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Dismantling Princessess

My 15 tiara by Elsa Maldonado.
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When shopping with my family, I find myself continually uncomfortable when we pass lingerie stores. It’s not the subject matter that makes me uncomfortable.  It’s the images that adorn the glass windows of the shop.   Undoubtedly we are confronted with images of voluptuous women wearing next to nothing looking erotically at us.  These images make me uncomfortable, not because I’m a guy and I get freaked-out by tassels and lace. I am uncomfortable because I am a father, not of a girl mind you, but of a six year old boy.  I am uncomfortable because my son’s eyes will inevitably glance over to those borderline pornographic images, and he will begin to receive the message that such images are the standard of what all women should look like.

We don’t live in a merely sexualized culture; we live in an overtly sexualized culture.  It seems that every day sexual images, innuendos and scenes are becoming more and more blatant and mainstream.  At fault we can name designers like Calvin Klein or Victoria Secret, who continually push the boundaries as to what is appropriate and what is profane; but is that where is starts?  Are these the cause of the culture’s obsession with sexiness, or is it just a symptom?

As I sat and watched the season premier of the TLC hit show “Toddlers and Tiara’s”, it donned on me that maybe this is the place to start.  The culture’s sexualization of young women begins with the culture promoting the supremacy of the Princess to young girls.  Toddlers and Tiara’s is a prime example of this.  These pageants require that children as young as six months old don fake nails, make-up, eye-lashes, and undergo spray-tanning in pursuit of the glittery crown.  Last season, controversy erupted during one pageants ‘Celebrity Wear’ competition, where one parent dressed her daughter up as Julia Roberts from ‘Pretty Woman’. That’s right; she literally made her daughter look like a prostitute!  Ironically, other parents made remarks of how ‘inappropriate’ that was, while their own daughter pranced around the stage as Marilyn Monroe and blew kisses at the judges.

The deep problem in such pageants is the inherent judgment found within.  The girls are scrutinized over every piece of clothing, every strand of hair, every move of hand and toe.  They are taught in uncomfortable detail that they exist to be judged.  What is more, while some pageants attempt to include a talent portion, every contestant and parent knows that the ‘beauty round’ is the most important.  What matters most for these young girls are not their talents, personalities, or abilities, but their looks.  The prettier girls will receive the most money and the biggest crowns, while all the rest are left watching enviously.  It’s hard not to hear the message that one’s self worth is bound up in how pretty one looks, and how much they are able to please those who judge them.

What is more, in the pageant world there can only be one ultimate winner.  Only one girl will receive the biggest crown.  Ultimately, there can only be one Princess.  Even the Disney Company knows this.  While Disney may market the ‘Disney Princesses’ as a specific brand of product, never once does a Disney Princess have eye-contact with a Princess of another story.  Even though multiple Princesses appear on a box or image, each Princess must live in their own individual world.  Each Princess, by nature of being a Princess, must deny the Princess-status of the other. (I thank Peggy Orenstein’s book “Cinderella Ate my Daughter” for this insight – a fabulous book!! )

What you see on Toddler and Tiara’s is an extension of this.  No only are the girls judged via the judges, but they judge each-other as well.  Clips of the show include four year old girls declaring themselves as ‘prettier’ than the others.  They comment how they are going to ‘kick their butts’, and how ‘no girl can beat me!’  Such statements are presented under the guise of cuteness and fun, yet the girls are being subtly taught to deny the worth and status of those with whom they are in competition.   To be pretty means to be prettier than all the others; To be a Princess is to be the only Princess.  As these young girls mature into young women, they will naturally find themselves vulnerable to the overt sexuality promoted in this culture, for it is merely the mature form of the Princess culture they grew up with. (After all, isn’t Real Housewives just the older version of Toddlers in Tiara’s?) Thus, the same choice is presented  in life as that found on the pageant stage: Live up to the criteria of womanhood as promoted by culture, or be crushed beneath it.

