My 4-year-old daughter is going to be Belle for Halloween tomorrow. I’m not surprised, even if every barbed-wire feminist bone in my body scraped the inside of my skin as she tried on the yellow satin dress, as she wore it to bed that first night, as she looked down at herself in wonder and whispered, “I look beautiful.”
“You’re always beautiful,” I barked. Then, “Looks aren’t all that matters, you know.” I swing back and forth, insisting on two different messages that are meant to nudge her off this sickly sweet, gender-normative path, but are ultimately probably reinforcing the same idea that looks do matter, somehow, somewhere beyond this living room.
Either way, I’m tuned out by a little girl who’s already seen too much. The Disney+ streaming service is the real parent in our house, explaining the facts of life in clear terms: be a princess, marry a prince, wear all the dresses. Belle herself has an entire song devoted to her beauty and how weird it is that she reads books. I give Beauty and the Beast the benefit of the doubt in that I think it’s satire, but I suspect that’s lost on a 4-year-old.
I had every intention of guarding my daughter from these things for as long as possible. She hid herself well during the 20-week ultrasound, so we didn’t know what we were having, and most of her clothing for her first year of life was white and gray. I decided this little gender-neutral baby was going to stay that way. I’d buy her Legos and dinosaurs and STEM toys and soft, basic t-shirts without writing on the front.
Any then, somewhere along the way, princesses arrived, as they always do. They were everywhere—not just on Disney, but in little animated YouTube videos, dolls and books she received as gifts, coloring book pages brought home from daycare. Even if I’d been more proactive and banned Disney from our home, I don’t think I could have stacked sandbags high enough to save us from this flood.
And a small part of me, perhaps the lazy and apathetic part, wonders if it even matters. These are movies I adored as a child, after all. I popped those VHS tapes in and sat cross-legged in front of a singing candelabra, a red-haired mermaid, and a magic carpet ride. To this day, I can recall the exact shades of Aurora’s dress as the fairies argued and shot blue and pink sparkles at it. This was my becoming, and I still managed to find myself enraptured by women’s studies courses and feminist publications and Ruth Bader Ginsburg coffee mugs. Granted I did go through an embarrassingly drawn-out love affair with Orlando Bloom after seeing Lord of the Rings in seventh grade and charted a path for myself to meet him, perhaps not as a co-star, but as a makeup artist, costume designer, or screenwriter. I was still plotting in college, but by then I realized it would be more fun to simply become an elven princess and meet-cute the blonde version of him than have to work in the toxic film industry. So as a woman in my twenties, I still carried some unfulfilled, impossible desires that revolved around finding a certain prince.
Is that bad? Truthfully, I don’t know. There are a lot of things in my life I’d like to rewrite. Greasy bangs, ill-fitting jobs, friendships that went sour. This is not one of those things. I don’t mind that I had princess dreams, so why does it bother me that my daughter does?
I had to think about which particular aspect of it bothered me. And it hit me that I didn’t care if she ended up spending too much time dreaming of her prince (or fellow princess). I didn’t care if her real estate preferences leaned toward castles. But god, I didn’t want her to compare herself to these dainty animations, to look in the mirror and hate what she saw. That face that I gave her, that my mother gave me, that we can’t change because let’s be honest, we don’t have nose job money. I think she’s gorgeous now (possibly I’m biased) but I know how this goes. I know that when she’s about twelve or thirteen, she’ll have braces and glasses and patchy goose down that hasn’t transitioned to adult feathers yet. And if she’s anything like me, like most young women, she will obsess over something, or many things, in that reflection that don’t add up to the kind of beauty that gets you adoration from townsfolk and talking housewares alike.
Talk about floods we can’t stop. This will all feel like a misting fan compared to that deluge. I’m having pre-anxiety about a phase that is 8 years away. Perhaps it feels so important because I know from experience that it stays with you well into adulthood. My insecurities haven’t changed much since middle school; I’ve just gotten better at ignoring them.
I don’t have the answers for how I will equip her with a positive body image. I guess I could read a parenting book or do something else equally exhausting. But I do know that neither of us will gain anything from me digging my heals in about Belle and her gang. Denigrating these girls, or bright young women, as Ariel calls herself, only feeds the cycle of women condemning other women.
Especially during this time when every single issue has become so polarized, I want to remember that everyone, including a four-year-old in a yellow dress, has a million little things inside them—bright, tiny starbursts in different colors and shapes. My daughter is changing so quickly I can hardly catch sight of all of them, much less control their manifestations.
So for now I breathe, and watch, and laugh as she twirls.