A few days ago, Disney launched its #DreamBigPrincess campaign, showcasing images of real-life young female role models from around the world, like Rong Jing, a 29-year old fencing champion who overcame polio. For everyone who posts a photo tagged with #DreamBigPrincess, Disney will donate $1 to GirlUp, a UN Foundation program that empowers girls around the world, up to $1,000,000.
For this cause, I am gladly posting my very own Disney Princess photo… but it comes with a story.
Years ago, before starting GoldieBlox, I went to a “Little Mermaid Sing-Along” at the Castro Movie Theater in San Francisco with my friend, Christy, and we both dressed up as Ariel. I chose the classic Ariel costume – seashell bra, bare midriff and sparkling mermaid skirt. Christy took a more inventive approach… she dressed up as Ariel from the scene in the movie when she throws on a sail and rope for clothes. She looked hilarious.
My Ariel costume was sexy. It embodied my childhood fantasy of Ariel and all of her sisters’ enchanting beauty. Normally, I would never have the confidence to expose my midriff in public, but I had just run a marathon and was in the best physical shape of my entire life. You would think that in that moment, I would have felt beautiful.
To be honest, I felt incredibly self-conscious about my body the entire time. When we got up on stage for the costume contest, all I could think about was comparing myself to the other Ariels on stage. Who had the best body? How did my body look compared to everyone else’s body? I was so preoccupied with this; I almost missed the judge crowning the grand prize costume winner… Christy.
The crowd went wild for Christy’s costume – not because it was beautiful or sexy, but because it was original, smart and funny. And in that moment I realized how much better that feels than holding yourself to impossible standards of beauty and perfection.
Years later, I read this research study that shows “girls with worse body esteem engage more with the Disney Princesses over time, perhaps seeking out role models of what they consider to be beautiful.” Boy, did this feel close to home.
The same study also found that for both boys and girls, more interactions with the princesses predicted more female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later. It went on to conclude that “girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things…They’re not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They don’t like getting dirty, so they’re less likely to try and experiment with things.”
Bingo. As a girl obsessed with princesses growing up, it never even occurred to me that engineering was something I would enjoy. In fact, the first time I even thought about it was my senior year of high school when my math teacher encouraged me to pursue it in college. Engineer? I pictured a dirty old man conducting a train.
This is one of the many reasons I started GoldieBlox – to provide girls more role models to inspire them to consider broader interests like math, science, engineering, technology, and leadership. To remind every girl she is more than just a princess. In developing our character, Goldie, and her diverse group of friends, our goal is to create strong, female role models who have grit and are fueled by failure, yet still fun and relatable for girls and boys alike.
Disney has come a long way and as someone who grew up enamored with princesses, I am the last person to want to make anyone feel ashamed for loving them. However, I also know first-hand how influential they really are – both good and bad.
I applaud Disney for its recent efforts to make its princesses more empowering. To celebrate images of girls in their sparkling ball gowns caked in mud. To acknowledge the massive influence they have on our next generation of girls around the world.
But I also want to point out the importance of not bombarding our girls too much with princess culture and making sure they have many options that inspire them to consider all types of interests.
As a new mom, I think a lot about how I will navigate the “princess phase.” I think it’s so important to openly talk to our kids about the media that influences them. I’m pretty sure that when I was 6 or 7, my main takeaway from The Little Mermaid was, “OK, in order to get the hot guy, not only do you have to be beautiful, but you need to have an amazing talent, like singing, too.” I think there’s an opportunity for parents to step in and talk about the things I might have overlooked – like Ariel’s independent spirit, courage and inventiveness.
When Christy and I were leaving the Castro Movie Theater that day, there was a little girl who literally shrieked when she saw us in our costumes and begged to get her picture taken with us. This little girl was clearly princess-obsessed and it literally meant the world to her to be in the company of two young women she looked at as role models. Now, more than ever, I am so happy that Christy won the contest that day – so that that little girl could see a woman rewarded not for her perfection or beauty, but for her smarts, ingenuity, sense of humor and creativity.
It’s OK to be a princess, but I want GoldieBlox to let every girl know she can build her castle too.