This is a companion post to Tough and Tender: Preparing Boys for Real Manhood.
In April, a beautiful little girl named Emma turned five-years-old. The manner in which her photographer mother chose to help her celebrate has captured the attention of many.
Emma’s mother Jamie writes that, after observing that princess themed birthdays were the overwhelming trend, she began to think “about all the REAL women for my daughter to know about and look up too, REAL women who without ever meeting Emma have changed her life for the better. My daughter wasn’t born into royalty, but she was born into a country where she can now vote, become a doctor, a pilot, an astronaut, or even President if she wants and that’s what REALLY matters. I wanted her to know the value of these amazing women who had gone against everything so she can now have everything. We chose 5 women (five amazing and strong women), as it was her 5th birthday but there are thousands of unbelievable women (and girls) who have beat the odds and fought (and still fight) for their equal rights all over the world……..so let’s set aside the Barbie Dolls and the Disney Princesses for just a moment, and let’s show our girls the REAL women they can be.”
Low self-esteem and poor body image are often linked to cases of abuse, particularly sexual abuse. Serious health issues like eating disorders can arise as a result of abuse. The means by which we instill our children with an understanding of their own worth, identity and potential will dramatically influence how they allow other people to treat them and how they choose to treat other people.
Before little girls are even tall enough to see the seductive covers of most magazines in the supermarket, they have their own age appropriate idea of what womanhood looks like in the form of television, movies and toys…example from my own childhood: Disney princesses. Just try to buy a birthday card for a 3-year-old little girl that doesn’t have a glittery “Happy Birthday, Princess!” scrolled across the top.
I tried this recently…it was actually quite stressful. I got her a “boy card” instead.
I do not think there is anything wrong with a little girl or boy enjoying a Disney film or dressing up like their favorite character. Fairy tales naturally excite and build the imagination! If my mum would have allowed me to leave the house wearing nothing but Ariel’s purple seashells and a green fish tail, I would have gladly done so.
And I still want that library the Beast gave Belle.
When does a child’s emulation of an idealistic, fantasy character change from healthy and natural to emotionally and psychologically damaging?
I would argue that the love of all things pretty and pink becomes a danger when a little girl is unable to identify the characteristics and signs of real womanhood (or when she believes she is limited to only “girl” merchandise, activities, jobs). If real women are not helping her grow, animated women will. When a little girl grows up believing that she must achieve a beauty defined by society, any failure to do so will ultimately hinder her emotional and psychological development. She will be unable to discern what makes her truly important. And as soon as a boy says or does something to make her feel pretty, she will be putty in his hands and, potentially, the target of his abusive personality.
Allow me to illustrate a few of the things that I (subconsciously) learned from my Disney princess idols:
1. Sixteen is the perfect age – and I quote, “…after all, I am 16!”
2. Non-existent waistlines, flawless skin, and flawless hair are naturally achievable (at 16).
3. True love happens almost instantly (…and everyone breaks into song).
4. The man you fall in love with will always treat you like a princess.
5. Even if your man has a history of thievery, deception, losing his temper, etc. all of that will change when he meets you. Don’t worry about his character flaws.
Imagine my surprise when none of that came true for me. You mean to tell me that every Barbie doesn’t get her Ken? Or that her Ken might turn out to be ‘Glen’, the less popular abusive boyfriend? Many little girls grow up to discover too late that the fairy tales they’ve planned in their heads are not real, cannot be real. The recent trend in Disney Princess Wedding Dresses is proof that an entire generation is still trying to attain that perfect “happily ever after”.
I remember being a little confused and sort of hurt when my father told me (in the midst of my Disney princess mania), “You are not a princess.” Now, I’m glad he said it. He was not telling me “you’re not special” or “you’re not beautiful”. He was seeking to undo the damage of an animated world of perfect women. He was telling me, “Life isn’t going to hand you what it handed Princess Jasmine.” Now as an adult, I realize that many of the things my dad would say were his way of telling me, “You have incredible potential and worth. Don’t settle for being a princess.”
Some little girls are naturally drawn to glitter and pink and tiaras. I am not condemning that; strong women can still wear pink, polka dots, and glittery shoes. And you never know when you might have a budding fashion designer on your hands. In fact, a child doesn’t have to be a “girlie-girl” to enjoy dancing around in a Princess Belle gown and Hello Kitty socks. But even for the girlie-girls among us, there has to be a life beyond the glitter.
The challenge becomes helping those tiny feet step out of the plastic high heels and into the shoes of a woman who has the strength, confidence, and knowledge needed to face a world where all that glitters is not gold. The challenge becomes helping those imaginative minds learn how to imagine their futures as real women, not plastic princesses.
Who were the heroines in my life as a small child…if we’re not counting anyone with a crown on her head and a Prince Charming on her arm? My mum makes the top of that list. I saw in my mother the strength, gentleness, kindness, selflessness, and wisdom I longed to exhibit as an adult. She had a career as a veterinarian, in which she excelled, but never allowed that to negatively affect what she believed to be her responsibilities at home as a wife and mother. She has the ability to love people unconditionally. She is the friend who will do anything for you and expect nothing in return. She will cry with you when you are hurt, rejoice when you are happy, and celebrate you when you succeed. When I grow up, I want to be like my mum.
I grew up admiring women like Harriet Tubman, who sacrificed much and risked all to guide countless men, women, and children to a life of freedom outside the slavery of the pre-Civil War United States slave trade.
I admired women like Amy Carmichael, who left her home in the UK in the late 1800s, as a single young woman, to become a missionary in India, dedicating her entire life to rescuing children out of temple prostitution and providing them with a home and an education.
I admired women like Jane Austen for her devotion to her family and to her writing. Her protagonists are flawed women with strength, courage, and intelligence.
I knew the first time I read Pride and Prejudice that I would much rather be an Elizabeth Bennett than a Princess Cinderella.
These women were not princesses. They did not marry Prince Charming at the age of 16. They did something better and, as Jamie Moore noted, the lives of women today are positively impacted because of the lives women in the past have led.
Most would agree that the empowerment of women and girls worldwide will ultimately contribute to a decrease in global gender violence and poverty. To empower a child, we need to show her the real women of the past and present who have overcome obstacles and adversity to not only better themselves but to improve the world around them. Every little girl has great potential. We cannot teach her to settle for plastic princess-hood.
Not only that, every little girl – and every little boy – has tremendous worth. Their identity is not the sum total of the physical attractiveness. For a child to believe that – despite anything society tells them – she has great worth as a unique human being is one of the most powerful defenses against abuse. It is not a preventative measure but it is an agent for healing. Her worth defends her right to be treated with respect and dignity. Her worth tells her that no one has the right to abuse her. That self-awareness will help her overcome the pain of her past. Her worth will remind her that she does not need to be a princess to be radiantly beautiful.
It would be a betrayal of my conscience to end this piece without saying this, with total assurance and confidence: true beauty has been perfected in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
God offers this soul-renewing beauty and soul-saving perfection to us through His Son, Jesus, as a free gift. True beauty is unattainable through our own efforts. The things which society claims will provide this perfected beauty cannot begin to compare to the beauty of Christ. There is nothing so beautifying or soul-satisfying as this gift of righteousness God offers you in Jesus. When Christ claimed me as His own by grace through faith, God ceased to see my bountiful sins and imperfections. Now and forever, He looks at me and He sees the infinite beauty and perfection of His Son. My sins, my failures, my imperfections, my limitations, are swallowed up in and destroyed by Jesus Christ.
My purpose for living is Him. God saved me from myself. He relentlessly pursues my heart. He never ceases to delight in me, to love me, to show His compassion to me – not because of what I have done, but because of what Jesus did on my behalf. My personhood – my womanhood – is complete in Jesus. I am radiantly beautiful because my heart has been reborn in Him.
Jesus said: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:27-29)