I fell for it, every last bit. There we were, cherished granddaughter in tow, standing in line at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Disney World’s excessive tribute to all things princess. If you wanted to be transformed into, say, Cinderella or Snow White, you could buy hairstyling, “shimmering makeup,” nail polish, sash, face gem, and cinch bag for $59.95. But who could settle for such a paltry princess makeover when for $189.95 you got the works—glittery costume, tiara, wand, and all—and a personal photo portfolio?
And so it was that our almost-5-year-old granddaughter, garbed in a glowing green Ariel princess dress straight from The Little Mermaid, found her way into a salon chair. Her father and I observed as a “fairy godmother” sprayed her shiny brunette hair into a rigid topknot, onto which she set a long red wig. The fairy godmother and various godmothers-in-training also applied frosted pink polish to her sweet, short nails; brushed iridescent pastel shadow above her glorious brown eyes; and dotted pink gloss onto her smiling lips. The final touch was a wisp of glitter on her blushed and powdered cheeks. For $200, I remarked, I could have gotten my own makeover at a chic local spa, to which my son replied, “Yes, but is there pixie dust?”
She seemed to enjoy the experience, gazing at her reflection in a hand mirror, which is more than I could say for the tot in the next chair, who wailed as she was poked and prodded, tugging at the scratchy dress and straining to escape. Nonetheless, her family cheered her on, thrilled by the potential outcome. All I could think of were poodles dressed in tutus, made foolish and miserable for the entertainment of others.
By then, our own princess, wearing a satiny sash, stiffly made her way to the photo studio, hands outstretched so as not to smudge her nails. She was placed on a chaise lounge like Liz Taylor in a perfume ad and instructed to pose glamorously for the camera. Discomfort grew in my gut. “Look over your shoulder!” the photographer admonished. And “hands under your chin!” At this point, her grandfather, who had remained on the fringes until now, said, “This is revolting,” and retreated. Toddlers & Tiaras came to mind, a freak show I cannot fathom, let alone emulate. So as not to alarm the subject, we allowed the session to conclude, and then selected only the happy, straight-on shots of her face and make-believe costume, sneakers poking out from beneath the scalloped hem.
I get the whole princess thing and am no stranger to celebrity worship. Why, I recently spotted Dame Judi Dench at a Banana Republic store in New York City and nearly tripped over the display table of short-shorts to approach her. The morning of the Disney World experience, we had attended Cinderella’s Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle ($36 to $59.99 per person), where all manner of well-costumed “real” princesses visited the excited girls, who ignored their breakfasts in hope of a brief encounter. To be sure, getting face-to-face with an actual Belle is a thrill for any miss living in a commercial, media-saturated society. Truth be told, my husband and I welled up at the sight of our actual girl in the arms of her beloved Ariel. We could recognize the difference between genuine admiration and silly imitation.
During the breakfast, wishing stars were distributed to the children. When handed hers, our granddaughter asked if I thought wishes came true. “They can,” I responded, hoping not to overpromise. As instructed by the breakfast hostess, she squeezed her eyes shut and muttered softly. And then, eyes open wide, her disappointment was instant. “It didn’t come true,” she said. I asked what she had wished for. Her response: “To be a princess.”
But this is not what I want for her. Not for our spectacular girl, who learned to put together a map of the United States in two sittings, who asked if the convincing J. Seward Johnson statues in Carmel were ever alive, and who, at 4, wondered if we had Wi-Fi in our car. This same child, who shows me how to work my iPhone, who can read and write like a first-grader already.
The princess craze, which, according to a 2011 Disney press release, is responsible for $4 billion in global retail sales, scares me. I like make-believe and remember dancing around with my best friend in the backyard as fairies, sticks in hand as magic wands. But when dinnertime came, we didn’t have to shed layers of manmade lace, scrub sticky makeup from our faces, and force a wide-toothed comb through our hair to get out all the goop holding up our wigs. And after dinner, we simply turned our attention to some other imaginary game.
Today, when the children we love use up their wishes on becoming princesses, the kind made complete with jewels, glass slippers, and a kiss from a prince, the trend has gone too far. Women have spent too many years building their careers and setting a lofty example for younger generations to return to such an idealized and petty view of adulthood. That months-ago photo session
still haunts me, our beautiful and brilliant grandchild gussied up to be an over-feminized, age-inappropriate fake. What didn’t show in the picture was her brain.
As Halloween approaches, and kids all over town decide what they’ll “be,” I suspect the fussy Ariel costume, with the wig and tiara, will find a second use. On one hand, another wearing makes the price tag easier to justify, but on the other, I would prefer that my granddaughter consider smarter alternatives. Perhaps she could dress up like a doctor or judge, teacher or senator, artist or scribe: pinnacles she can achieve without the aid of a wishing star.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach
This column appeared in the October 2012 issue.