Beyond Princesses: Empowering Girls This Christmas

I’m a proud mother of a little girl and a baby boy. As I’ve been feeling my way through parenthood, one of the things I keep coming back to is how hard it is to parent my little girl the way I want to. I want her to grow up to be strong and independent. I want her to know she’s more than her body or her looks. I want her to know she can be wildly successful if she works hard. These seem like things that all parents want for their girls, but it feels like the most popular toys and media are pushing girls in the opposite direction.

Page from the book “An Ordinary Princess”

It really hit me on my daughter’s third birthday. Gifts from her wonderful, adoring and well-meaning family members included a very elaborate princess gown, a realistic jeweled tiara, a pink princess castle (tent thingy), a princess castle doll house, and a princess book that encouraged girls to pledge to be kind, happy, helpful and “never, never” complain. (There was literally a certificate at the end of the book for the girl to sign the pledge!) I was surprised — she was barely three, hadn’t really seen a movie yet, and was just starting to be aware of princesses. I casually asked our family why they got her so much princess stuff. I was met with answers like “I wanted her to like it,” and “that’s all that’s available.”

I keep coming back to those responses. The fact of the matter is that toy aisles and bookshelves are jammed with this stuff and most parents and grandparents don’t have the time to seek out alternatives. Plus, girls do start asking for this stuff. Every time we go to Target it’s like walking into a Disney princess store, with princess themed costumes, dolls, Legos, Playdough, games, tea sets, art supplies, clothes, other random toys, accessories, and even Christmas ornaments. Plus, there are a ton of other non-princess toys on the market that are equally stereotype-reinforcing. Things like:

A vanity set:

American Plastic vanity set

Toy makeup:

Little Cosmetics pretend makeup

Dress-up (“role play”) clothes:

Melissa & Doug hair stylist costume

And anything Shopkins:

Shopkins doll

Our girls are inundated with this stuff, whether we like it or not, and it’s only natural that they start thinking that these are the things that girls are supposed to play with, and start asking for them.

This is a problem, because toys and characters like Disney princesses can magnify stereotypes in young girls. These stereotypes have consequences. From the Dove Self-esteem Project, in the US:

  • 81% of 10-year-old girls in the U.S. are afraid of being fat.
  • Six out of 10 girls opt out of important activities because they’re worried about the way they look.
  • Girls who think they are overweight, regardless of their actual weight, have lower grades.

According to the American Psychological Association, the potential consequences of sexualizing girls include:

  • Body dissatisfaction
  • Depression
  • Lower self- esteem
  • Diminished cognitive ability
  • Shame
  • Lower achievement levels
  • Fewer opportunities later in life

I could go on and on.

What is a parent to do about all of this? I’ve thought long and hard about it. (Okay, obsessed over it.) It’s just not in my nature to rip the pink satin and sparkles from my daughter’s hands, even though I can see how they might impact her. Plus, I’m relatively “girly” myself — I wear makeup, my favorite color’s magenta, etc. Instead, I’ve decided to take a more level-headed approach — to intentionally and consciously balance the stereotypical stuff with some things that are really healthy; activities, toys and books that encourage girls to be strong and successful — things that reinforce a healthy body image, inspire confidence, and encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills.

What I really want is for girl-positive media and toys to be the norm, rather than the exception. When I’m up at dawn with the baby, pushing my kids in the swings at the park, or tucking them in at night, I think about what I can do to get us there. In the meantime, we’re stuck with the pink aisle and the reality that most of us are too busy to spend a lot of time on this. I wanted to do something to help myself, my daughter and other families now, so a friend and I put together some guides to holiday gifts that encourage girls to be strong and successful. We kept it to our top picks so folks can get through them quickly. If you’re looking for more options, A Mighty Girl is a great resource.

To balance out the princess stuff that’s likely coming from family this year, I’m giving my 3.5 year-old daughter a pretend camp set, complete with a lantern, canteen and (plastic) swiss army knife. I’m hoping it inspires imaginary games of outdoor survival and skill — building a shelter, forraging for food, exploring new places — even if she’s doing it all in a princess dress.

Are you interested in seeing more girl-positive characters in girls’ books, TV shows, apps and more? If so, please join the Hopscotch Girls email list. We need your help!