The Peggy Orenstein Love Fest Continues

Peggy Orenstein's dispatches from the front lines of girlhood.

I’m so excited. And I just can’t hide it. For the last two weeks I’ve been doing little but talking about best-selling author Peggy Orenstein’s new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”.  It is the kind of book that should be given to new parents when they leave the hospital with their infant daughters. It is the kind of book that will hopefully help to change a culture that is short-changing our daughters.

I have a massive girl crush on Peggy. Peggy is my Justin Bieber. I had a ZOMG moment when she responded to a tweet I sent her several months back after hearing about her upcoming book. Now I talk to her regularly and consider her another gem in this treasure chest of amazing women I get to work with. I read her book cover to cover in less than 24 hours in a frenzy of “Peggy is going to save the world and I need to buy her a cape” thinking. If there is a way for me to overstate how important I think the content of her book is, I have yet to find it.

If you are familiar with Pigtail Pals and our blog, it would not shock you to know that “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” now holds a sacred spot above my desk, nestled inbetween “Packaging Girlhood” and “So Sexy So Soon”….a trifecta Holy Grail of why we need to save girlhood for our daughters.

Have a read as Peggy answers some questions for us….

Pigtail Pals: You did an amazing job with the research for your book, and mapping out for the reader how we got to this state of girlie-girlz-with-a-z girlhood. What was something that really surprised you as you dug through the glitter and packaged Disney starlets and pink?
Peggy Orenstein: I was really surprised by the way the marketing of wholesomeness (princesses) so seamlessly led to the marketing of diva-hood (pink scrabble set that says f-a-s-h-i-o-n on the cover, even though that IS a 7-letter word) and ultimately sexiness. And I was both surprised and saddened, from a research perspective by the ways that early sexualization disconnects girls from healthy sexuality. I was open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, the “sassiness,” as they call it with little girls, was a sign that they were somehow liberated or empowered or freer with their bodies and sexuality. That they were enjoying their bodies. But it turns out that when sexualized images and behavior is pushed on girls at too young an age, they can’t understand it (thank goodness!) but it teaches them to view sexiness as a performance rather than something they feel from within. So later, when I was talking to Deb Tolman, who is the Goddess of all research on girls and desire, she told me that when she asks teenage girls to describe how they felt during an intimate experience, to describe feelings of desire or arousal, they describe how they think they LOOKED. She has to tell them that looking good is not a feeling. I am actually considering having that sentence tattooed on my forehead.

So when I started the book I wondered, like a lot of parents do, whether this whole princess thing protected girls from sexualization and defining themselves by how they think they look to others, or whether it primed them for it. And I pretty much connect the dots that show that while obviously there is no 1+1=2 connection, no “if you do this, then this will happen for sure,” there definitely is a connection and it’s something parents need to think about.

PtP: Your daughter, Daisy, was in preschool when you started taking notice of the limitations girls are sold. Now that she is a few years older, what challenges do you and your husband face as you help her wade through a media-saturated childhood? Are there any toys or products that are off limits?
PO: I try to think about options rather than restrictions, what I can give her that celebrates being a girl but reflects values about femininity that I embrace. One of my personal lines in the sand, though, was makeup. It wasn’t something I expected. I loved playing with my mom’s old makeup when I was little, I have really great memories of it. But now it’s an industry, child-friendly makeup. And it’s so intense and along with all of the other products it conveys over and over and over that how you look is who you are, that from the time you are 3 years old you define yourself through appearance and play sexiness. So it felt like collusion to me to participate even a little bit. I have a statistic in the book that nearly half of six-to-nine year olds regularly wear lipstick or gloss. And the percentage of 8-12 year olds who wear mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010 (why isn’t the percentage of 8 year old wearing eye makeup ZERO???). So it just didn’t feel the same to me to let my daughter play with lipstick the way I did when I was her age. And she wanted to, she really wanted to. But I would say, honey, makeup is for women, not for little girls. I did not, however, limit what she did at other people’s houses, just like I don’t go over there with a list of foods that I think are appropriate. But in my house? My rules.

