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“At a time when women have more choices and opportunities, why is it that so many girls are obsessed with being thin and pretty? What happened to the liberated woman we fought for? The issues that young girls deal with today are complex and perplexing.
Child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Jennifer L. Harstein has some good news, and she’s put it into her book Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raise Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Aftersto show us how to curb the world’s influence on our daughters. Here, she talks with BOYT about the long-term dangers of messages that are detrimental to a girl’s self-worth and independence and how to combat them.
BOYT: What inspired you to write Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raise Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters?
Jennifer Hartstein: Everywhere you turn, girls are being bombarded with messages promoting appearance over substance. Girls are being sexualized at every turn, and often, as teens, they really have no sense of self or any true self-worth. I see many adolescent girls in my private practice that struggle with who they are, and I became aware of how often this message starts when they are very young. In looking into society, the divide between girls and boys was so apparent, and the messages presented to little girls didn’t focus on how great they could be internally, rather, focused on how great they could be externally. Peggy Orenstein wrote Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Line of the New Girly Girl Culture, which captured the “what” of the problem. I felt it was time to provide parents with guidelines as to “how” to handle this problem.
BOYT: How would you describe the Princess Syndrome and why is it bad for little girls?
Jennifer Hartstein: Princess Syndrome isn’t something that can be found in any medical textbook, but it is something to worry about. Girls who suffer from Princess Syndrome focus on the fairy tales of life. These girls will only play with the prettiest and the best things, believing themselves to be the center of the universe. Girls who struggle with Princess Syndrome become too dependent on others, thinking that they deserve everything but have to give nothing. They also believe that their self-worth and identity are based on external appearances, rather than internal strengths. This is potentially very damaging to girls because they do not learn how to really take care of themselves. They are thwarted in their ability to stand up for themselves, to think for themselves and/or to believe in themselves.
More specifically, there are studies that show that more and more girls are struggling with issues related to body image. In fact, there has been a 119% rise in the number of eating disorders in children under 12 (Medical News Today, December 2010), over the past few years. The focus on appearance is responsible for some of this rise.
Girls also may run into problems with relationships, as they learn, as the princess, that everything should revolve around them. This will impact friendships and romantic relationships, alike.
BOYT: What kinds of messages are problematic for young girls?
Jennifer Hartstein: There are many to think about but a few that stand out. First, there is the message about appearance being the number one thing. This message starts as we coo over little girls. Often, our first comments are “you’re so cute” or “oh, she’s so beautiful.” These are not the same messages we give to boys. She is also going to see images and photos about how the “ideal” woman is supposed to look. Although it’s easy to believe your daughter won’t buy into these messages, it is difficult to ignore them (for adults too).
Another message is the idea that boys and girls are very different. And by different, we mean, not equal. Of course, they are different in many ways, but culture perpetuates the stereotypes and often forces them onto us and the children in our lives. Marketers do a good job of this, making it seem as if girls can only like a certain type of doll or activity (and that’s usually something that is caretaking in nature), while boys can be rough and tumble. What if a boy wants a kitchen and a girl wants a truck? Not the norm, and it should be.
A third, and tough message to fight, is that your daughter needs to be rescued. She is taught, often in fairy tales and stories, that she cannot do it on her own. She needs to wait for the prince to come in and rescue her. This message really prevents girls from learning that they can be self-sufficient and learn to effectively rely on themselves
BOYT: In your book you talk about premature sexualization. How does this manifest? How does it affect girls?
Jennifer Hartstein: This may be one of the toughest lessons/messages that girls receive, and, at times, it is constant. Your daughter hears repeatedly that her value is in her body. It seems to worsen all the time, from Abercrombie and Fitch’s padded swimsuit to Marc Jacobs breaking the rules in his runway show to use girls under 16. The message that “sexy = cute” is out there, and your daughter is soaking it up.
Premature sexualization was studied by the APA (American Psychological Association), who created a task force to look at the problem. They found that sexualization occurs when:
1) A girl’s value is perceived to be only in her sexual attractiveness.
2) Physical attractiveness is equated with sexiness (being available as a sexual object).
3) A girl is made into an object, diminishing her identity as a person with thoughts and feelings, and the ability to make decisions for herself.
4) Sexuality is imposed on a girl too young to understand the consequences.
Out of this task force, they found that these messages are presented to girls over and over, leading them to copy what they see, even if they don’t understand it. Parents reinforce these messages, as do peers.
