Hello, Princess

May 10, 2009

It’s a photo of me on my wedding day: just me, alone, posed at an angle, looking slightly over my shoulder. I’m not quite smiling, but not quite not smiling, either. It’s one of the very few photos from our wedding day that I like; I usually hate how I photograph, and the photographic record from that day produced few exceptions. This photograph was one of them. I like this photograph.

So does Emilia. “This is pretty, Mommy.”

“Thank you, sweetie.”

“Can I have this in my room, Mommy?”

“Of course.”

“Is it your wedding?”


“You’re wearing a big dress?”


“You married Daddy?”

“That’s what he tells me.”

“Why do you have a different face from what you have now?”

Ah. Ah.

How does one explain aging to a three year-old? That photo was taken over 13 years ago. I was in my mid-twenties. I was young, impossibly young (and yet, how old I thought I was. I was 22 when I met my husband. I thought that I was a woman of the world, well-travelled, experienced, mature. How was it that I could ever have thought that I was anything other than a child?) That photo is a photo of a much, much younger me. Of course I look different.

“I’m older now, sweetie. That was a long time ago. People change as they get older. You don’t look the same as you did when you were a baby, right?”

She frowned. “But you’ve got stuff on your eyes.” She stabbed a tiny finger at the photograph. “You’re wearing make-up.” She said it as though it were an accusation. She said it as though it were something that I’d been keeping secret from her, something that I’d concealed and denied and prevaricated upon – a secret past as a real, live make-up-wearing girl. A girl who bore little resemblance to the frumpy matron standing before her. I had, it seems, been withholding some very important information from my daughter: I hadn’t always looked like a mom.

Not all moms are frumpy. I’m not exactly frumpy myself, strictly speaking. I get good haircuts, which I don’t necessarily always, you know, brush or anything, but still. I wash. I wear lipgloss. I have really good shoes. But I don’t spend a lot of time buffing and polishing and making-up. I just don’t have the energy. And truth be told, I don’t really care. I just don’t. It’s not that I’ve given up, it’s just that in a showdown between putting on eyeliner and getting fifteen more minutes of sleep, eyeliner – or straightening irons or mascara or Crest WhiteStrips – sleep will always win. I’m simply no longer that girl, because I am, simply, no longer a girl. I’m a woman – a woman dragging out the long tail of her thirties under conditions of extreme sleep-deprivation – a woman who has had two children and no Botox – a woman who has grown comfortable in her own imperfect skin.

And yet, my daughter – my daughter, just three and a half and already exposed to the culture of GirlTM at preschool and in playgroups and on television (why we embrace Dora in this house, and limit – though not deny – exposure to the Princesses: because Dora – with her un-belashed eyes and her little pot belly – is so ordinarily, naturally girl-like) – my daughter looks at me and sees something that doesn’t accord with what she is learning about femininity. She looks at the picture of me on my wedding day, and sees someone who looks a litle bit like a Disney Princess – someone with big, thickly-lashed eyes and a puffy dress and a look of serene docility – and then she looks at me, the woman, the mother, and sees something different. And for a moment, I cringed, and was – for a fleeting moment, a fleeting moment – ashamed. And then I was ashamed for feeling ashamed.

I knelt down and took the picture in my hand. “I still wear make-up sometimes. Just not all the time. I look nice with make-up, I know. But I also like how I look without make-up.”

“I like how you look too, Mommy.”

I smiled, gratified.

“But I also like your make-up. And your princess dress. And maybe you could have sparkles, too. And eyelashes, and a crown. And you could wear them every day, or maybe just Saturday. And look like a girl. I like it when you look like a girl.”


Where does one go with this? I don’t want to teach her that pretty is something to be disdained – I like me some pretty – but I do kinda want to nip in the bud the idea that ‘looking like a girl’ = looking ‘pretty’ = looking like a princess. Is there a place for princesses in our ideas of what’s pretty, without making ‘princess’ the determining factor? And how do I balance that with the realities – for me – of aging and wrinkles and mascara-fatigue? How do I encourage her to see that beauty as beauty, and to recognize it as as feminine as anything that Disney can crank out?