We do have some Barbies. Everyone has an opinion about Barbie, right? And I am the first to admit I am contradictory ,hypocritical, inconsistent in how I approach these things. Who isn’t? I’m human. I’m a mom. I do my best. We all do. So my probably ridiculous compromise was to get Wonder Woman Barbie and Cleopatra Barbie (on ebay) and Indonesian Barbie. Is that a mixed message? Well, probably. But you do what you can do, just as with everything else.
PtP:”Cinderella Ate My Daughter” does such a great job of showing parents how we might think we are protecting girls with sweet pink and princesses, but you show a darker side to that thinking. Can you quickly tell me about that?

PO: Um, in 250 pages or less?? Is what I say above good enough (in question 1)? I do think that you can see the trajectory in what happens to the flesh-and-blood Disney princesses, like Miley, Lindsay, Demi etc. They start out wearing “purity” rings that symbolize that they’ll stay chaste until marriage. They say they’re role models and  in no hurry to grow up and that they pick clothes moms approve of. And then—whammo! They’re giving lap dances at age 16 to guys in their mid-40s. They sell wholesomeness and that leads right into selling something else. They’re still role models—and cautionary tales.

PtP:When you and Daisy were on the Today Show, Daisy told us how she wants to be a geologist, librarian, and bakery owner when she grows up. I think that is so awesome! How do you, knowing everything you know about girl culture and marketing, encourage Daisy to explore her interests?
 PO: That cracked me up. Well, we are really blessed in our school community to have a lot of like-minded families who approach not only femininity but education as a kind of inside out process instead of outside in—her school has Montessori roots. So the kids are deeply encouraged in their curiosity, creativity and engagement. Creativity is obviously incredibly important to me, for girls and boys. For adults. For cats. For anyone. And part of this to me is not only about the sexualization and the diva-fication and the narrowing of perspective and definitions of femininity but also about the destruction of kids’ creativity, telling them what to think, how to play. I quote a 9-year-old girl in the book who says she doesn’t like imaginative play bcause she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, she can’t make thigns up. She prefers to play online. I never expected when I became a mom that such a huge part of my job was going to be to protect my child’s childhood. Her right to be a child. Her right to be a child that is not marketed to, her right NOT to be a billboard for some product line. So, we really limit screens. No Disney channel. No commercial TV (except she watches sports with my husband sometimes which leads to the excellent question, “Daddy, what is ‘Viagra?’”). Which is not to say she doesn’t watch stuff, but she watches on netflix or itunes or dvr so we choose what she can see. So again, it becomes about what she GETS to watch, not what she CAN’T watch.  Lots of open-ended toys, including those little Schilling and Papo figurines of royal figures and Maid Marion and such. Lots of art. Music. Books.  Books on CD. Playmobil. Legos. Citiblocks. Old school things. Things that aren’t licensed to the gills. And we go places and do things, of course. She’s heavily into swimming.  And as she said, she’s really, really into science. Which is a little befuddling to me, I have to admit. But luckily, she has two friends whose parents are physicists and our neighbor across the street is a retired engineer. So they do all kinds of science projects with her. They are, in fact, THRILLED to have a child they can do that with, so that does my heart good. There’s a lot you can do alone, but ultimately, really, you have to embed your family in a community that shares your values, and loves and encourages one another and one another’s children.

PtP: CAMD teaches parents how marketers have very carefully and lucratively crafted our culture’s current version of girlhood. Can you give me two or three ways parents can sidestep the crap and have their daughters emerge from girlhood unscathed? Do you have any tips we can put in our bag of tricks?
PO: Well, a lot of what I just said. But I think the very most important thing is to remember that you can’t tell your daughter no all the time and think that she’ll get the message that you’re offering her MORE choices. Girls need and want to celebrate being girls. So, though I sort of hate to say it, parents have to put in the time to find alternatives to defining femininity through beauty alone. Like I said (did I say this?) we looked to Greek myths. We looked to the Bible, to the story of Miriam. We looked to the movies My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. I mean, in terms of consumer products. Obviously, it isn’t just about buying, but we do live in a consumer-driven society and we have to deal with that. So you have to think about “get to”, not just “can’t”. And the good news is that making good choices for them when they are little really does affect how they’ll navigate through images and ideas about femininity when they’re older. It can make them more resilient.

And I really think about this like the food movement. 10-15 years ago who knew what transfat was (I actually still don’t know, but I know we shouldn’t eat it)? Who cared where food came from? But because a couple of books sparked national conversation, we are conscious of our choices, we try to be healthier, Congress is revamping school lunches. McDonald’s is offering healthier choices. MCDONALD’S!!!! If we could make McDonald’s blink, goodness knows we should be able to make Mattel blink.

