I felt a pang of  guilt as soon as I pulled it off the shelf, but I knew I had no choice. It was 103 degrees outside. I had three children under age 3 to keep busy, and I did not want to spend the next four hours maniacally slathering them with 60-proof sunscreen as we battled hyperthermia in the neighborhood park. I needed to find some new distraction to occupy them for the afternoon, and the library’s pre-assembled, themed bags of children’s books fit the bill.
Over the past few steamy weeks, we had checked out nearly all the bags on the shelf. We had read a half a dozen titles on each and every theme the librarians could dream up for preschoolers: apples, airplanes, farm animals, feelings. All but one, that is. We had not checked out the princess bag.
Now there it was, taunting me with its largesse, promising me hours — OK, minutes — of peace as my toddler daughter and son busied themselves poring over its unfamiliar contents. I was not particularly worried that my son would not like the princess books; anything new would be a welcome diversion at this stage of homebound, hot-day boredom. It was my daughter. After nearly three years of shielding her from the Disney industrial complex and the excesses of princess culture, I hated to succumb now.
Maternal desperation propelled me forward, however, and I marched the bag up to the checkout counter, reminding myself that there is nothing intrinsically evil about princesses. No sooner had we arrived home than I began to reconsider.
The leading lady of the first book we read together was a pint-sized prima donna obsessed with grooming herself, gazing in mirrors and issuing imperious edicts to her parents. Some of the other books attempted a more expansive notion of princess, but several depicted their prepubescent heroines holed up indoors, ensconced behind walls of dresses, tiaras and toys and fixated on superficialities I’d rather my daughter not sweat until high school — or at least first grade.
I felt a little queasy as I flipped through the pages of that first book, sensing my daughter soaking up a preschool version of the faux girl-power messages that would bombard her for the next decade and a half, urging her to waste her childhood obsessing over her hair, weight and wardrobe. I thought of a book I had read recently, journalist Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” In it, Orenstein warns that Disney’s $4 billion princess industry and its imitators are akin to gateway drugs that usher girls into the self-centered, hyper-sexualized universe of padded bras and junior pole-dancing kits, crash diets and Kardashian worship. Her research suggests that the all-princess-all-the-time trend in clothing and toys predisposes girls to the early sexualization decried by such groups as the American Psychological Association and to the body-image insecurities that help fuel today’s alarming rates of eating disorders and cutting among preteen girls.
Don’t get me wrong. I like dolling up my daughters as much as the next mom. I enjoyed many a game of dress-up in my own day. And I don’t buy the notion that gender is a merely a social construct we can or should ignore, not after perusing the reams of research to the contrary in books such as Steven Rhoads’ “Taking Sex Differences Seriously” — or after having boy-girl twins, for that matter.
Yet the monochrome pink world of today’s princess culture strikes me as something categorically different from the colorful, messy milieu I inhabited as a girl. Barbies populated the playrooms of my youth, but so did LEGO building blocks (and not the pastel ones that the company recently unveiled as the “girl” version of its classic toy). You could stroll through entire aisles of toy stores without seeing tiaras, tulle or makeover kits. The notion that shopping and sitting around at a salon were the prime interests of girls under 10 was laughable. And cuddly, chubby Cabbage Patch Kids had not yet been dethroned by snarky, scantily-clad Bratz dolls.
Like many parents, I worry about how my daughters will be affected by growing up in a culture mesmerized by the creepy stage mothers and gussied-up tots of TLC’s “Toddlers & Tiaras,” where even the kneecaps of the rail-thin models in Forever 21 ads are airbrushed and playing princess is, in the words of “Packaging Girlhood” co-author Lyn Mikel Brown, “no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play.”
I want my daughters to cherish their femininity. But I want them to understand that feminine beauty is more about their hearts than their bodies, more about the warmth and openness with which they approach the world and other people than the feverishness with which they fill their closets.
Perhaps I should not worry so much. After all, my two-year-old daughter knows her colors and numbers but no Disney characters. She loves pink bows but enjoys dismembering Barbies more than dressing them. And even in this heat, she prefers scampering outdoors with her brother to just about any activity I can dream up indoors — including reading about preening princesses preoccupied by ruffles and tiaras.
Still, I know that a world eager to transform her into a diva-in-training beckons just beyond our doorstep, and its influence on her will grow each year.
Maybe I should return that princess bag right away, just to be safe.