From the time she is born—in truth, well before—parents are bombarded with zillions of little decisions, made consciously or not, that will shape their daughter's ideas and understanding of her femininity, her sexuality, her self. How do you instill pride and resilience in her? Do you shower her with pink heart-strewn onesies? Reject the Disney Princess Pull-Ups for Lightning McQueen? Should you let your three-year-old wear her child-friendly nail polish to preschool? What's your policy on the latest Disney Channel "it" girl? Old Dora versus New Dora? Does a pink soccer ball celebrate girlhood? Do pink TinkerToys expand or contract its definition? And even if you think the message telegraphed by a pink Scrabble set with tiles on the box top that spell "F-A-S-H-I-O-N" is a tad retrograde, what are you supposed to do about it? Lock your daughter in a tower? Rely on the tedious "teachable moment" in which Mom natters on about how if Barbie were life-sized she'd pitch forward smack onto her bowling ball boobs (cue the eye rolling, please)?
Answering such questions has, surprisingly, become more complicated since the mid-1990s, when the war whoop of "Girl Power" celebrated ability over body. Somewhere along the line, that message became its own opposite. The pursuit of physical perfection was recast as a source—often the source—of young women's "empowerment." Rather than freedom from traditional constraints, then, girls were now free to "choose" them. Yet the line between "get to" and "have to" blurs awfully fast. Even as new educational and professional opportunities unfurl before my daughter and her peers, so does the path that encourages them to equate identity with image, self-expression with appearance, femininity with performance, pleasure with pleasing, and sexuality with sexualization. It feels both easier and harder to raise a girl in that new reality—and easier and harder to be one.
I didn't know whether Disney Princesses would be the first salvo in a Hundred Years' War of dieting, plucking, and painting (and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results). But for me they became a trigger for the larger question of how to help our daughters with the contradictions they will inevitably face as girls, the dissonance that is as endemic as ever to growing up female. It seemed, then, that I was not done, not only with the princesses but with the whole culture of little girlhood: what it had become, how it had changed in the decades since I was a child, what those changes meant, and how to navigate them as a parent.