Or should I just give up, ScotchGuard the ol’ wedding gown and make like a middle-aged, Dyson-and-laptop wielding Cinderella? PRINCESS IS THE NEW BLACK.

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    red pen mama May 12, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I think you have a lot of good comments here, and I think that pretty isn’t just makeup and dresses. That is one kind of pretty. Pretty is strength. Pretty is the ability to choose. Pretty is being a mom, a professional woman, a grandmother, a friend.

    I have a niece who wears dresses all the time. Her mom is bemused by her, and occassionally succumbs to her daughter’s demands to wear a dress, too. But she also doesn’t stress over it.

    I have two girls who like to wear jeans and rain boots as much as dresses and hot pink cowgirl boots. they like make-up, but don’t demand it. My older daughter recently told me how beautiful I looked on a day that I had to stay home from work sick — I was still in my robe and pajamas, unwashed. And I just laughed and said thanks. She tells me I look beautiful when I get dressed up to go out, too.

    You’re doing right by Emilia, just be being all the things you are.


    Lydia May 12, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Well, I used to put on a princess dress and go climb a tree… so I guess I’ve always been “conflicted” about princesses!

    Today I wore a suit and my 4-year-old said “Oh Mommy! How pretty you are! No, wait, you are fancy. Very fancy.”

    Followed by, “Is that Daddy’s suit?” I told him that Mommys wear suits too. He said “Oh, OK.”

    The baby girl is just 1, so I haven’t gone there yet–but I have this feeling that she will like pink and stuff. And I think I will tell her that one person can have many different moods and styles. Sometimes princess, sometimes pirate.

    I’ll let ya know how THAT goes.

    Jennifer A. May 12, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I try to tell Bri that makeup and nailpolish and fancy dresses have their place, but if she wants to co hiking and camping, it isn’t going to work. I don’t wear makeup every day and I won’t stop her when she wants to wear it, but if she comes to the conclusion that sleep is more precious than a flatiron, I’m right behind her.

    Magpie May 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I say, tongue in cheek, that I never learned how to be a real girl – because I’ve never learned how to wear makeup. I think lipstick looks funny on me, the purpose of foundation eludes me, and I can’t be bothered with mascara. But still, the girlie wants to wear make-up; her grandmother indulges her. It’s a weird balance.

    I like the Miyazaki movies, because they’re full of strong girl characters, who don’t wear sequins or make-up.

    verybadcat May 12, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    So tell her the truth. Tell her that Princess are make believe, and sometimes girls (women?) get to have Princess days, and a wedding is most certainly one of them, but Princesses in makeup and big dresses cannot make mud pies, climb trees, pet frogs, etc., and so…. the Princess days are few and far between, because there are so many other interesting things to do. And why not add, for good measure, that sometimes makeup makes it hard for people to see your soul. Anyone can have a pretty face, with some makeup, but you, my dear Catherine, have a beautiful soul, which should not spend much time behind Princess make up masks. Certainly, Emilia is no different….

    Parent Club May 12, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    I have to admit – I got "dolled up" for a girl's night out on Friday. The kids loved my sparkly necklace. The hubs loved the tightish shirt. They all asked me to stay in rather than go out.

    And you know what…it felt good. I felt wanted (by both kids & hubs).

    Not that I'm giving up the yogawear anytime soon. but I might "doll up" when they least expect it.

    Trista May 12, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Hear hear, this is brilliant. I have a 9-month old daughter and will undoubtedly be struggling with the ‘princess’ issue in the near future. I both embrace it and refute it(often at the same time) and will have to figure out how to teach her how to be feminine and strong and smart and funny and thrilled with exactly the way she looks (but also encourage hygiene).