My point is not to shame a woman’s desire to look or feel beautiful.  Nor do I want my son to be so sheltered from this culture that he is powerless to stand against it.  The fact is, this culture of overt sexuality is everywhere, and as he grows up these messages will naturally find their way into his music, t.v. shows, magazines, and movies.  It almost seems unstoppable. Yet while I cannot stop him from being familiar with the ever increasing extremity of sexual images and messages, perhaps I can help my son strip them of their power.  Perhaps the place to start is to help my son understand the biblical nature of identity and creation.   Just as my son’s value as a boy or man  is not found in the size of his muscles or the number of sexual conquests, I wish him to know that a woman’s value is not found in the sizes of breasts and hips.  I want my son to value the girls he knows because of who they are in themselves, apart form who the culture says they should be.  When he looks at the girls in his class, I want him to know that they are special because they are created in the image of God, and redeemed by his sacrifice.  As he grows I want him to care more for what it means to be attracted to a woman’s intellect, personality, and spirituality, rather than just the physical responses of hormones and endorphins.  And when he gets to the point of dating, I want him to focus more on what he can do to uphold and care for his then-girlfriend, rather than focusing on what she can do to please and entertain him.

All women are to be cherished, adored, respected, and loved, not because of their looks or the amount of skin they show,  but because God has created them to be cherished, adored, respected and loved.  Superficial judgments of what it means to be pretty, popular, or cool have no weight or substance against the divine declaration that they are loved by the one who created them. And if the maker of Heaven and Earth loves all women independent of what they  look like, smell like, act like, or dress like, then does it really matter if the world sees them as a Princess?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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4 Responses to Dismantling Princessess

  1. It’s an interesting topic, and a relevant one, yet tricky to walk. I think we need to teach each other and our children that sexuality is good, and healthy – when expressed in the right time and place (that is, in very limited ways outside of marriage and only fully within a marriage relationship). Neither exposing our children to Victoria’s Secret models nor shielding them from such things entirely seems the way to go – and it seems awfully hard to find a middle ground in a world where we see lots of mostly-naked people when we’re just driving in our cars!

    I wanted to comment especially on a phrase you used at the end of your article:
    “All women are to be cherished, adored, respected, and loved” – While I agree, there’s something about the wording that bothers me a little and has tinges of patriarchy to me. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive or reading into it! But an attitude I see sometimes about women, especially among Christians, is that “our women are so precious” – implying of course that women are owned by somebody. There’s also a tendency to see women as extremely different from men, to see them as delicate flowers to be protected and cherished…and while on the one hand women ARE to be cherished and protected, those words only work for me in a context where we talk about men also being cherished and protected (it sounds funny even to my ears when I say that, which is a red flag for me). Just something to think about!

    • Teresa, I think you’re right: it’s a tricky topic. But that being said, I read this reflection as one that called for men to be cherished, adored, respected, and loved, as well–as reflected in Kyle’s care and concern for his son. I, for one, have no problem using those words: they’re important tools that can only help us live outside the boxes the cultural machine would shove us into!

  2. Kyle, I pretty much agree with everything that you have said in this article. But I think there is an extended step that has to be taken. Sexualization, in and of itself is not the end goal of Toddlers and Tiaras or underwear (now a misnomer because it’s not worn under, but shown off for all to see) stores. The end goal in profit and power. I watched five minutes of Toddlers and Tiaras and turned it off because it was apparent that the “moms” were living through their kids seeking the power they couldn’t get themselves. Any and all stores, underwear to fast food, exist to make money. If sex didn’t sell, they wouldn’t use it. The extra step needed is to identify the all out drive in our world to have money and to have power. To me, it is THE only issue in our society, into which feeds all other issues. If porn didn’t make billions, it wouldn’t exist. If drugs didn’t make a select few exceedingly rich, they wouldn’t be the scourge they are on our streets. This list can go on and on and on, but I think the point is made.

  3. Kyle Norman

    Thanks Teresa for your comments. I actually struggled with the last paragraph, and what words I should use. I specifically steared away from language of ‘worthy’ and ‘valuable’ in the last paragraph because it did seem to cut a little too close to showing woman as submissive or fragile. Definatley not the message I wanted to give.
    As I was going through variations of the last paragraph, I settled on the one I posted because it donned on me that if my wife had written this post, I don’t know if anyone would take objection – or see it as suggesting a patriarchal view of woman. It would be seen as a statement honouring the God-given dignity of every woman found inherent in their creation. So that is what I went with – and that is how I hope people receive it.

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