Finally: there are all sorts of alternatives out there if you look. Wonderful alternatives….LIKE PIGTAIL PALS!!!!!!!

“Cinderella Ate My Daughter”: A Book Review

Peggy Orenstein, author of the eye opening "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"

By now, I cannot really remember how or from whom I heard about Peggy Orenstein’s new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter“. Maybe it was one of my colleagues? A blog comment or tweet? Or during a Google search about girlie-girl girlhood, looking for an article to post on Facebook for our Parent Community….none the less, I slept with it under my pillow last night.

Really. Right under my pillow.

Because I wanted all of it’s goodness to soak into my brain. I devoured the entire book in less than 24hours, and took so many notes in the margins I had to twice wash the ink off of my left hand as it dragged through my stars and underlining and “YES!!” comments. When I realized I had underlined 2/3 of the book, I thought I ought to go back and write down the really important stuff somewhere else, so I wouldn’t forget. So I filled the front cover with more notes and page numbers. Then I wrote Peggy a love letter.

While I’ve taught myself a thing or two about sexualization, gender stereotypes, early childhood development, commodification, and children’s marketing… the end of the day I’m a mom to a five year old girl and two year old boy and I know deep in my heart of hearts that what I see happening to childhood is harmful to their development and that I must not, cannot accept the status quo. I know….way down in that mommy gut that speaks to you when you need it most…I know my kids deserve better than what is being sold to them.

Peggy’s book helps to make sense of all of this. She does such an amazing job of breaking down some of the most absurd things present in girlhood that you as a parent feel validated for questioning hooker-like fashion dolls for three year olds and kindergarteners limiting their future ambitions to princess or ballerina or butterfly. She breaks down the marketing  history of children’s products revealing that before Pinkification and the Disney Princesses became the marketing story board for every girl across the land, neither pink nor princess had all that important of a role in girlhood. She questions the innocence of All Pink All the Time, of boutique-like chain stores selling teen fashion to seven year olds, and four year olds getting regular mani-pedis. Barbie, Bratz, Spice Girlz, Twilight, Britney, Miley, fairy tales, American Girl, plastic surgery, Princesses, gender identity, sexuality, sexting, and sexy play are all discussed with such casual ease you feel like you’re talking to the mommies at playgroup.

Peggy’s wit and non-preachy way of questioning a hypergendered and sexualized childhood may feel like a coffee clutch with your favorite mom pal, but she ingeniously weaves in research study after study, and interviews with major leaguers like Lise Eliot, Deb Tolman, and the Sanford Harmony Program researchers Carol Martin and Richard Fabes. She visits a toy buyers market in Times Square, a children’s high Glitz beauty pageant in the South, a Miley Cyrus concert (good lawd!), and the American Girl Place.

This book is a MUST read for anyone raising a daughter, but specifically if you have a daughter 12 years old and under. So much of our work in girl empowerment circles focuses on teens. It has always been the belief of Pigtail Pals that girl empowerment must start in the toddler years, that these concepts and messages must be present from the beginning.  This book gives the reader an amazing awareness and inside look at what really is going on with girlhood, who is in control, and who is laughing all the way to the rhinestone covered bank.

I cannot stress enough how strongly I feel every parent of a daughter needs to read this book. I’d loan you my copy, but I wrote all over it. Go grab your copy at your local bookstore, or order online. I promise, you will not be disappointed. My great hope is that this book is a catalyst to a national conversation on what is going on to our girls, and as parents what we can do to take back control.

You all know how strongly I feel about this. The last page of Peggy’s book made me teary as she talked about the roots and protection we give to our daugthers during the few short years they are ours. You’ll understand this better after you read the book, but it is my wish that every parent see themselves as their daughter’s hazel tree.

I leave you with Peggy’s stirring words: “The good news is, the choices we make for our toddlers can influence how they navigate as teens. I’m not saying we can, or will, do everything “right”, only that there is power – magic- in awareness. If we start with that, with wanting girls to see themselves from the inside out rather than the outside in, we will go a long way toward helping them find their true happily-ever-afters.” 

"Cinderella Ate My Daughter" is available on Amazon and in stores on 1/25/11