    Mom101 May 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Beautifully expressed, Cath. I grapple with this too. It’s hard to say “you’re beautiful the way you are” when they see mommy jabbing her eye with that goopy black wand thing.

    I think you just tell her what you’re thinking: There’s a time for princesses, and a time for tree climbers, and a time for truck pushers, and time for crayon artists, and hopefully you’re all of the above.

    abomo May 13, 2009 at 8:42 am

    I love how you are so open to feedback on how you raise your kids, what you say to them, how you relate with them. Maybe that is your inner beauty shining through without makeup or sparkles.
    My kids – one boy, one girl – talk about how everyone is beautiful and everyone is different and how absolutely cool that is. My daughter is by no means a princess, but she will occasionally put on her ball gown and go right outside and jump in the mud. Or wear plaid shorts with sheepskin fuzzy boots. She is already her own woman at eight. And I sigh, thank God and just keep doing what we are doing until it is time to do something else.
    Peace to the princess in you – both the one in the sparkles and the one without.

    abomo May 13, 2009 at 8:44 am

    From previous comment – I meant to say (but my clicker is faster than my proofreader) With my kids, we talk about…if they talked about it on their own, that would be awesome and I would not need to parent them!! Ha!

    Karen May 13, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    When my oldest daughter was 9 years old, I went to the mall to buy some new clothes for myself, and she was with me. We went to Lane Bryant, where “plus sized” girls go to buy their stuff. I was buying a size 16 for the first time in my life. As I was trying it on, she stood there in the dressing room with me, with little tears dripping down her face.

    I asked her what was wrong, and she said “I don’t want a fat mother.” I was shocked that she would say that. So, I said to her, “I am no different than I was when we walked into the store. If I am happy with the way I look, then you shouldn’t be upset about it.” I guess it was the right thing to say, because she never ever said anything like that to me again. She’s 35 now, but I will never forget that day. I am still a big girl. I still feel comfortable with my size.

    mo-wo May 14, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Girls this age are urgent and unsure about the gravitational pull of self-centredness… beauty… vanity.

    They are astounded we are not in that boat with them I think. I recognize the incredulity in the eye poking of E.

    I have bandied this about a lot. And on that first post I believe Crunchy Carpets’ comment really says it all.

    When in doubt, I love Shrek.

    Christy May 18, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I'm new here…I LOVE this post! My youngest daughter always gives me a hard time when I wear make-up now (like an accusation as you said–she doesn't like it) which doesn't happen very often because like you said–15 more minutes of sleep will ALWAYS win!

    I wish I could say I felt comfortable enough in my own skin not to care most of the time…but I don't; and I do care (especially when I get to school to pick up my daughter & there's 10 other moms all made up and dressed in actual clothes–not yoga pants & a t-shirt!)

    Katie May 18, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    This is where my granola-eating side kicks in. I think it is incredible how soon children become socialized into gender norms and ideals. I think it’s great to have the talk about how “pretty” can come in many forms, that women can look like and be like many things, and also that there are a lot of other qualities in women that can make them attractive other than just their appearance. BUT…it seems like unless you lock them in the house, there’s no way to avoid the eventual socialization toward princesses=feminine=pretty and everything else is something less.


    I’m worried about that part of having children. And it’s not just the little girls. I worry about my boys not being able to cry without feeling ashamed or having some concept that being a man means being muscular/violent/unemotional. I think it’s really hard to make sure your kids have a balance. I don’t have children yet, but just another thing I think a lot about how I’m going to handle when it does happen.

    MG @ MommyGeekology May 19, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    My daughter loves, loves, loves the princesses… all her dolls are princesses. Her favorite dresses are princess dresses. She’ll eat her chicken if I tell her it’s princess chicken.

    And apparently I’m clueless, or not thinking deeply enough… because these thoughts about the concept of beauty and how the Disney Princesses skew that? Never entered my brain.

    It’s too late now to avoid Princesses, of course… but now I’m thinking of how to reinforce natural beauty over all.

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