Last night at Target I thought a lot about Peggy Orenstein. A bestselling author and contributor to the New York Times Magazine, Orenstein is perhaps best known as a girl culture commentator. From the “Confidence Gap,” to the identity-cementing effect of Facebook on teenage girls, Orenstein is both fascinated observer and wise critic. Her new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” offers an invitation to pause for a breath and examine the increasingly sexualized, appearance-centric culture in which girls are raised.
But back to Target. I’ve written here before about my conflicted relationship with all things girlie. I’m a feminist and pop-culture skeptic, but if it’s hot pink or slathered in sequins I cannot look away. So last night, even as I found myself sucked down the pinkety-pink Barbie aisle, entranced by heart-shaped Valentine’s Day dinner plates, and enviously examining flouncey red lace mini-skirts in the girls department (If they’d made clothes like that when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have resorted to wearing my mom’s silk slip to school.), I thought of Ms. Orenstein and wondered. Did Cinderella eat me too?
Our Town What was your purpose in writing “Cinderella Ate My Daughter?”
Peggy Orenstein I liken my approach to the food movement. Ten years ago, who knew from trans fats? Now, because of a couple of books, because somebody started the conversation, we’re more aware; we know there are physical health threats. I wanted to start the conversation about the rise of this girlie girl culture that encourages girls to define themselves by appearance. It’s a very personal book because it’s about my daughter, all of our daughters.
OT Your discussion of Disney Princess play and its possible impact on girls as they grow drew the attention of a Disney spokesperson who called you absurd and said in part, “little girls experience the fantasy and imagination provided by these stories as a normal part of their childhood development.”
PO It is developmentally appropriate. That’s what’s pernicious about it. Girls (and boys) are really focused on asserting their gender when they’re that age. They hook onto whatever culture provides that’s most extreme. At one point, it was dustpans and brooms, then baby dolls; now it’s focusing on becoming the fairest of them all. It’s great that Disney feels they have to respond to me-they’re that threatened. Their response that princesses help girls expand their imagination? Nothing says expanding girls imaginations like pink Disney princess mouse ears with a tiara and a bridal veil.
OT As girls mature, how exactly do their playthings impact their self-image?
PO There’s this way that little girls are encouraged to confuse self-absorption with self-confidence. My daughter got a make your own messenger bag kit for her birthday. It has all these iron-on transfers: hearts, flowers, stars, ones that say “brat,” and “spoiled and pampered princess.” And she said, “Mom why would anyone want that on their purse?” I call it Girlz with a Z culture: Bratz and Monster High dolls, toys and movies that promote the idea that the way you show you’re confident and powerful as a girl is to look like a Sesame Streetwalker.
OT You cite studies connecting young girls playing at sexiness with older girls experiencing body image issues. What’s that about?
PO With all this emphasis on play sexiness at unprecedentedly early ages, girls don’t understand what they’re doing. It becomes a performance and maybe they never learn to connect to their internal feelings and grow up seeing sexuality as something they perform for others. This blew me away: I talked to a researcher who asked teenage girls to describe their feelings around arousal. They responded with how they looked. She had to tell them looking good isn’t a feeling. Girls are going through puberty younger; they look like adult women at younger ages, so they need protection from being sexualized too soon.
OT Our soundbite culture is impatient with conversation. We want prescriptions. What would you say to someone looking for that from your book?
PO When you’ve got a multi-billion dollar industry aimed right at your child, to say, “well if you just do this it’ll all be okay,” wouldn’t be right. It’s unrealistic to offer a prescription for child raising. You have to make some hard decisions about what you’ll allow in your house, how you’ll talk to your daughter. If you say no to everything it’s going to be hard to convince her you’re offering her more choices. You have to do the work—which I hate to tell parents cause I know they’re really busy—of looking for things to give girls that make them feel great about being a girl in ways that aren’t hooked into appearance and sexiness.
OT An Our Town reader called your book “alarmist without offering much in the way of practical solutions for concerned parents.” What would you say in response?
PO I’m sorry someone would find the book alarmist because I really tried, with the title and the tone, to recognize how crazy it is for parents and how sometimes you just have to laugh. I’m really conscious and candid about my own fallibility and my own hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Parenting is so present tense. When your kid is three, you have little memory of what it was like when she was six months and little ability to imagine what it will be like when she’s five. So it’s important to stand back and look at a context, a pattern and just talk and think about it. We really haven’t done this because again, this stuff is so new. It’s been building for the last ten years, so it’s been hard for parents to realize its happening. [As for solutions,] I can’t tell you exactly where the lines should be for your daughter or your values, but all of us are concerned about raising our daughters to be healthy, happy, confident and strong and not to hinge their identity on how they look. So we need to be talking about that.
Peggy Orenstein reads from her new book at 7 p.m. Monday, February 1st at Women and Children First.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. Follow Our Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez