The Meredith Vieira Show recently asked: What is the “princess problem,” and how can we fight it? I joined Meredith Vieira and a panel of three parents for a double segment dedicated to the topic. Together, we explored how princess culture creates problems in young girls’ lives, and I shared advice on how parents can help their girls progress past these princess problems.
The Meredith Vieira Show segments and a transcript are below.
YouTube description: Meredith discusses with Dr. Rebecca C. Hains, author of “The Princess Problem”, and three parents the problem with children idolizing fairytale princesses.
Intro: Kindergarteners from Bryant Elementary School in Teaneck, NJ talking about princesses:
(girl) “Princesses are beautiful.”
(girl) “I want to be a princess cause they look nice.”
(girl) “…and she wears makeup.”
(boy) “They have to have a dress”
(girl) “It’s blue and sparkly”
(boy) “…a ponytail sometimes…”
(boy) “…a tiara…”
(girl) “…and slippers, I think.”
(boy) “I don’t like princesses; they’re for girls.”
(girl) “Princesses have to live in castles.”
(boy) “They live in England. They have a butler.”
(girl) “A princess can do anything.”
(boy) “They have to be perfect.”
(girl) “Princesses have powers.”
(girl) “I don’t think princesses have jobs.”
(girl) “I like them because they get to go on adventures.”
(girl) “If I met a princess I will hug her.”
(girl) “My mom’s gonna be the queen, my dad’s gonna be the king, and I’m gonna be the princess.”
Meredith Vieira: Those are kids from the kindergarten class that we adopted from Bryant Elementary School in Teaneck, New Jersey. Well, their obsession with princesses may not be as innocent as you think. If you’re a parent, you’re going to want to pay close attention, especially if you have a daughter. Please welcome our panel of parents, Cathy, Gloria, and Tom, and the author of “The Princess Problem,” Dr. Rebecca Hains.
Rebecca Hains: You know, princesses nowadays are everywhere. They’re so common that they’ve become inescapable. And really what’s happening as princesses are becoming commodified and a product that are sold everywhere to our little girls—with those princess products, our girls are receiving really unhealthy messages about beauty, about body image, about gender stereotypes, race stereotypes, and kids that young are not equipped to deal with those messages.
Meredith: So when you heard our kids talking, from the kindergarten class, what was your impression? Did you cringe? Did you—
Rebecca: A little bit of both. You know, I thought that they were very sweet, and they reminded me of the kids that I did research with. I could see that they love the fun of princesses, and I love the fun part of princesses, too. But I was also hearing some things that are maybe things their parents should be a little worried about.
Meredith: Such as?
Rebecca: Well, you know, the emphasis on princesses have to have long hair, from the girl who has, you know, short, curly hair. The idea that princesses don’t have jobs, they don’t do anything. That’s one of the problems: We want our girls to aspire to being more than somebody who’s looked at for her appearance, and really, somebody who can do things in the world. You know, modern parenting is not about little pretty girls, but girls who can grow up to be strong and empowered.
Meredith: Strong and independent.
Meredith: When you were doing your research for the book, you actually went undercover as a party princess.
Rebecca: I did! I have a day job as a professor at Salem State University, but I took a job on the side where I went into girls’ homes as a party princess. And, you know, what was really unfortunate is that to get the job, I actually had to lose five pounds. And it’s also not uncommon for girls who want to go shopping for princess dresses to find they don’t fit in those dresses. The message, unfortunately, is that thinner is always better.
Meredith: And they’re getting that as a three year old, a two year old, whatever it is.
Rebecca: Three, four five, mm-hmm.
Meredith: Cathy, let me start with you, what is the princess problem in your home?
Cathy: Um, the problem I had, my daughter and I are in Rebecca’s wonderful book, and—
Meredith: How old is your daughter?
Cathy: —she’s six now, but at the time we were interviewed, she was about three and a half and she was in daycare. And there was a little group of girls that were bullying, princess bullying, about princesses don’t wear sleeves. Of course, I didn’t realize this at the time; all I realized was my daughter wouldn’t put anything on with sleeves, in the middle of a New England Winter. Essentially, she wasn’t going be allowed to play with these little girls, and in fact she’d be made fun of if she wore sleeves. So finally I just said, “Okay, go outside, it’s freezing,” and she said, “Oh mommy, I’m, I’m cold.” “I figured you would be, let’s put a coat on.” “Oh, okay mommy.”
And I realized when talking to another mother, because the problem wasn’t just me and these little girls bullying, she was told that her daughter wasn’t pretty enough to be a princess, because she had brown hair and brown eyes. But it just made me realize the unhealthy body image that girls are getting at a very young age. She was three and a half, and yes, it was about her arms—but it can lead to other things that are so unhealthy.
Meredith: Absolutely, she’s absorbing that message, exactly.
Cathy: Right, and one of my best friends passed away at age 27 of an eating disorder, so I was on this. And Rebecca happened to reach out to me at that point, and I said “I have a poster child for princesses, please help!” And she was amazing.
Meredith: Gloria, what is your princess problem with your child?
Gloria: So, my princess problem happened around the same age, three and a half years old, when my daughter came into my room. We were talking, and I told her she was beautiful. And she said, “No I’m not, Mommy.” And I said, “What do you mean? Why..why aren’t you beautiful?” She said, “Because I don’t have the same nose or the same hair as the princesses in my room.”
And my daughter had delayed speech, so she started talking at around three and a half years old and, so the first sentence that my daughter said to me was that she was insecure about her body—
Meredith: Oh my gosh.
Gloria: —because of the images that I had been putting up in the room and that she sees out in public.
Meredith: That you thought were just innocent.
Gloria: I just thought they were innocent and, you know, that it was okay. Needless to say I jumped up out of bed and I tore down all the princess stuff, and princesses were not allowed in the house for a while.
Meredith: Tom, I’m curious. From a dad’s point of view, when you talk about a princess problem in your home, what are you referring to?
Tom: Well, when my wife and I found out we were going to have a daughter—we both work in publishing, and it was really important for us to sort of build this library of really great kids’ books for her. And we just wanted to find like the best books we could. And as we were collecting all these books, we kept getting confronted with all these storybook princesses that were so passive. They just sort of sat back, and they were never sort of the drivers of their own stories. And, you know, if there’s anything I want a story to teach my daughter, it’s that she can slay her own dragons. Like, she should be the one. I want to raise a kick-ass little girl.
Tom: I want her to have role models that she can look up to.
Meredith: Can I play devil’s advocate for a second, because my daughter Lily is 21 now, and she dressed up as a princess quite a bit when she was a little girl. And she’s one of the most independent people I’ve ever met. So, you’re not saying princesses are—it’s wrong to show your kids these movies or read the books, are you?
Rebecca: No, not at all. In fact I think that princess play can be open-ended and imaginative and really wonderful for girls. What’s important is to make sure that that interest does not take over their life to such an extent that they’re not doing other kinds of play. You know, let them play outside in a physical way and not constrain themselves because they’re dedicated to wearing little princess play shoes.
YouTube description: Dr. Rebecca C. Hains, author of “The Princess Problem”, offers advice to parents on how to progress past the princess problem.
Meredith: We are talking to parents concerned that our princess saturated world is encouraging negative stereotypes about gender, race, and beauty. Author Dr. Rebecca Hains says it’s becoming an epidemic and has written a book called The Princess Problem, trying to tackle the issue head-on. So Rebecca, what is your advice to parents who are watching this?
Rebecca: You know, my top two tips are first and foremost, everyone needs to lighten up on the “pretty” talk with little girls. Girls are more than just pretty, and if the top thing that girls hear when they meet somebody is, “Oh, aren’t you pretty,” they’re getting the message that that’s what’s most valuable about themselves. So—
Meredith: So, what do you say instead?
Rebecca: Oh, talk to them about their interests. Ask, “Hey, what books have you read lately?” or “What do you like to do for fun?” And if you do want to compliment them, make it concrete and about their choices and intentionality. Say, “You look nice today! Did you choose that dress? Is that your favorite color?” Little things like that can really help.
And number two, as moms, we also need to work on our own body image and the way we talk about our bodies. Our girls cannot hear us sniping about our fat thighs or whatever it is that bothers us. Instead, how about if when we look in the mirror, our girls hear us saying, “I like this outfit. I chose a good outfit for me today!” or, “My body does all the things I need it to do.”
Meredith: You know, I was guilty of that myself with all my kids and it sends such an unhealthy message, it really does.
Rebecca: As women we’re socialized to hate our bodies. It sells more products if we don’t like the way we look.
Catherine: I tell Catie I love my body, ’cause my body gave me her—the most precious thing in the world to me. So, we should love our bodies, they’re amazing.
Meredith: Absolutely. What about gender stereotyping?
Rebecca: Well, with gender stereotypes and the idea that men and women, boys and girls are completely different from one another, we can completely batter those stereotypes in the way we live our lives at home. So, for example, instead of thinking of dad “helping around the house” or “babysitting,” dad is “doing his share.” And related to that, we can think about the kinds of language we use that has a gender bias. Simple, little things that make a big difference to kids. Like, instead of talking about firemen, let’s talk about firefighters. Girls can fight fires, too!
Meredith: Yeah, and Tom, as you were saying in the break about the the toy aisles, there’s “boys” and “girls” [aisles], and your daughter didn’t want to go to get her Batman toy she liked, because it wasn’t in the “girls’” aisle.
Tom: Exactly. She had a lot of confusion. She would tell me , “I don’t think I’m normal.” And this is a three year old, saying, “I don’t think I’m normal.” And I would be like, “Why don’t you think you’re normal?” And she’s like, “Well, because I like princesses and I like batman,” and she goes, “and there’s the boy aisle and there’s the girl and girls I know, they don’t play batman.”
And I’m like, “You’re perfectly fine; oh my god, play with batman. Batman and the princesses will have a great time.
Tom: And we really worked on just letting her know, like, I don’t want anybody to put my daughter in a box. And, you know, we knew we were getting the balance right when for her fourth birthday, she said she wanted a princess castle and a fire truck. And she was like, “And then the princesses will fight fires, and they’ll fight the fires in the fire truck.” And I was like, “That’s perfect.”
Meredith: That’s perfect, yeah. And then Gloria’s issue, too, with her own daughter about feeling so bad about herself and not having a princess that reflects her. And then when there finally is one in a movie, um, that’s the one person that you only see for 10 minutes and she’s working all the time.
Rebecca: Yes. You can also look for alternative princesses. Um, there are people who’ve published alternative books, whether it’s “The Paperback Princess,” or—
Meredith: Which is a great book. Fabulous book.
Rebecca: Great book! Or in terms of diversity, there’s a new series that launched maybe a year ago called The Guardian Princess Alliance, which is about racially diverse princesses. They protect their environments, they protect their nations and are real leaders, as opposed to just figures to be looked at.
Meredith: You’ve just got to go out there and look for the right material.
Rebecca: Just find it.
Meredith: Rebecca, thank you so much. [To the parents on the panel:] Thank you so much.
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. Rebecca would like to thank Salem State University graduate student Irene Walcott for her assistance transcribing these Meredith Vieira segments.