “big girls” to direct that attention to something substantial and grounded and deeply fulfilling so little girls are truly looking up to us.

Princess Diana, a real princess and the most photographed woman in the world, had some of the same emotional and self-esteem issues as today’s little girls and young women. If she had lived, I believe that one of her causes would have been to encourage the world’s population of little girls to love themselves just the way they are. With her sudden death, her legacy can do just that if we focus our attention on the consequences of low self-esteem. Diana’s inner struggles were immense; now we get to learn from her stumbles and fears, benefiting from the awareness that her megawatt life opened for us. And her death exposed the princess myth so little girls can discover their own beauty and power not at odds to anything, not as a reflection of anyone. ~

[This is the final post for the “Disney Princesses” section. All are excerpts from the soon-to-be released book, The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride. To see other excerpts in the series, click on Disney Princesses in Labels below.]

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