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Isn't She Lovely? Are Today's Princesses Having Fun Or Getting The Wrong Idea?

Jami Kunzer
Kane County Chronicle
October 18, 2008

Little girls everywhere will be adding a "Bibbidi-Bobbidi" to their "Boo" this Halloween.

Princesses so far are continuing their reign as the No. 1 children's costume, according to the National Retail Foundation.

But, as parents of young girls know well, the costumes aren't just popular once a year. A princess mania seems to have taken over.

Just about anything geared toward children these days clothing, toys, furniture, books and more can be found with a Disney princess emblazoned on them.

Princess-themed parties and venues, television shows, movies and plays are everywhere.

It's definitely a phenomenon, but perhaps not as new as some might think. Children always have played dress-up.

Instead of a blanket clothes-pinned on the back or Mom's old dress, they now wear royal gowns and tutus chosen from entire aisles filled with princess attire.

"Times haven't changed, but these days, the toy companies have found ways to make 'pretend' profitable," said Mary Fosnow of McHenry, who worked as a home daycare provider when her now-teenage children were younger.

She had a toy box filled with dress-up clothes. She encouraged the imaginary play and remembers wearing a "royal" cape and a crown made out of cardboard and tinfoil as a child.

"That's a gift of childhood, the freedom to simply play," she said. "I'm sure that the little girl walking around in her robes and jewels and crown knows she's not a real princess, but it's just so much fun to pretend to be one."

A "well-rounded" princess

Imaginary play is healthy, child development experts say, as long as the princess image isn't taken too far.

Concerned parents should take a look at books, such as "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can do to Protect Their Kids" and "Frogs, Snails, and Feminist Tales," recommended Smara Madrid, an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education at Northern Illinois University.

The books offer a feminist and critical perspective about how young females can be socialized into roles that focus on male approval, beauty as self-worth and the notion of "happily ever after," she said.

For kids, the stories "Do Princess Wear Hiking Boots?" by Carmela LaVigna Coyle and "The Paperbag Princess" by Robert N. Munsch, challenge the traditional princess image.

It comes down to how parents talk to their children, said Shira Greenfield, a licensed clinical professional counselor for Centegra Health System in McHenry.

"It becomes more harmful when being a princess is only about being pretty to the exclusion of any other characteristics, being smart or kind or funny," she said. "When they want to be a princess because princesses are pretty, you're setting girls up for some image issues."

Instead, encourage a "well-rounded" princess, she said.

Tell them, "You can be nice and kind and smart as a nurse or a housekeeper or a princess," she suggested. "If a princess is just rich and pretty, that's a shallow goal."

Once upon a time

Disney began marketing the princess costumes in 1999 when an executive noticed at a Disney on Ice show the number of girls dressed in generic costumes.

They realized dressing up like a Disney princess is a phase many girls go through, said Kathy Franklin, vice president of Global Franchise Development-Girls for Disney Consumer Products.

"The primary benefit is they just love it," she said. "They enjoy themselves immensely. And our research shows that moms understand the Disney characters have a lot of positive attributes kindness, compassion and caring about each other."

Disney sends the message in its stories that a "true princess" is beautiful both inside and out, she said.

Madeline Becker of Crystal Lake, a mom of six, including two girls ages 9 and 6, doesn't worry about the "pretty" princess image. "Right now, I think it's just a time to enjoy," she said. "I think you can address those things later when they can understand what you're getting at."

Other moms, such as Lorri Kunz of Marengo, never had to worry about it. Her daughter, now 15, wanted to be more like her older brother.

"I never pursued it. She didn't want it, and that's fine with me," she said. "It's a little bit too much focus on how beautiful they are, and how thin and ultimately, they're successful because they're rich in the end and they find a good prince."

Kristen Esch of Batavia, who's daughter Lexi, now 11, went through a princess phase at age 3, also worried about the message sent.

Parents can go over-board, she said, feeding into the suggestion that girls should be pretty and popular, that glitter spray will make a young girl stand out more at Halloween.

Girls should learn the difference between imaginary and "real women, real looks and real expectations," she said.

"The magazine wants them to look a certain way to be excepted," she'd tell her daughter. "Isn't that horrible?"

There's nothing wrong with little girls dressing as princesses as long as parents also teach them values, said Joni Downey, a mom of three who runs a McHenry-based "Characters of Character" program for pre-schoolers.

"I am a firm believer that children should stay young for a long time, let them dream, let them use their imaginations and mostly let them be little for awhile," she said.





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