Boys also see these messages, and may not understand that all girls are not objects. Boys need to be taught what these messages mean as well.
Many problems can arise out of the early sexualization of girls. A few include: difficulty focusing in school, impaired confidence, a sense of shame, doubt, guilt and the development of mental health related issues, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (to name a few). There are many more issues that are discussed in the book.
BOYT: Which of the messages little girls receive do you consider to be the most detrimental?
Jennifer Hartstein: It’s challenging to choose just one, but I think that fact that we, as a culture, are so focused on appearance is probably the biggest. So many young women are completely focused on becoming the so-called ideal, but what does that really mean? And the sense of shame we have with our appearance is starting younger and younger, so that girls as young as three are expressing worry that they are overweight. We are preventing kids from just being kids, as they are so focused on what they look like or how they should act, they forget how to just be a child, enjoying life freely and with abandon. Play as a child prepares us for adulthood, and with all the restraints being placed on girls these days, they are missing such important opportunities. I think it’s a real tragedy that they cannot just be.
BOYT: Should we try to shield our daughters from the media and “girl toys” like Barbie Dolls? Do we teach them that these are bad things?
Jennifer Hartstein: You can do your best to shield your daughters and they’ll still be exposed to these things. It’s not that these items—dolls, princesses, pink—are bad. They aren’t. In fact, dress up, playing with dolls…all of that is really integral to childhood development. Fantasy is a key component to learning how to navigate the world. The important element here is that as the parent, grandparent, aunt, whomever, you expose your daughter to all things. If she wants to dress as the prince, let her. If she wants the truck instead of the kitchen, encourage her to explore that. You, as the adult in her life, can counterbalance the external messages, by promoting the heroine values you would like her to possess. Teach her that she can be smart, and independent. Encourage her to share her thought and to stand up for her beliefs. If she does this while wearing a tiara, no problem! As long as she knows that there is more to her than that.
BOYT: Please address how we can help our daughters grow to their fullest potential. What are the basic steps you recommend?
Jennifer Hartstein: The first person to think about is yourself. What are your values when it comes to appearance, objects, messages? You have to understand what your thoughts are about all of it in order to promote a positive sense of self in your daughter.
Discuss what she sees and reads. It’s important to know what your daughter is consuming. Watch TV with her, and use the opportunity to discuss with her what she saw and what she thinks of it. Don’t assume that you know. Be sure to ask open-ended questions and really allow her to think about it and answer. Encourage your daughter to question the media.
Explore choices. Your daughter may want things and you may not really know why she does. Even if you are going to say no to buying that Bratz doll, talk with her about why she wanted it. You may be surprised at her answer.
Say no. Don’t be afraid to say no to some of the requests your daughter may have. You want to encourage exploration and independence, and sometimes, you will have to set limits. It is okay (and in fact encouraged). You aren’t with your daughter all the time, but your messages and values are (even though it may not seem like it).
Teach her to dress appropriately and for herself. You don’t have to thwart individuality in order to promote a healthy sense of appearance. Sometimes, in fact, that may mean not conforming with what everyone else is doing. It is difficult to say no sometimes, and it is really important to help your daughter learn how to look as she chooses, in an appropriate way.
Lastly, encourage her daughter to speak up. Encourage her to ask questions of you, the media, management of a store. Girls often stay quiet because they are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. Helping her to speak her mind will only help her throughout development.
BOYT: For our readers who have daughters who already have problems because of the Princess Syndrome, what encouragement and advice would you like to leave them with?
Jennifer Hartstein: It is never too late to start making changes! Learning is an ongoing process. Now that you, as the adult in her life, are more aware of the problem, you can start to talk about the changes you would like to make with your daughter. Make the changes a project you can work on together. Expect a little push back, as you are changing things she has known, and don’t be afraid of it. Change is possible at any time. You just have to make the first step.”
About Jennifer Hartstein
Jennifer L. Hartstein, PsyD, author of Princess Recovery: A How-To Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters, a child and adolescent psychologist, is a regular correspondent for The Early Show. She has also appeared on Fox News, The Today Show, and Headline News. Dr. Hartstein uses a variety of treatment approaches that promote strong self-awareness, distress tolerance, and acceptance. She lives in New York City. For more information please visit http://www.drjen.com/, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter