Guess how many American teenagers got Botox injections in 2009? Just one would be too many. But the real figure - 12,000 - is ridiculous. Assuming most do it for cosmetic purposes, this trend should sicken us: Thousands of beautiful teens having poison injected into their heads to smooth faces that could not be more wrinkle-free.
This is just one of the statistics in Peggy Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, that made me sit up. The book aims to dissect the princess myth, and the cult of the pretty, pink-clad toddler, that we have come to accept as a normal phase of every little girl's development. Orenstein ends up tackling not just Disney but also a swooning Bella from Twilight, the increasingly sexual Miley Cyrus, a newly glamorous Dora, and an entire industry aimed at selling products that twirl, sparkle, and draw the eye, with repetitive images of thin, flawless female royals.
I admit I approached the book with some cynicism. There are so many tomes out there that make modern parents - already an anxious, self-critical lot - feel bad about how well they care for, or guide, their children. Perhaps I was feeling defensive; my little girl wears princess dresses everywhere and frequently begs to sleep in them. She loves Sleeping Beauty the best - the most passive and useless of princesses - largely because she wears pink. But, honestly, who wants to rip frothy dresses and tiaras away from sweet kids who will grow out of them anyway?
Orenstein does. She argues, persuasively, that at an age where kids' brains are most easily molded, we are teaching girls that beauty is the most admired and rewarded attribute, that being female means pouting and performing, and that they should wait for boys to rescue them. It also encourages boys and girls to play separately, so they relate less frequently and spend less time talking.
Orenstein admits no evidence shows a direct causal link between the princess cult and, say, low self-esteem in girls. But, she writes, there is "ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy." A further batch of studies shows "teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity - especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior - are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers. They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners use condoms."
Ugh. Not exactly what I was thinking of when I stood in line at the Disneyland Princess Pavilion, clutching a camera in one hand and a tiny, damp palm in the other. A Disney executive invented the Disney Princess in 2000 after going to a Disney on Ice show where he noticed a bunch of little girls wearing homemade princess costumes. By 2009, Disney had created 26,000 princess products in a business worth $4 billion (the biggest global franchise for girls between 2 and 6). It seems every female toddler has a favorite princess and flounces about in dresses and crowns. The princess identity is one little girls latch onto with a startling fever and intensity.
Most do tire of it. But Orenstein convinced me we do need to be careful (especially since Disney now targets newborns, in a slightly creepy campaign that delivers Disney onesies to maternity wards). The wide-eyed, smooth-skinned princesses don't do much; you might want to date one, briefly, but would you hire one? The lesson is that girls' value comes from how they look, not how they act or who they are. It's an innocuous-seeming sexism that even the most strong-minded mother can find herself tolerating because we think of it as fantasy, not female weakness.
What does it mean for the women our daughters will become?
A remarkable study undertaken by historian Joan Jacobs Brumsberg compared New Year's resolutions made by young girls at the end of the 19th century with those made at the end of the 20th. The first group wanted to be better people, not physically perfect. They vowed to be less self-involved, kinder, to work harder, and to be more dignified and self-restrained. A century later, girls still wanted to improve themselves, but vowed to, as one girl wrote, "lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes, and accessories."
It's a sobering reminder that our own dreams of who our children might be can too easily get lost in fluff created by Disney executives looking to make a buck.
Julia Baird, a former deputy editor of Newsweek, lives in Philadelphia and is writing a biography of Queen Victoria. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.